Feeding the Stallion

Published in Horses and People Magazine

By Mariette van den Berg BAppSc. (Hons), MSc. (Equine Nutrition)

With Spring approaching a variety of breeding stallions are prepared and presented to the public for the new breeding season. For the majority of stallions the breeding season lasts 5 to 6 months.  In the Southern Hemisphere the breeding season starts early August and ends late January.  The breeding season in the Northern Hemisphere commences mid February and finishes late July. These dates are not concrete and may vary by country, breed and stud.  Moreover, stallions can service a group of mares in the Northern Hemisphere in the beginning of the year and another group of mares in the Southern Hemisphere at the end of the year.

Frederiksborg Stallion Højbak’s Paztinak (Moravita Classical Breeding & Training Centre). Photo by Nikki de Kerf

Frederiksborg Stallion Højbak’s Paztinak (Moravita Classical Breeding & Training Centre).
Photo by Nikki de Kerf

The breeding stallion must be in optimal body condition at the start of the breeding season and should complete the breeding season without extreme loses of weight. In addition, the stallion should maintain an acceptable body condition off-season.

Managing the breeding stallion’s body condition and weight can be a difficult task for many stud owners and breeders as some stallions tend to become very lean at the peak of the breeding season, while other stallions tend to be fat all year round.

Therefore it is important to regularly monitor the body condition and weight of the stallion. The Henneke system of condition scoring can be used to evaluate the body condition of stallions. This system uses a scale of 1 to 9. The breeding stallion should be in a moderate to fleshy body condition (6 to 7) at the start of the breeding season. In the fleshy condition, a slight crease along the top line may be visible, individual ribs can be felt but cannot be seen. There are small amounts of fat between the ribs and fat over the ribs may feel spongy. There will be slight deposition of fat along withers, behind shoulders, along sides of the neck and around the tailhead which will feel soft. Off-season a moderate body condition (5) should be maintained. A moderately fleshy (6) condition may be desired off-season if the stallion competes and visits shows all year round.

To obtain the desirable body condition the breeding stallion should be given an individual balanced diet. Understanding the nutritional requirements for stallions in breeding season and off-season is essential for the development of a proper feeding program all year round. Although limited data is available it appears that several factors can affect the nutritional requirements for stallions i.e. number of services, age, breed, behaviour (temperament), general health, body condition and exercise.

Some breeding stallions are only ridden and competed during the off-season whereas other stallions may also be trained throughout the breeding season.  There are stallions that are not ridden at all and have limited or unlimited access to pasture or a paddock which varies the amount of exercise the stallions give themselves.

The temperament of the stallion may also influence calorie burning.  There are stallions that are more nervous during the breeding season and show behaviour like pacing, fence walking, weaving and walking circles in the stable. This behaviour may elevate the requirements slightly.

Feeding the Stallion

The breeding stallion should be in a moderate fleshy body condition at the start of the breeding season.
A good example is seen here.

The energy requirements for stallions are generally higher than for mares and geldings. In the breeding season it is estimated that stallions need 20% more digestible energy then off-season (maintenance).

The main diet of the stallion should contain good quality forages (pasture and/or hay). Horses can voluntarily consume up to 3 % of their body weight as dry matter daily. However, the voluntary intake can be influenced by individual energy requirements, palatability of feed and weather conditions. As a guideline, a minimum amount of long-grass hay or pasture at 1 % of the body weight per day should be fed.

Non-working stallions off-season can be maintained entirely on a forage diet, providing that the stallion has an acceptable body condition and that the forages offered are of a good quality. If the quality of the hay or pasture is low or the stallion has a thin body condition it may be necessary to provide some concentrate feed.  Typically a cereal-based concentrate, usually up to 0.5% of the body weight per day, can be sufficient to satisfy energy and mineral requirements. When feeding a cereal-based concentrate care should be taken that the amount of starch per meal is not higher than 0.4% of the body weight. When increasing the amount of concentrates no more than 0.3 kg per day should be taken as a guideline. High amounts of starch and rapid dietary changes may cause digestive problems.

Stallions that are trained and competed during the off-season generally need to be supplemented with a concentrate diet. The required daily feed amounts may be very similar to stallions in breeding season.

Stallions in the breeding season can be offered total daily feed in a 70:30 up to a 50:50 ratio of forages (pasture and/or hay) to concentrates. A 50:50 ratio of forages to concentrates can be fed to stallions that have a thin body condition, high number of services and/or are trained and competed during the breeding season. Breeding stallions that have difficulties maintaining body condition or gaining weight can be given a fat-supplement. Vegetable oils (e.g. linseed, sunflower seed or canola) or feed products such as copra meal and rice bran can be added to the concentrate diet to safely increase the energy density. Fat-enriched diets also enhance the coat condition (glossy) giving the stallion a healthy appearance.

The opposite problem with stallions is obesity. There are stallions that have a very fleshy to fat body condition all year round. Obese stallions have a high chance of developing soundness problems (extra strain on the hind legs during breeding), laminitis, heart attacks and lower libido. Losing weight can be as difficult as gaining weight for some horses. Regular exercise and reducing the calories in the diet will help with managing the weight of the stallion. In some cases access to pasture needs to be restricted. Provide the stallion always with enough vitamins and minerals to meet their requirements.

There is a great interest in the use of supplements that can boost the reproductive performance of the breeding stallion. Although there are many supplements for enhancing the fertility of the stallion (e.g vitamins A, C or E) on the market, there is little scientific evidence that these products increase the reproductive performance of the breeding stallion. There is some data that suggest that omega-3 fatty acids, in particular docosahexaenoic (DHA), found in fish oil may improve semen quality. However, more research is required to determine the beneficial effects of omega-3 or vitamin supplementation for breeding stallions.

Depending on the quality of your forages and your selection of concentrates, e.g. commercial fortified feeds or home mix, you may need to supplement your ration with a vitamin and/or mineral supplements. To make sure that you are not over or underfeeding your stallion(s), it is recommended to contact an equine nutritionist that can assist you in determining if the diet(s) of your stallion(s) are balanced.

The Nutrient Requirements of Horses, produced by the National Research Council (NRC, 2007), provides estimated values of the daily nutrient requirements of horses. A selection of the NRC recommendations of the daily nutrient requirements for stallions in the breeding season and off-season are listed in table 1.

The daily nutrient requirements for stallions in the breeding season can also be used as a guideline to formulate diets for stallions that are trained and competed during the off-season. Stallions that continue training and/or competing in the breeding season may have higher requirements. As a guideline the requirements of horses working in heavy exercise can be used. However, always take care that no over- or underfeeding is occurring when formulating the breeding stallion’s diet.

An individual well-balanced diet and regular evaluation of body condition, weight and general appearance are all important horse management aspects that assist with preparing and maintaining a healthy breeding stallion.

Table 1. Selection of the daily nutrient requirements of stallions (per 100 kg body weight)

© MB Equine Services 2014


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