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Nutrition is an extremely important aspect of equine health. We have many discussions with clients regarding this topic and decided we should write down our thoughts to share with everyone else. (If you are one of our clients reading this, you’ve probably heard it before! We did do a newsletter on it last year.) This can be a confusing subject, so we’ll try to simplify things to make bit of sense out of all of the options that are available. So let’s get started. Bon appetit!

HAY! What are you feeding your horse?

Roughage is an extremely important part of the equine diet. Horses evolved as herbivores and are therefore excellent at extracting nutrients from forage. Horses will eat approximately 2% of their body weight per day, and at least 1% of that should be roughage. That’s a minimum of 10 pounds of hay for a 1,000 pound horse. But what kind of hay should be fed?

Hays are broken into two classes – legumes and grasses. (Hey, that rhymes!) Legume hay tends to be higher in protein content, energy, calcium and vitamin A. These are great choices for growing horses, lactating mares, or athletes. Basically any horse that needs a bit of an extra boost. Alfalfa and clover are good examples of legumes. It is important to remember that not all horses need the richness of legumes. Excess nutrients can cause problems in some horses (ie physitis in young, growing horses). However, feeding a lower quality grass hay with some legume mix can give the benefits of legumes without all of the extra energy.

Try to Concentrate!

Whenever a horse needs a few extra nutrients in their diet, we tend to feed a concentrate. Concentrates can be fed as “whole grain”, such as corn or oats, or as a “processed grain”, such as pellets or sweet feed. It’s important to remember that horses don’t need much concentrate. Each feeding should not exceed 0.5% of their body weight (5 lbs/1000 lb horse). Break the total amount into at least 2 feedings to prevent disruption of gut flora.

More often than not, we are feeding processed grains. These are composed of ground sources of carbohydrates mixed with vitamins, minerals, fats and simple sugars. They are often designed and balanced for a particular type of horse.

Pellets are the most common processed feed. They run about 10-16% protein and supplement a good grass hay very well. Sweet feed is similar to pellets, but has a higher sugar/starch content and usually has more sugar (ie molasses) added for palatability.

Complete and Senior feeds are designed to be fed as a “complete diet” without necessary addition of roughage. Certain conditions, such as loss of teeth, make eating hay difficult for some horses. However, as long as you can safely feed roughage, we suggest you do! These feed types are higher in fiber than regular pellets or sweet feed and are generally a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals without excess carbohydrates.

Ration balancers are vitamin and mineral supplements that are meant to be fed in small amounts (about 1 pound per day) to horses on an all grass or hay diet. They are high in protein and fortified with other nutrients to give these horses the little boost they need in order to maintain a well-balanced diet.

All of these concentrates are designed with the entire diet in mind. That means that the feed companies have added many of the supplements that we consider necessary – such as selenium, calcium or other vitamins/ minerals. So what’s the deal with supplements? Wellll…..

Supplementing the right way

We often hear about all of these great supplements on the market and that they all have a
different effect on your horse. Did you know that most of the supplements that your horse needs are often already in their feed? When feed companies design their rations, they take into account the soil deficiencies and general quality of hays in an area. They then add an appropriate amount of vitamins and minerals to the diet to offer a fully balanced feed.

So what about all the other supplements that are out there? It’s fine to add a little bit here and there to your horse’s diet, but be cautious that you don’t over-supplement. Many products have the same or similar ingredients, and when
you begin combining supplements (along with their feed), then you can easily get into a situation where certain nutrients reach a toxic level.The best thing you can do is READ THE LABEL! (You can click on the image for a larger label to read.) Compare your horse’s feed to the supplements that you are providing. If you start seeing the same ingredients more than once, you may be over-supplementing.Many horses get all the nutrition they need from good quality hay and/or pasture, a general mineral & vitamin supplement, and a salt block. If you think your horse needs more, consult with your veterinarian to go over all of their dietary needs. (Your horse’s needs, not your vet’s!)

Nutrition is extremely important to the overall health of your horse, whether they are an Olympic champion or a backyard companion. Each horse needs to be treated as an individual, and there are many feeds out there to help us develop appropriate diets. If you have any questions, we are always happy to discuss any and all dietary needs or changes you might be considering for your horse.

If you still haven’t gotten enough of equine nutrition, Rutgers University has a great website dedicated to the subject. Click here to view their nutrition publications.