It’s time to feed your horses! Does your feeding cart resemble the salad bar at your local buffet—with so many options it makes your head spin? If so, you’re probably making things much more complicated than they need to be. In fact, the best feeding plans are usually pretty simple—even for a horse with a difficult job or underlying health issue.
In this article, I’m going to outline five simple feeding rules that will apply no matter what your horse’s job or lifestyle. Then, by introducing you to a group of horses that have had nutrition-related health problems, I’ll show you how you can apply these rules to formulate a safe diet plan for any horse you feed.
Rule #1: Meet Basic Needs
It’s obvious that the most important part of any feeding plan is to meet your horse’s basic nutritional needs, including energy, protein, vitamins, minerals, and water. Here’s what that really means.
Energy is simply the amount of calories your horse takes in—whether it’s from hay, pasture, concentrate, or supplements. Your horse needs enough energy to perform his job and maintain a good weight. As a simple test, you should feel his ribs when you run a flat hand along his side, but not necessarily see his ribs protruding when he’s standing in the barn aisle. Too thin? Feed more. Too fat? Feed less. Simple.
Your average horse’s protein intake should be between 10 and 12 percent of his total diet. And, contrary to popular belief, too little protein is a much more common problem than too much. In fact, unless your horse has a specific protein-sensitive medical problem (such as chronic kidney failure), the only real problem you’ll experience with a high-protein diet is excessive energy—your horse is more likely to get fat.
To estimate protein, you’ll need to know the protein levels in the hay or pasture that’s at the foundation of your feeding plan. This can be easily measured with hay analysis. (For help with this, contact your local hay dealer or feed store.)
Grass hays vary widely. I’ve seen them as low as 3 percent protein, and, rarely, as high as 20 percent. Legume hays such as alfalfa tend to be higher, with protein typically between 15 and 20 percent. Obviously, if your horse is eating hay that’s less than 10 percent protein, he’s not getting enough. You’ll need to supplement his hay or pasture ration with a legume-based feed (a small amount of alfalfa hay or alfalfa-based pellet can do the trick), or a higher-protein concentrate. If his hay is very high in protein, you may be able to exchange a lower-protein forage as part of his ration.
Vitamin and mineral requirements are generally one of the easiest to manage. Most are met with good-quality hay. And if in doubt, a daily serving of a simple vitamin supplement, along with a mineral block in your horse’s stall or pasture, will fill in the gaps. Ask your vet whether there are any special requirements for a vitamin/mineral supplement in your area. Certain minerals, such as selenium, are lacking in the soil of some areas, and require supplementation.
Finally water. Make sure your horse has enough, all the time, and that it’s clean.
Rule #2: More Forage
Hay or pasture is the most important part of your horse’s diet. In fact, his nutritional requirements can probably be met with good-quality forage, and the more time spent eating it the better, both for his brain and for his gastrointestinal tract.
So, why feed concentrates at all? In some situations concentrates are needed to provide additional energy for a hard-working performance horse, lactating mare, growing foal, or a senior citizen that can’t chew his hay. In others, the concentrate ration may be necessary to make up for deficiencies elsewhere in the diet.
If you do feed a concentrate ration to your horse, avoid straight cereal grains like oats, corn, or barley, and make sure each feeding is accompanied by as much forage as possible. A minimum of 70 percent of a horse’s daily calories should come from hay or pasture.
Rule #3: Make It Small
Your horse’s stomach is only designed to hold between two and four gallons of material at any given time, and in his natural environment, he spends approximately 16 hours each day grazing. That means it’s healthiest for him to be fed frequent, small meals if he’s not grazing full time in the pasture. Ideally, if your horse lives inside or is kept on a dry lot full-time, feed small amounts four times a day. If that’s not possible, consider providing hay in slow-feed hay nets to make feeding time take longer.
Rule #4: Control Quality
We’ve already said that hay or pasture should be the foundation of your feeding plan. And quality is critical. Hay should be weed-free and put up properly. Moldy or dusty hay can make your horse sick, and is less likely to provide all of the necessary nutrients.
Ideally, the hay you feed will have been harvested in early maturity—that’s when it tastes best and is most nutritious. For grasses, this means just after the seed heads emerge; for legumes, it’s just before the plant starts to bloom. Buy your hay carefully, and constantly monitor for quality as you feed. Remember, if you really want to know about the nutritional value of your hay, it’s easy to have it analyzed.
Finally, if your horse gets most of his nutrition from a pasture, that pasture should be maintained properly. That means testing the soil, fertilizing or supplementing the soil if needed, and taking steps to control weeds. Just because it’s green and grows, doesn’t mean it’s good to eat.
Rule #5: Trust the Experts
I am consistently amazed by owners who spend hours formulating baggies full of concoctions for their horses, containing everything from seaweed to diatomaceous earth and baking soda. Why? When nutritionists with college degrees spend hours formulating commercial rations to meet the needs of just about any horse, there’s no need.
In fact, feed companies have done a fantastic job in recent years of developing safe, well-formulated rations. So why not take advantage of their expertise? If you’re feeding a mare and foal, a senior horse, or your equine athlete, choose a ration designed by a PhD. Chances are, they know a lot more than any of us about equine nutritional needs.
So as promised, feeding is really pretty simple. Feed small, frequent meals of good-quality hay with adequate protein. Provide a basic, all-around vitamin supplement and a mineral block. If your horse needs extra energy from a concentrate, choose one formulated by an expert for his specific situation. Now let’s see how we can apply these strategies to some real-life horses.
Harry: Lack of Protein
Harry is a 10-year-old Quarter Horse gelding, used for trail and pleasure riding by his young owner. He was living in a small paddock and fed grass hay twice daily, along with a small amount of a commercial concentrate ration and a daily vitamin supplement.
Harry’s complaint: Although he was being fed an adequate amount of good-quality hay, and his basic vitamin/mineral needs were being met, Harry’s owner just couldn’t understand why he continued to have a big hay belly, with very little muscling along his topline.
The solution: Harry’s owner agreed to add a small flake of alfalfa hay to his daily ration, in place of a portion of his grass hay. Within three months, Harry looked like a different horse. His spine and ribs were no longer visible, and his potbelly was much less prominent. As an added bonus, his owner reported that Harry had much better energy for his work, and just seemed happier overall.
Rule violation: Rule #1. Harry’s basic needs weren’t being met with adequate protein in his diet.
Portia: Homemade Problem
Portia is a 5-year-old Quarter Horse mare. She’s hot. She’s feisty. And she’s an incredibly talented cutting horse. She’s fed a combination of alfalfa and grass hay, with a protein level of 12 percent. She also gets eight pounds of oats and a basic vitamin supplement every day, along with a mixture of various supplements selected by the owner.
Portia’s Problem: Portia may be super-talented, but her owner complained that some days she was so high-strung it was getting hard to manage her. The mare even had a couple of tying-up episodes in the past month, which finally prompted the owner to call my clinic.
The investigation: Tests to determine whether Portia could have a genetic disease contributing to her tying-up problems were negative. However, she does live in the Pacific Northwest, where the soil is selenium-deficient, and her basic vitamin supplement didn’t contain the excess selenium recommended in that area. Her blood selenium levels were marginally low.
The solution: The first step in addressing Portia’s problem was to select a different vitamin supplement that would meet her selenium requirements. In addition, the high carbohydrate content of her oats ration was not only putting her at risk for tying up, but also may have been contributing to her high-strung behavior. Her new ration would consist of a commercially formulated high-fat, low-starch concentrate to meet her extra energy needs. After keeping the mare on the new diet for a month, Portia’s owner reported that her energy was amazing, but very controllable. She hasn’t tied up in over a year.
Rule violation: Rule #5. In spite of her owner’s best efforts, Portia’s home-mixed concentrate and vitamin supplement wasn’t as good for her as one formulated by the experts.
Joe: Fed in Excess
Joe is a 26-year-old Quarter Horse gelding who’s a beloved, retired companion. He’s fed a combination of alfalfa and grass hay; a basic vitamin supplement; and five pounds, twice daily, of a commercially formulated feed for seniors.
Joe’s struggle: Joe’s owner knows the gelding has a tendency to gain weight, but she’s also concerned about his special needs as an older horse. However, when he had a minor founder scare, she finally admitted he was obese. That’s when she called for help.
The investigation: The rolls of fat on Joe’s sides were enough to make the diagnosis of obesity, and blood tests showed very high levels of insulin—confirming a diagnosis of insulin resistance. Hay analysis showed that the protein content of his grass hay was 12 percent, and that its carbohydrate content was low, making it a good forage choice for a horse with his condition. Although the alfalfa hay and senior-hose feed aren’t necessarily bad for a horse like Joe, he was simply getting more energy than he needed.
The solution: Joe’s ration was adjusted to decrease calories. Because the protein in his grass hay was adequate, his owner eliminated the alfalfa-hay portion of his ration. By doing this, and putting his grass hay in a slow-feed hay net, she was able to reduce calories without significantly reducing the amount of forage or “grazing time.” Although she cut the amount in half to help reduce calories, Joe’s owner continued feeding the senior-feed portion of the ration, knowing that it was well formulated by experts to meet the needs of her senior horse. Joe began losing weight immediately, and within six months he looked great, with no more founder symptoms.
Rule violation: Rule #1 and Rule #2. Joe’s basic needs were being exceeded with too much energy, and his health was paying for it. The solution was to reduce concentrate and adjust the caloric level in his forage.
Rocky: Poor Hay
Rocky is a 12-year-old Appaloosa gelding who competes in local 4-H competitions as well the occasional breed show. He spends most of his time stalled, with an hour or two of turnout every day. He’s fed timothy hay that’s 10-percent protein, as well as an all-around vitamin supplement specifically formulated for the area where he lives, and a commercial concentrate ration designed for the average horse.
Rocky’s trouble: Rocky has always been a horse that coughs two or three times at the beginning of every work session. But lately, it’s gotten much worse. His owner has even noticed that he occasionally sounds like he’s wheezing when he’s resting in his stall.
The investigation: With a quick shake of Rocky’s hay, the reason for his troubles seemed quite obvious. His hay had been stored since last year and was really dusty.
The solution: For a quick fix, the owner started watering Rocky’s hay. Then she found a new source to replace what was stored with hay of better quality and less dust. Within just a few days (and no other treatment!), Rocky stopped wheezing and his “beginning of exercise” cough even seemed improved. His owner now knows that Rocky may be particularly sensitive, and plans to pay more careful attention to the quality of hay she feeds.
Rule violation: Rule #4. Although Rocky’s diet was well formulated, his owner wasn’t controlling the quality of his hay.
Flash: Infrequent Meals
Flash, a 15-year-old Arabian gelding, is a family trail horse. He lives in a stall with an attached paddock and was being fed early in the morning before work, and again in the evening. His ration included a mix of alfalfa and grass hay, a small amount of a concentrate ration designed for the average horse, and a locally formulated vitamin supplement. He had an automatic waterer in his stall.
Flash’s scare: Flash had experienced four colic episodes in the past month. Although they were mild, twice he required tubing with a laxative to resolve an impaction identified by his veterinarian.
The investigation: After delving into his history, we learned that Flash spent most of his time in his stall and paddock and was only ridden on weekends when the family went on trail rides. Because he is an easy keeper, his morning hay ration was gone by 8 o’clock most mornings. His digestive system rebelled.
The solution: Flash’s housing arrangement was changed to allow him turnout for several hours each day on pasture, and his owners arranged for him to have a small hay feeding in the middle of the day. Because his weight was just right, his overall hay ration was cut down slightly to accommodate for the pasture time. In addition, in case he wasn’t drinking adequately from his automatic waterer, Flash was provided with a bucket for water that was scrubbed and cleaned daily to allow his water intake to be closely monitored. Flash’s colic episodes stopped immediately with these simple changes.
Rule violation: Rule #3. Although the overall balance of Flash’s diet was good, he needed more “grazing time” with smaller, more frequent meals to keep his GI tract functioning properly.