Clients frequently ask our veterinarians about their horse’s nutrition, especially if they are dealing with an under weight or over weight horse. Knowing the type of feed you are giving, how much you are feeding, and how frequently you are feeding is important when developing an appropriate feeding protocol.
Types of Feed
Forages: These include grasses and hay, and are an essential component of equine nutrition. Nutrient composition will vary depending on the types of grasses available in pastures and hay. Forages can also be found in other forms such as haylage, pellets, and cubes.
Energy Sources: Cereal grains, beet pulp, rice bran, and oil are high in calories and often fed for additional energy to performance horses. While some energy sources do contain nutrients like vitamins and minerals, they should not be the primary component of a diet due to their nutrient imbalances.
Commercial Feeds: These are the most commonly fed diets and include textured (“sweet”) and pelleted feeds composed of grains, by-products, protein, vitamins, and minerals, and are therefore often referred to as concentrates. Textured feeds are composed of a mix of whole grains and pellets, often coated with molasses. Pelleted feeds are processed into pellet forms of varying sizes, but include the same nutrients as textured feeds. Commercial feeds are often tailored based on age, performance level, or special needs, but many are labeled to be fed alongside forage sources. Complete feeds, such as senior feeds, are designed to be fed with or without forage.
Ration Balancers & Supplements: Ration balancers are designed to be fed in small portions to help balance nutrient deficiencies from forage diets alone, and therefore do not provide additional energy to the horse’s diet. You can also find a wide variety of supplements to enhance your horse’s diet.
Read the Label
It is important to read the feeding instructions on your bag of feed to know the correct amount to give your horse. Every manufacturer is different, and while they may have similar types of feed, the balance of nutrients may vary.
Feeding instructions are given in pounds, therefore it is essential to have a scale in your barn in order to know how much you are feeding your horse. Different feeds will have different densities, so it is important to remember that a “scoop” of sweet feed will not necessarily weigh the same as a “scoop” of senior pellets. Always know how many pounds of feed you give your horse and how frequently you feed when discussing your horse’s diet with your veterinarian.
While feeding according to the label is a great place to start, every horse is different and you may find you need to adjust the amount you feed to maintain an appropriate weight for your horse.
Know Your Horse’s BCS
It is important to choose a feed that will provide your horse with a balanced ration of nutrients as well as enough energy for his/her lifestyle. For example, an adult gelding on pasture with little to no exercise will not require as much energy as a lactating mare.
If you are unsure about your horse’s energy needs, a good starting place is to consult with your veterinarian and determine your horse’s Body Condition Score (BCS). If your horse is at an ideal BCS and you do not plan on increasing or decreasing your horse’s exercise regimen, you likely do not have to alter your horse’s current diet plan. However, if your horse is thin or you are planning to increase his or her performance level, you may need to consider increasing the amount you feed, supplementing with energy sources, or switching to a more appropriate type of feed.
Feeding the Older Horse
Older horses tend to have a more difficult time digesting and absorbing nutrients and often struggle with weight loss. Senior feeds are an excellent option for geriatric horses, especially those who may be missing teeth and have difficulty grazing on pasture and hay. Senior feeds are designed to be “complete” feeds and can replace forage in the diet. Remember to read the feeding instructions on the label. Complete feeds will usually have two feeding tables, one for feeding with forage and one for feeding without forage. If your older horse can no longer graze, you will be feeding a significant amount of senior feed in order to reach his or her nutrition and energy needs. For the average horse, this is usually around 16 pounds of feed per day!
Horses with Special Needs
Easy keepers and horses with metabolic disorders like PPID and Equine Metabolic Syndrome often need special diets to keep their weight under control. There are several feed options out there that are low in starch to help them maintain an ideal weight. In some cases where there is adequate forage, a ration balancer is all that is needed.
Horses with heaves will use more energy than the average horse in order to breathe, and often need more calories to maintain their ideal weight.
Pregnant and lactating mares and growing foals also have different nutrient and energy needs than the average horse and should be fed a concentrate specific to their dietary needs.
Making the Transition
Horses are sensitive to diet changes and need slow transitions when making diet changes. If you are switching to a new feed, gradually integrate the new feed into the old over a minimum of 14 days, increasing the amount of new feed and decreasing the old feed.
If you are increasing or decreasing the same feed, slowly adjust the amounts over a minimum of 14 days until you reach the new desired amount.
Most supplements do not need a transition period, but if your horse is a picky eater, it may take him or her a few days to acclimate to the new addition.
It can seem overwhelming with so many feed options available, but effectively communicating with your veterinarian can help you understand your horse’s specific dietary needs.