Changing Horse Feeds – A Lot Like Horse Training

Most horse owners have a pretty steady routine when it comes to working with their horses, and that includes keeping a consistent feeding schedule and program in place, which is a good thing for the horse.  However, a variety of situations, from moving to a new place, to a change in the horse’s health, can require a change in habits and possibly in diet.

Chris Cox, renowned clinician and dedicated SafeChoice® feeder, offers this advice on preparing your horse for change:  “I never ask a horse to do something I haven’t prepared it to do.  By the time I’m asking a horse to step on to a trailer, that horse has all the preparation it needs to do it – and by prepare I don’t mean desensitize.  I don’t desensitize my horses as much as a lot people do.  It’s easy to overdo it and end up dulling your horse.  It’s okay for your horse to react to something, but if it is properly trained it won’t overreact.”

Chris’s training tip follows easily right in to the realm of changing your horse’s feeding program. Abrupt change, while a horse can manage and get through, isn’t the most desirable scenario.  Gradual introduction of whatever is new to the feeding program, whether it is a change in the amount fed or a change to an entirely different type of feed, should be done incrementally over a period of about 7 days.  This time frame allows the horse’s digestive system to adjust to the new levels of nutrients being digested, and also allows time for the sometimes-picky-eaters to realize that the new feedstuff is, in fact, OK to eat.

Preparing your horse, whether it is in feeding practices, daily schedule, or training, will set you and your horse up to make changes successfully.

Feeding Horses During Hot Weather

Performance horses in all disciplines, from racing to western pleasure, are expected to deliver optimum performance all year around, regardless of temperature. Summer conditions of high temperature and humidity presents several challenges to the horse owner. Proper management of working conditions, water consumption and feeding practices can help meet the challenge.

Working Conditions:

  1. Early morning and evening rides are better for both horse and rider.
  2. Horses confined during the day should have shade, ventilation and fresh clean water. This applies to horses in stalls, at shows or in the pasture.
  3. If horses must be trained or shown during the heat of the day, they should be offered water regularly. A hot horse should not be allowed to drink large quantities of cold water then stand, but a horse cannot cool down properly if it is dehydrated. The rule “six sips and walk” provides a good guideline. Horses going in classes throughout the day must be allowed to drink regularly, as dehydration and heat stroke can be deadly.
  4. Loss of fluid can also make a horse prone to colic. If a horse stops sweating, immediate action is required.

Feeding Management Practices:

  1. Adjust the energy sources fed. The horse’s total thermal load can be reduced by using highly digestible fiber sources and added fat feed sources.
    1. High fiber hay produces more heat increment or heat of digestion than lower fiber hay.
    2. Fat produces the lowest heat increment.
    3. The most heat efficient hay source for a performance horse would be an early cut grass or grass legume mixture. This hay should be fine in texture and relatively soft to the touch.
  2. An added fat feed or the addition of corn oil to the diet will provide higher energy with lower intake, and will assist in reducing the thermal load. Added fat diets may also produce the additional performance benefits of increased endurance and reduced fluid loss.
  3. Feeding small amounts throughout the day rather than two large feedings may also be beneficial as the heat produced by digestion can be spread out.
  4. Very high levels of protein should be avoided as the excess nitrogen increases fluid loss due to the higher urine output.

Feeding Salt & Electrolytes:

  1. Loose trace mineral salt in a feeder protected from rain should be available free choice. Manufactured feeds will generally contain 0.5%-1.0% salt, but a performance horse may require 4-6 ounces of salt per day to maintain electrolyte balance. Horses will generally not consume this much block salt.
  2. Electrolyte supplements may be beneficial immediately before and during a competition, but care must be exercised to make certain the horse is consuming adequate water.
    1. Giving a concentrated electrolyte without adequate water consumption may actually increase the potential for a problem.

Summer is a great season to spend more time with horses. Proper management can help make certain it is pleasant and safe for both horse and rider.

Reading Horse Feed Directions – How Much to Feed?

When horse feeds are formulated, they are developed to provide nutrition to all sizes of horses – nutrient needs go up as the size of the horse goes up.  So, feeding directions are often provided in the following format:

  • Activity Level                   Lbs of feed per 100 lbs of bodyweight
  • Maintenance                     0.3-0.5
  • Light Exercise                   0.4-0.6

So, how do you figure out how much to feed your horse? Start with knowing the weight of your horse.  Then, divide that weight by 100, and then multiply the result by both of the amounts of feed given in the directions above.  The resulting two numbers will tell you the range of how much to feed your horse to give them the nutrition they need for both their size and their activity level.

Example Feeding Directions:

1200 lb horse, in light exercise.

  1. (1200 ÷ 100) = 12
  2. (12 × 0.4) = 4.8
  3. (12 × 0.6) = 7.2

In this example, this horse would need to eat between 4.8 and 7.2 lbs per day of this feed to receive the nutrition he needs.  Some horses that are easier keepers can fall to the lower end of the range, while harder keepers may need to push the upper limit.

If you do this math for your horse, and find that you are feeding outside of the designated range, you should search for a feed that is more suitable to your horses needs.  Hard keepers, for example, may require a feed that is higher in calories per pound, while easier keepers might require a feed with fewer calories and more concentrated levels of vitamins and mineralsSuch a feed might cost more per bag, however the ability to pack more punch in a smaller feeding might actually result in a cost saving!

Making Cents Out of Horse Feed Costs

I was recently called to a boarding and lesson barn to help the owner evaluate her feed program.  With the rising costs of bedding, labor, insurance, electricity and hay, she wanted to look at options at saving money. 

The farm housed about 40 Thoroughbreds.   Twelve of the horses were active in a lesson program, and the other horses activity levels ranged from pleasure maintanece to moderate work/show.   The Body Condition Scores of the horses ranged from 4 to 6, and the owner explained that some of the horses were harder keepers than others, with daily grain intake ranging from 1 to 18 pounds of grain per day per horse.

We examined the hay and found it to be a good quality timothy grass mix.  The horses were getting about 1.5% of their body weight per day in hay. For grain, she was using an economy feed that was priced at $8.99 per bag.  She felt that with the large number of horses on the farm and rising cost she could not afford the premium feeds that were almost $14 per bag.

When we examined the feed tag from the manufacturer, the suggested feed rate was 1 pound per hundred pounds of body weight (that’s 10 lbs of feed for a 1000 lb horse!), and the fortification of the product was minimal.  The owner then explained that she and the boarders did purchase supplements to provide added biotin, yeast culture, copper, zinc and selenium.  Some of the hard keepers were also given a fat supplement.

To determine how much she was spending on feed, we did the following math:

  • Current Feeding Program = 10 lbs feed + supplements
    • ~ $8.99 per bag / 50 lbs per bag = $0.18 per pound
    • ~ $0.18 per pound X average 10 lb per day feeding = $1.80 per day per horse
    • ~ Plus the various costs of nutritional supplements to make up for the lack in feed
  •  
  • Proposed Feeding Program = 5 lbs feed + no supplements
    • ~ $14.00 per bag / 50 lbs per bag = $0.28 per pound
    • ~ $0.28 per pound X average 5 lb per day feeding = $1.40 per day per horse
    • ~ No need for nutritional supplements!

When we calculated the cost per horse per day based on feed consumption and supplements, some of the horses exceeded $3 per day!  When we compared that to the feed rates on the premium line feeds, not to mention complete fortification levels and the time savings in not having to sort out servings of supplements every day, the premium feed was a better value in the long run.

Storing Horse Feed for Freshness

Welcome to July!  We are in the full swing of summer with heat and humidity in many regions of North America.  The higher temperature and moisture levels common this time of year can make feed freshness a challenge, requiring extra attention to how feed is stored.  Read on for a few tips on storing horse feed for freshness, and see how well your barn is set up to store feed. 

Many of us purchase feed by the bag and transfer the contents into a container which is kept in a feed room or designated area of the barn or shed.  The container that feed is kept in as well as the location of the container play an important role in how well the feed stays fresh. 

If possible, use of a waterproof, seal-able container to store your feed.  The container should be able to keep pests such as mice and insects from enjoying an “All You Can Eat Buffet” on your dime.  A waterproof container will insure the feed stays dry if there is unexpected water leakage into the area.

The location that the feed bin or container is kept is also important.  If you have a designated feed room or area in your facility, check to see that it is not exposed to unnecessary moisture such as a leak in the roof or sweating pipes overhead.  Elevating the bin off the floor will help keep feed dry should there be rain-in or minor flooding.  Also, check to see if your feed bin is sitting in the hottest part of your barn or shed.  For metal sided buildings, this could be the South or West wall which receive the strongest of the sun’s rays and tend to hold heat longer.  Relocating the bin to a cooler or dryer area will go a long way in keeping your feed fresh. 

Whenever possible, try to practice inventory management of feed in the form of FIFO; an acronym which stands for First In First Out.  FIFO is a method to manage the freshness of perishable goods such as produce, baked goods or dairy products.  The premise can also be applied to feed, where feed already in the bin is fed prior to the feed that was just purchased.  Also, between feed rotations, periodically wash and thoroughly dry the container to help get rid of build-up at the bottom.  Using this method can ensure that the feed you are scooping has not aged beyond its ideal shelf life.  

Taking some time to check these few steps will go a long way in keeping your horse feed fresh. Stay tuned for a future post regarding factors that impact the shelf life of your feed! Until then, happy riding!