Choosing the right feed for your horse can be a daunting task. Here we sat down with nutrition expert Russell Mueller, U.S. retail equine marketing manager of Cargill, to learn how the company’s new ProElite horse feeds address the various needs of pleasure and performance horses.

[Learn how to understand the vitamin and mineral needs of your horse.]

Involved in the feed business all his life, the Oklahoma-based Mueller also shows all-around Quarter Horses when he can carve out the time. (That's him with one of his show horses, above.)

“I’m the amateur and my wife is the trainer,” he says with a laugh. “It’s kind of the reverse role from what’s typical. She says I’m her worst customer because it’s so hard for me to get to the barn.”

That’s because the business of science-based equine feeds is a demanding one.

Here’s what we learned in talking with him about an ultra-premium horse feed.

H&R: We’ve come a long way from oats and hay. How has science helped to formulate new and better horse feeds?

Mueller: Yes, oats and hay used to be the norm. I started in the feed industry when I was 16. My dad was a farrier; he got injured and wound up in the feed business. So I’ve been involved with horse feeds all my life, from providing it to my own horses, to advising others what to feed, to manufacturing it.

From the days of forage and oats, we learned that that combination meets about 90% of a horse’s nutritional needs. That remaining 10%, however, is critical for the horse, and it’s where all the science comes from. When horses get that extra 10% fulfilled, it enables them to overcome the stresses of their lives, whether from competition, reproduction, a lot of trailering—whatever we throw at them.

Unless a horse can’t eat hay, the foundation of his diet should be hay. That means commercial feeds must supply what’s not in the hay. So a lot depends on type and quality of hay you have access to. A hay-based diet with ProElite added gets us to that final remaining balanced diet.

Hands with horse feed.

H&R: What’s different about ProElite feeds?

Mueller: Their amino acid profile is the key. With just hay and unfortified grains, horses aren’t getting the high-quality amino acids they need. We’ve got to add those into the diet. That’s especially true because our hay and grains are changing. They’re not as nutrient-dense as they used to be.

H&R: That’s interesting—how are hay and grains changing?

Mueller: First, there’s the natural evolution of the plant, especially with forage. Agricultural land is at a premium these days, and hay is often grown on ground that’s not suitable for other crops. We humans use our prime ground for our own plates! And the quality of ground dictates the nutritional quality of crop you produce. So the fewer acres available affects the nutrition of the hay grown.

Plus growers are allowing hays to become more mature at harvest, to increase the yield and meet demand. This also lowers the hay’s nutritional value somewhat.

When it comes to grains—oats, corn, barley—protein and especially the critical amino acids aren’t what they’re raised for; they’re mainly intended simply to provide calories.

All this means that the raw ingredients going into commercial feeds just aren’t the same as they used to be. I’m not saying they’re necessarily worse in all cases, but they’re definitely different and that difference is something we need to account for.

H&R: So how does your feed respond to that particular challenge?

Mueller: We’re specifically focused on those critical amino acids. We guarantee our product contains the four key amino acids required to fuel, repair, and recover muscle, and to produce a beautiful hair coat. A shortage of essential amino acids is probably the most important thing we’ve overcome with our feeds.

You also need to manage the sugar-and-starch part of your horse’s diet. Forage is a big factor in that, but you need to know how much sugar and starch are in your commercial feed in order to know the total in your horse’s diet.

With ProElite, we reveal the amounts of sugar and starch in the feed right on the label—they’re guaranteed to be below a certain level. This enables you to keep accurate track of this part of your horse’s diet, which is important.

H&R: Yes, it can sometimes be really hard to tell exactly what’s in a commercial feed.

Mueller: That’s true. Some companies don’t provide any real information on the nutritional values of their feeds. Some put the numbers on a Web site or in sales material. But unless it’s right on the bag, the amounts aren’t guaranteed by law.

We put the numbers on the bag. You can flip the bag over and the values are listed for each product. That means our sugar and starch numbers cannot exceed what’s on the bag—by law.

That added transparency is critical. We also guarantee 38 different nutrients. No one else is guaranteeing that many nutrients right on the label. But we want horse owners to be able to make informed decisions.

[Learn how to read a feed tag to understand what’s in the bag.]

H&R: Does your feed offer something specific for performance horses?

Mueller: With performance horses, there are two main factors I’ve always evaluated when constructing diets or consulting with trainers.

First, what type of work is the horse doing? Is it what we call “long and slow”? That would describe what a trail horse does, or what my wife and I do with our Western pleasure horses, or what you might do with a reining horse. It involves aerobic training, meaning low- to moderate-intensity exercise that continues over a period of time. That kind of exercise has certain caloric needs.

Or is the horse doing speed events? That involves short bursts of maximum effort—anaerobic exercise—and requires more starch and sugar as fuel. ProElite provides different nutrition to meet both needs. By checking those guaranteed amounts on the bag, you can select the proper fuel source based on the type of work your horse is doing.

Second, for all performance horses, you have to build and maintain muscles in their maximum capacity. Muscle is 72% protein and amino acids. If your horse’s diet is deficient in protein, his body will suffer because protein will be drawn out of his muscles. So he can wind up losing muscle even though he’s working hard.

ProElite is designed to build and maintain good toplines, so the equine “engine” is at full capacity, whether you’re reining or running barrels or going down the trail. Whatever you’re asking of your horse.

H&R: All makes sense. Anything else we should know?

Mueller: As we tell horse owners all the time—you gotta try it to believe it. Your horse will tell you. The gleaming hair coat, the good hoof quality, the great topline, the great performance…that’s what we intend to deliver with ProElite.

You can learn more at proelitehorsefeed.com.

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