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Understanding Horse Feeds By Kentucky Equine Research Staff · January 13, 2014

After taking riding lessons at a commercial stable for several years, you’ve finally taken the big step and bought a horse of your own. You’re boarding Sparky, your new gelding, at a barn where each owner cares for his or her own horse, and right from the beginning, you’re finding out that there’s a lot more to owning a horse than just writing a check.

As you talk to the other owners at your barn, you are surprised to find out that each one is feeding a different feed product, and each owner swears that this favored product is the very best choice to guarantee that the horse stays healthy and has plenty of energy for the kind of riding the owner wants to do. Of course, no one is feeding the same thing Sparky’s former owner recommended. She gave you a gallon or so of that feed, and since she fed him only a small amount every day, you’ll have enough of that product to get through the first week.

You go to the feed store and discover a bewildering array of feed products. You find sweet (textured) feed, pelleted feeds, and cubed feeds that contain both grain and chopped hay. There’s also something called a balancer pellet; does your horse need help keeping his balance? Colorful bags offer enticements like extra fat, chelated minerals, omega fatty acids, beet pulp, and rice bran. You didn’t even realize horses would eat those things, and you certainly don’t know which ones your horse will need.

Suddenly you remember back to your childhood days when you visited your grandfather’s farm and watched him feed his horses oats and hay. You know that those horses worked hard every day, stayed pretty healthy, and lived to a ripe old age. Have things changed that much in 50 years?  To find out more about feeding horses, you decide to attend an upcoming lecture sponsored by the feed store. You hope the equine nutritionist who’s speaking can give you some answers.

What you find out at the lecture is that some mature horses can still get along well on oats and hay, but equine nutrition research has revealed that many horses benefit from a different diet. What a particular horse needs depends on factors such as age, stage of maturity, health status, level of exercise, and the horse’s specific metabolism.

The nutritionist explains that young, growing horses need a feed that supplies lysine, an amino acid not found in sufficient quantity in grass, hay, or oats. Owners should check the feed label not just to verify its protein level, but to be sure it contains plenty of lysine, which is often supplied by the inclusion of soybeans. Young horses do best on a diet that has a moderate level of carbohydrates, as the glucose and insulin spikes that follow ingestion of a large high-carbohydrate meal can lead to skeletal problems. Having the right amount and balance of minerals in young-horse diets is also important to ensure the nutrients needs for growth and maturation are consumed.

Next, the lecturer talks about feeding pregnant broodmares that may also be nursing a foal. These mares should be fed plenty of high-quality hay, but may have a hard time maintaining their weight on a forage-only diet and will probably need supplemental feed to meet the requirements of pregnancy and lactation. Feeds formulated for broodmares provide extra protein, energy, and vitamin/mineral fortification necessary for fetal development and production of milk. Extra energy may be provided by additional fat in a ration designed for broodmares.

Mature horses with diseases like Cushing’s syndrome or equine metabolic syndrome may be at an increased risk for laminitis. These horses are best maintained on a diet that produces a low glycemic response, limiting or slowing the rate at which carbohydrates enter the bloodstream. Owners of these horses must limit grazing time, feed little or no grain, and base the diet on low-carbohydrate hay and a ration balancer pellet that provides necessary vitamins and minerals, but few calories. Vegetable oil, rinsed beet pulp, or rice bran are safer ways to provide extra energy for thin horses with Cushing’s disease. Senior feeds often contain high-carbohydrate ingredients and therefore may not be appropriate for use.

Then the nutritionist talks about feeding high-performance horses. These equine athletes work hard and need lots of energy, but large grain meals can produce colic and other digestive upsets. The nutritionist emphasized that these horses should be fed in several small meals spaced throughout the day rather than getting one or two big meals. The best feed would be a high-energy formulation, probably incorporating fat sources and some fermentable fibers such as beet pulp or soy hulls.

Now, the part you’ve been waiting for. According to the equine nutritionist, feeding lightly worked horses like Sparky doesn’t have to be complicated. Sparky won’t need lots of extra energy, and because he’ll be on pasture most of the day, he will get plenty of forage by grazing. Unless he begins to lose weight, he will probably do well with a daily feeding of a ration balancer pellet to give him vitamins and minerals but not a lot of extra calories. Sparky tends to be a bit chubby, which is why his previous owner didn’t feed him more than a handful or two of grain; using a ration balancer pellet is a better plan. If you begin to work Sparky harder, he may need additional energy and this could be provided by sweet feed or pellets in a formulation designed for horses in a program of moderate exercise.  

The nutritionist finishes the lecture by suggesting that owners should base their horses’ diets on forage, adding a feed product only if it is needed. They should evaluate body condition and monitor their horses’ body weight by using a scale or weight tape once a month. Horses that are losing too much weight should have high-quality forage increased and more feed added if necessary. Horses that are too heavy should have restricted grazing, access to medium-quality hay, and a ration balancer pellet rather than calorie-rich grain products.