Miniature horses and donkeys - also known as minis - are some of the cutest creatures you will ever see. But don't let that special stature fool you - whether your mini is for showing, therapy, or a pasture ornament and best friend - they are essentially a scaled-down version of their full-sized counterparts.
And when it comes to nutritional needs and feeding protocols - that means a slow fed, forage-based diet is key. Read on to learn more about why a slow feed strategy is best for your mini and to find answers to common miniature horse diet questions.
What to Feed a Miniature Horse?
Do Hay Pellets Qualify as Forage?
Not really. Even though it is pelleted hay, the fast breakdown doesn't allow for “chew time,” which is one of the many benefits of a hay or pasture diet. Chewing produces saliva, which buffers gastric acid and aids in digestion.
In addition, the quality of hay is not visible after the pelleting process occurs. Some visible contributing factors in determining hay quality are:
It is impossible to ascertain these attributes prior to purchasing pellets. Of course, there are exceptions for individuals not able to masticate proficiently due to dental challenges.
Do Minis Need Grain or Complete Feeds?
In short, no. Minis often struggle with weight management and obesity because they are predisposed to Insulin Resistance.
Although there are a variety of formulated complete feeds designed specifically for miniature horses and donkeys intended to replace forage; they are far more calorie dense per pound than hay and rob your equine of chew time and appropriate volume of indigestible fiber. Research in equine nutrition confirms a forage-only or mostly-forage diet is healthiest for all horses regardless of size. (See references below.)
Equines - whether mini or full-size - were not designed to thrive on a high-calorie, nutrient-deficient diet comprised of meals or concentrates. By providing free-choice forage, you will have a healthier, more content herd.
Tip: To ensure vitamin and mineral requirements are being met, feed a concentrated supplement mixed into a small amount of soaked hay pellets to avoid the excess calories of a complete feed .
Mini Horse & Donkey Dental Health Tip
Miniature breeds are especially susceptible to genetic dental deformities. Although they have been downsized from a full-size horse - they posses the same number of teeth - which may not fit properly in the reduced head size.
Perform routine dental exams at all ages for:
Any condition causing pain can discourage the required chew time necessary for proper digestion and may induce colic and/or choke.
Optimal mastication (grinding) requires significant unobstructed motion of the jaw. Eating from ground level in a natural grazing position allows the mandible (jaw bone) to come down and forward in the atlantoaxial and temporomandibular joints. This enables the mandible to move up and down, side to side, forward and back without any restriction - facilitating natural wear of teeth along with optimum mastication and reduction of particle size.
Why Movement is Important for Overall Health
Let's face it - most minis don't get a lot of exercise. Mobility stimulates gut motility and increases the metabolic rate thereby decreasing the risk of colic and increasing the uptake of glucose.
Ways to encourage movement:
What if My Mini Has a "Hay Belly"?
According to Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D. "a distended abdomen is typically gas which is normal and healthy. It indicates that your equine is ingesting sufficient fiber to allow hindgut microbial fermentation to occur. A “hay belly” does not equate to an overweight horse when the rest of his body is normal, actual fat does not accumulate extensively on the horse’s lower abdomen (belly).
Overweight individuals do accumulate worrisome fat in specific areas such as the neck, withers, back, ribs, shoulders, and tail head. Excessive fat in these areas can indicate the calories fed exceed the actual needs of the individual, lack of nutrients necessary for optimum thyroid and hormone function and/or the sugar and starch levels in your feeding program need to be assessed and/or reduced.
Horse owners who deliberately limit hay consumption and replace it with cereal grain, hay pellets or complete feeds to avoid a hay belly are doing their horses a disservice and increase the risk of digestive and metabolic disorders. Forage (hay or pasture) should be the foundation of all horse’s diet. "
Additional causes of a distended abdomen can be ulcers and/or parasites. Excessive gas can give the appearance of a hay belly from large amounts of indigestible fiber lacking optimum mastication either from bolting hay or dental challenges.
Slow feeding encourages more chew time reducing the size of particles and increasing saliva production better preparing fiber for the digestive tract.
How to Deal with Special Dietary Needs & Metabolic Issues
Always consider nutrition when dealing with any health or mental issue. Feeding a balanced diet including sufficient vitamins and minerals (supplemented in a concentrated form) in proper ratios (low in non-structural carbohydrates for overweight individuals) including free-choice forage and routine exercise is healthiest for your herd.
For information on insulin resistance, overall nutrition, and balancing a diet to your specific forage, visit these websites:
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Monique Warren is the owner of Hay Pillow Inc.