Feeding Fat to Horses

Lately there has been tremendous interest in the horse world about fat. In regards to human nutrition, “fat” is often considered a bad word, and low-fat diets are popular. But we should remember that in people, some fats are necessary and healthy. This is equally true for horses: fats play a very important role in horse feeds and nutrition.

There are many reasons to feed horses added fat. The best reason for using added fat is for an energy (calorie) source. The primary purpose for grain feeding is to provide energy for maintenance, performance, growth and reproduction.  Because fat contains more than twice the calorie content of starch, and horses digest and utilize fat well, higher fat horse feeds offer an excellent opportunity to increase calorie intake without greatly increasing the quantity of feed.

Other reasons for adding fat to a feed ration include improved endurance, heat tolerance, hair coat and attitude:

  • Horses on fat supplemented diets experience increased endurance because of a glycogen sparing effect. Glycogen is the fuel for muscular activity that is stored in the muscle cells. Horses that are on high fat diets conserve glycogen, which can help them finish a performance event stronger. This is particularly important in racing, eventing, cutting and other activities that require high performance over time.
  • Horses trained in hot, humid environments show improvement to heat tolerance because fat supplemented rations generate less heat as a by-product of digestion. This becomes important in parts of the country where heat is prevalent.
  • A shiny hair coat, a side benefit of added fat in the diet, is important to horse owners who are showing or selling horses. Higher fat levels, especially those that contain a balance of omega three and omega six fatty acids, are good choices for those in the show ring or sale ring business.
  • Horse owners often report that horses that are fed lower-starch diets with added fat have a calmer attitude than those that are fed a conventional high starch and forage diet.

It is important to keep in mind that indiscriminate fat supplementation can create deficiencies of other nutrients. This is known as empty calories; where energy levels are adequate, but protein, lysine and mineral levels are not. Developmental bone problems can result which may precipitate injuries in young horses.

There also is a period of adjustment of about three to four weeks for horses to receive benefits from added fat. Any change in diet should be done gradually over seven to10 days to avoid the possibility of digestive upsets.

A balanced diet, tailored to the use and age of the horse, is the most important consideration. A trained nutritional consultant can make recommendations that will best fit your horse and the activity involved.

How to Weigh Your Feed

Feed your horse by weight, not by volume.

This is a common sentence uttered by many-a-feed professional and the more I talk with horse owners, the more I find myself saying it.   If someone is having an issue with their horse’s weight, whether over or under, I will first ask what kind and how much hay they are feeding.  My next question is what kind and how much feed does your horse get?

Responses to the hay questions are varied as are the kind of feed, but more often than not, I hear ‘a scoop’ or ‘a coffee can’ when describing how much feed the horse in question is receiving.  One customer even mentioned using a Bob the Builder Helmet as her scoop….now that is creative!

How much does your scoop or coffee can of feed weigh? is my next question.   Hmm…Good question is the response all too often. 

A hanging scale, such as this (dirty) one is helpful to hang a bucket from and weigh feed. Note that the scale has been tared for a bucket.

There is a simple, inexpensive way to find out: most mass retailers or farm/feed supply stores sell scales, such as a fish scale, a kitchen scale, or hanging scale that range from $10-20.  When you put your feed bucket on the scale, make sure to ‘tare’ the scale, or zero out the weight of the bucket so you get the true weight of the feed itself.  Then, fill your scoop, coffee can, or Bob the Builder helmet, and see what weight one regular serving is. 

Next step is, check the feeding directions for the feed you use and calculate how much your horse should be fed based on his body weight.  Does your scoop or coffee can serving fall within the appropriate feeding range?  If not, make sure to adjust the fill level of your dispensing item to fall within the recommended quantity for your horse.

It is unlikely that you will need to re-weigh the same feed for each meal, as the density of the feed will likely not vary much.  Most commercial feed companies formulate their feed to meet a specific energy density from which the feeding directions are based .  All other nutrients are balanced based on the energy value, which is why it is so important to select the right feed for your horse and feed the proper amounts.

Feeding your horse the appropriate amount, by weight, will ensure she is getting the balanced, necessary nutrients she needs for everyday activity and development.  Once you have found the feed to match her needs, its only a matter of feeding the right amount and enjoying the end result.

Fiber in Horse Feeds

In our previous post, we learned what fiber is and how a horse digests it,and we also learned that a horse consuming 1-1.5% of it’s bodyweight in quality roughage will satisfy its daily fiber requirements.

When it comes to any grain sources that may be added to your horses diet, fiber plays a much smaller role since the amount of fiber that is added by grains is relatively little, but the effect and digestive process is similar. 

When feeding the grain portion of the diet, ensure that your horse is not receiving high quantities of grain meals all at once – typically no more than 5-6 pounds of grain per meal at most. Because grains tend to be higher in starch than roughage, feeding too much at once can overwhelm the small size and quick rate of passage of food through the stomach and small intestine, and allow starches to pass undigested to the hindgut. Digestion of starches in the hindgut releases lactic acids that are toxic to the fiber-digesting microorganisms, which can result in a gas colic episode or laminitis.

Generally speaking, when you look at a the tag from a basic equine ration, the higher the crude fiber level listed, the lower the energy content of the feed.  Of course, there are other factors that must be looked at, such as the fat level, and also possibly the sources of fiber. 

Beet pulp, for example, is often referred to as a “super-fiber” due to the high level of fiber it provides while also providing roughly the same energy level as oats.  While soy hulls and dehydrated alfalfa are common ingredients used to increase fiber levels, a performance horse ration with a higher fiber level may make use of beet pulp to achieve both increased energy and increased fiber levels.

Feeding Fiber to Horses

Do you know the fiber level in your current feeding program?  If you don’t, you are not alone.  Few horse owners can answer that question, and even fewer understand why it might be important or where fiber comes from.  The first and foremost source of fiber in a horses’ diet is their roughage, or hay, source.  Secondary to that is what is present in any supplemental grain sources.

First of all, let’s define what fiber is:

  • Fiber is a measure of the plant cell wall, or the structural portions that give the plant support. 
  • Main components of fiber are the digestible cellulose and hemicellulose, and the indigestible lignin. 
    • As a crop of hay matures, the lignin content increases and the cellulose and hemicellulose decrease.

Here’s what happens as a horse consumes roughage:

  • Some quick digestion occurs in the stomach and small intestine, allowing starches and sugars to get digested as the forages pass through this portion of the digestive system. 
  • The fiber begins to get digested as the feed passes into the hindgut, or the cecum and colon. 
  • Fiber is digested well here is because of the presence of billions of microorganisms (bugs) whose sole function is to digest fiber. 
  • These microorganisms break down fibrous feeds into short chain volatile fatty acids, which are a source of energy for the horse. 

Here is why it becomes important to feed a high-quality, early-growth-stage roughage.  As a plant matures, the lignin portion increases, reducing the energy available from that roughage.  Add that to the other benefits of high-quality roughage for horses, namely the greater availability of other nutrients, and it is easy to see where spending a little more money for better hay is better in the long run for your horse.

So what does it all mean for your horse?  A horse consuming 1-1.5% of it’s body weight per day in quality roughage sources will meet its fiber needs.