Anyone who has ever owned a ‘mini’ will tell you that they are very special. Miniature horses and ponies are exactly that, not just small ponies, but a perfect miniature version of a full sized horse or pony. They are as diverse as horses in their appearance and character, a fact that is also true of their nutritional requirements.
Basically, miniature horses and ponies eat the same kinds of feeds as full sized horses, only in smaller quantities. The question of what and how much is part of what this article is about, but we will also discuss body condition and how to estimate weight in miniature horses plus specific veterinary considerations and how diet can help to minimise some of those problems.
There are a growing number of miniature horse and pony breeders in Australia, but very little is known about the feeding requirements of miniature mares and foals. Based on our experience in the industry and current knowledge, we present some general guidelines for feeding breeding stock. Also, since the majority of mini owners enjoy showing them off, we will also cover feeding for show condition and for work in harness.
Condition Scoring a Miniature Horse or PonyIt is often difficult to estimate the weight of a miniature horse or pony, so how do you know if your mini is too fat or too thin? The condition scoring system commonly used in horses involves observations of areas of the body and allocation of a score out of five. This system is applicable to minis and can help you to critically assess the condition of the horse or pony and then decide on a nutrition programme to get to a desirable condition score. It is so easy to see a miniature with a big grass belly and lots of hair and assume that he is fat. Using the condition scoring system will help you to get past first impressions and come up with an objective assessment of condition based on critical assessment of specific areas of the body (see Table 1).
Table 1. The condition scoring system used for horses in Australia is applicable to miniature horses and ponies and will help you to objectively assess condition. Score the pelvis area first, and adjust the final score up or down by half a point if the neck or ribs differ by more than 1 point
BACK AND RIBS
0 – Very Poor
Marked ewe neck. Narrow and slack at base of neck
Skin tight over ribs. Spinous processes sharp and easily seen
Angular pelvis – skin tight. Deep cavity under tail and either side of croup
1 - Poor
Ewe neck. Narrow and slack at base
Ribs easily visible. Skin sunken either side of backbone. Spinous processes well defined.
Rump sunken, but skin supple. Pelvis and croup well defined. Deep depression under tail.
2 - Moderate
Narrow but firm
Ribs just visible. Backbone well covered. Spinous processes can be felt
Rump flat either side of backbone. Croup well defined, some fat. Slight cavity under tail
3 - Good
No crest (except stallions) Firm neck
Ribs just covered. No gutter along back. Spinous processes covered but can be felt
Covered by fat and rounded. No gutter. Pelvis easily felt.
4 - Fat
Ribs well covered – need firm pressure to feel. Gutter along backbone
Gutter to root of tail. Pelvis covered by soft fat – felt only with firm pressure
5 – Very Fat
Marked crest. Very wide and firm. Folds of fat
Ribs buried – cannot feel. Deep gutter. Back broad and flat
Deep gutter to root of tail. Skin distended. Pelvis buried – cannot feel
Calculating Body Weight in Minis
If you have access to weigh scales, these are the best indicator of body weight, but not everyone has that luxury. With full sized horses, there are a variety of equations that use measurements of girth and length to calculate estimated weight. Because of the inaccuracy of traditional measuring methods when it comes to minis, KER conducted a field investigation to come up with an equation that would estimate the weight of a miniature horse or pony with a good level of accuracy. Researchers took a sample group of around 50 miniatures and measured girth, height, length and bodyweight to come up with an equation using body measurements. A variety of equations were found to give a fairly accurate indication of body weight. The most accurate of these equations involved girth and length measurements, with a very good level of accuracy:
Body weight (kg) = (3.7 x girth, cm) + (2 x length, cm) – 348.5
e.g. A horse who has a girth of 96cm and a length of 83cm would be calculated as follows:
Body weight (kg) = (3.7 x 96) + (2 x 83) – 348.5 = (355.2 + 166) – 348.5 = 521.2 – 348.5 = 172.7 = 78.5kg
2.2 2.2 2.2 2.2
If you have a lot of horses, and you are comfortable with computers, you can set up an excel spreadsheet to calculate the weights of all your minis and only have to enter in the current measurements to let the spreadsheet do the work. Full grown miniatures can range in bodyweight from around 55 kg to around 150 kg. Once you know your horses body weight, it is a good idea to set up a schedule of weighing and condition scoring, say once per month, to keep track of changes. This way you are sure to notice gains or weight loss in time to do something about it.
Feeding your Minis
When you are thinking about what to feed your mini, it really depends on what you want to do with them, how old they are and what body condition they are. Decide what you require out of the diet, ie, energy for work in harness, a shiny coat and no grass belly for showing, or just maintenance to keep him/her happy and healthy. Many mini’s are overfed, the temptation to give an abundance of little treats is often too much to resist, but for the health of your little one, it is best to restrict treats and keep an eye on condition to avoid risking the health with obesity. Like many of the smaller breeds of pony, miniature horses and ponies have a reputation for being able to survive off “the smell of an oily rag” so feeding should take account of their slow metabolism. The best way to check the success of your feeding regime is to monitor weight and condition score regularly.
Maintenance: If you are feeding for maintenance, then a total roughage diet will suit your horse just fine. Good quality pasture, with supplementary hay when the pasture dries up, used in combination with a vitamin and mineral balancer supplement (e.g. EQUIVIT Gold Pellet at 25-50g/day, or EQUIVIT Nutrequin at 10-20g/day) will keep your mini in tip top condition throughout the year. If your grass is quite rich, and especially as new spring growth comes in, you will likely need to restrict grazing to prevent the risk of laminitis and founder. This can be done either by housing your mini in a yard or stall for a period of time each day (in extreme cases all day or all night) with access to hay, by using a restrictive muzzle (if you can find one small enough!) or by partitioning the pasture into small sections to be grazed in rotation.
Showing: To feed for the show season, you probably need a small amount of hard feed and a reduced amount of forage to prevent that hay belly. Oats are the safest grain to feed, with barley and corn also being useful. Premixed feeds are an easy way to feed a balanced diet, but make sure that kg’s fed per kg of bodyweight are equivalent to the dose for adult horses so that your mini is getting the right amount of vitamins and minerals. If a premixed feed recommends 3kg per day for a 500kg horse in light work, then your mini needs to get about 450g-1kg per day to be balanced correctly. Approximately 400g- 650g of oats, or premixed feed (eg Barastock Winner or Gold Medal) is plenty for a mini, with the remainder of the diet being made up of forage. Fat supplements can be very useful to reduce the amount of roughage and grain fed. Feeding a ¼ cup of oil per day, or 150g of KER Equi-Jewel will give your horses coat a deep gloss. Combining the oil or Equi-Jewel with EQUIVIT Bio Bloom will make any judge take a second look! Bio Bloom improves the quality of coat and hooves, and only needs to be fed at a rate of about 10g per day for minis. Remember that roughage in the form of hay, pasture and chaff still needs to add up to at least 1% of your horses body weight per day (1kg per day for a 100kg horse) and is preferable at around 1.5% (1.5kg for the same 100kg horse).
Performance: Increasingly, minis are being used in harness or for very small children as riding ponies. They need extra energy to cope with the extra demands of work. A diet comprising about 1-1.5kg grain, or premixed feed and 1-2kg of forage per day plus a fat supplement and a vitamin and mineral supplement will provide plenty of energy for light to medium work levels. For minis that tend to get a bit fizzy on grain, try barley, or lupins or ‘cool pellets’ such as Barastock Cool Blend or Stablemaster Cool Command. Lupins are lower in starch and higher in digestible fibre than traditional grains and have less effect on behaviour in starch sensitive horses.
Pasture or hay /kg
Breeding: For mares, the second and third trimester are the most important in pregnancy, with lactation also requiring extra nutrients. The most important considerations are energy for building new tissue, and trace minerals for the foals reserves. The first trimester has requirements similar to maintenance, but as the mare gets into the second trimester her requirements will increase and you will need to add energy in the form of grains and a vitamin and trace mineral supplement. If your mini is a very good doer, you may be able to get through the whole pregnancy and lactation with nothing but good pasture and a protein, vitamin and mineral supplement. If your mare starts to drop weight, or you know from experience that she loses weight easily, then introduce some grain and a protein, vitamin and mineral balancer such as EQUIVIT All Phase according to the table above.
Commercially available breeding feeds such as Stablemaster Breed N Grow are available for large breeds of horses. These can be used successfully for your mini by doing conversions based on grams fed per kg of body weight, so a feed that is recommended at 3-4kg for a late pregnant full sized horse (approx 500kg) would equate to 6g/kg of body weight, so a mini at 90kg would require 540g of feed to get the right levels of vitamins, minerals and energy.
For youngsters and weanlings, you can feed a small amount of a balancer supplement to ensure correct intake of minerals and protein. If fed prior to weaning, this can help the foal to get accustomed to the feed and thus eat well after weaning and avoid weight loss. Feeding All-Phase at a rate of 250g per day to your weanling, with plenty of good quality pasture and/or hay ensures balanced nutrition with less risk of developmental problems associated with over feeding.
For all minis as with their larger cousins, salt is an important part of everyday feeding. Having a salt block available in the pasture is a good way of allowing them to regulate their intake, but in the hot weather, especially if your horse is worked, a teaspoon of loose salt or half a dose of a commercial electrolyte daily is insurance against salt imbalances.
Dietary Problems Specific to Minis
Because of their tiny stature, there a few specific problems to be aware of that occur more frequently in miniature horses and ponies than in larger breeds.
Impactions: Miniatures have a shorter, narrower small intestine than larger horses, yet the particle size of the food they eat is the same. This physiological difference is thought to be responsible for a higher incidence of impaction, enteroliths, and colic in miniature horses. They tend to have drier harder stools than large breeds and can be prone to faecaliths (rock hard faecal balls). Feeding a laxative diet to promote soft stools can be beneficial, especially for those horses that suffer repeated bouts of colic. Diets high in forage and especially pasture are best in this situation, with grain and hard feed being moistened before feeding and kept to the minimum required amounts. Epsom salt are a useful for keeping to stools soft, you can feed at no more than a teaspoon each day for a laxative effect. If the horse starts to scour at this level then reduce the amount by half.
Teeth: As with all horses, proper dental care is vital for good gastrointestinal health. If your mini cannot chew food into small enough particles, then digestion will be less efficient, and the risk of impaction is increased.
Miniatures commonly have malocclusion (where the upper and lower jaws do not match correctly) often presenting as “parrot mouth” or “monkey mouth”. These cases need extra special dental care and attention. It may be difficult to find a vet or equine dentist with a rasp small enough for your horses mouth, let alone the gag to hold the mouth open, but it is necessary to check minis teeth twice per year. You may have to buy your own equipment if you cannot find a practitioner who deals with other mini’s, but most of the equipment used for ponies will also work for minis.
Metabolic imbalances: Like ponies, mini’s are predisposed to hyperlipemia (excessive levels of fatty acids in the blood) due to stress and anorexia. If the horse is stressed and not eating, or has been yarded to induce weight loss, fats can be mobilised from reserves into the blood stream. If too much fat is mobilised, the liver can be overloaded and in extreme cases can fail completely. The cause of anorexia could be travel, being separated from a friend, weaning, disease etc. If your mini goes off his feed for whatever reason for more than 24 hours, then call your vet immediately. Treatment often involves intensive care, but if untreated, horses become more depressed and uncoordinated over the next few days, with complete liver failure and death within two weeks. It is worth noting that this condition is more prevalent in small breeds so restricted grazing should not be taken to the point where the horse has nothing to eat for more than a few hours at a time. Miniature horses and ponies should never be locked up without access to food for longer than 6-8 hours, they should at least be given a little hay from time to time to help prevent hyperlipemia as well as guarding against acid build up in the stomach which may cause ulcers.
Founder: Miniature horses and ponies are especially prone to laminitis and founder, due to the tiny amount of feed that they need to stay healthy, and the common overestimation of their requirements. Laminitis is caused by the incomplete digestion of starch and sugars in the small intestine, and consequent hindgut acidosis. Toxins produced in the hindgut escape into the peripheral circulation and cause disruption in blood flow to the laminae of the hooves resulting in extreme pain and possible rotation of the pedal bone, often rendering the horse lame and unusable. To prevent the threat of laminitis, know the weight of your horse and keep close track of condition score to prevent your mini from becoming obese. Know exactly how much you are feeding, and do not exceed the amount of hard feed required to keep your mini healthy. Split hard feeds into at least two or three feeds daily to avoid overwhelming the small digestive tract. Avoid high energy green grass, especially the spring and autumn bloom using the methods of restriction described in the ‘maintenance’ section above. Feed grass hay or oaten/wheaten chaff rather than lucerne hay, which is a little too high in energy to be fed in large amounts. Always look for the signs of laminitis, especially in the spring time. Mild to severe lameness and the characteristic ‘rocking horse’ stance should warrant further investigation by all conscientious owners.
Miniature horses and ponies are a pleasure to own, a pleasure to watch and a pleasure to work with. They are relatively easy and economical to maintain but need the same care and attention as any large horse. Correct feeding is easy to accomplish, with the main emphasis on providing good quality forage, and only supplementary grains for those horses that need it. A supplement of vitamins and minerals is a good idea for all miniature horses being fed straight grains, or pasture alone, but is not required for those getting the correct amount of a fortified commercial feed.
For further information, or for a free diet analysis for your mini, call Sonja Gardner at Kentucky Equine Research on 1800 772 198, or email on firstname.lastname@example.org. Also visit the website at www.ker.com