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Nutritional Management of Draft HorsesBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · December 16, 2011

More than two dozen breeds of draft horses are found worldwide. The most popular breeds include Belgians, Percherons, Clydesdales, and Shires.

These horses, which can reach weights of approximately 2,600 lb (1,180 kg), are used for farming, logging, and showing in hand, under saddle, and in harness. Some are employed by veterinary firms as blood or plasma donors, and others have more glamorous jobs such as goodwill ambassadors for large companies.

Regardless of their use, draft horses must be properly nourished. How does the sheer bulk of draft horses affect how they’re fed? As it is, the nutritional management of draft horses differs little from that of their light-framed relatives.

Most drafts are thought to have an incredibly efficient metabolism, which means they can be fed less dietary energy per unit (lb or kg) of body weight than members of lighter breeds. The total amount of feed offered will be greater because they weigh substantially more, but their economical metabolism makes them easy keepers for their size.

Draft horses should be fed to maintain a moderate body condition, a 5 or 6 on the familiar scale of 1 to 9. The ribs should be covered with a layer of fat that is thick enough to prevent ribs from being visible but not so dense that prevents the palpation of the ribs with the fingertips.

Like most other horses, the majority of a draft’s diet should be forage, and that forage can be hay, pasture, hay cubes or pellets, or a combination of these. Total forage intake should be 1.5 to 3% of body weight each day. For most idle horses, a good-quality grass or grass/legume mixed hay is ideal. Owners and managers of draft horses should be aware of plant growth and carbohydrate concentrations in forages, particularly for horses prone to obesity and laminitis.

If drafts can maintain body weight on forage alone, a suitable balancer pellet should be fed at an appropriate rate for body size. The balancer pellet ensures drafts receive the necessary protein, vitamins, and minerals for optimal health.

High-energy feedstuffs such as concentrates are often added to the diets of drafts when requirements exceed those that can be reasonably met with a forage-only diet. These times include growth, late gestation, lactation, and steady work of a demanding nature.

Certain draft horses are prone to polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM) and equine metabolic syndrome (EMS), so supplementation with energy-dense feedstuffs should be employed only when necessary to maintain body weight and fuel work.

Obesity is a concern among draft horses. Overconsumption of high-quality forage or concentrates can lead to laminitis. Veterinarians have documented more devastating outcomes when draft horses are diagnosed with laminitis when compared to light breeds.

Aside from laminitis, heat stress is another concern. Obese draft horses seem not to tolerate heat well, compared to overweight horses of lighter breeds. Water availability is vital in hot and humid environments. Draft horses can drink up to 25 gallons (95 liters) every day in hot climates, so provision of fresh, clean water is paramount.