The Root Cause of (Most) Feeding Problems

Horse in stallA couple of months ago, a friend asked me about feed for her 20-something retired Jumper that was losing weight coming out of winter.  It’s not uncommon for a horse to shed a few pounds during the transition from winter to spring, but she was concerned that he wasn’t putting them back on with pasture turnout.   When I asked what he was being fed, she said he was getting a senior feed mixed with a performance feed.  Puzzled, I asked why the mix and how much of each?

She shared that he was getting 5-6 pounds of senior feed a day and about 2 pounds of the performance feed for extra calories.  When I looked up the feeding directions for the senior feed, the manufacturer recommended 10-12 pounds per day for his weight.  When I shared this information with my friend, we decided to try increasing the senior to the recommended amount and dropping the performance feed.  About 2 weeks after our conversation, she shared with me that the change was working and he was looking better already!

This conversation got me thinking…. why do we, as horse owners, run into issues with feed?  After all, the design and variety of feeds available today incorporate some of the latest and greatest nutritional research of our time. So why do we continue to struggle? What are the root causes when it comes to problems with our horse’s feed?  Reflecting back on years of questions and troubleshooting, I think I’ve been able to boil it down most cases to one of the two following* –

Feeding the incorrect product
or
Feeding the right product incorrectly

When I took a step back, I came to realize that feed can be really complicated.  When you are in the industry and steeped in the subject, it seems so clear.  But when you’re trying to juggle many other elements of the care, training, management, health, etc., the feed part of the puzzle can seem overwhelmingly complicated.

It may seem oversimplified, but here’s my best advice to make sure you’re feeding the right product at the right amount:

  • Find a brand you like, trust and can afford. Not sure?  Ask a friend or pro who have horses in similar age range or activity level as yours. Ask at your farm store.  Ask your vet.  Ask your farrier.  Do some research on your own and find a brand you like.
  • Find a product in that brand that is designed for your horse’s life stage or activity level.  Each product is required by regulation to state on the tag or bag what the product is designed to do for the horse.
  • Weigh your horse using a weight tape or scale if you have access to one. Here is another handy tool for measuring your horse without a scale from a previous blog post.
  • Buy a hanging scale – a decent one can be purchased from a farm supply store for around $30. A person can pay much more but you really just need a scale that ‘tares’ (aka zero’s out) and has a hook to hang a bucket from.
  • Using the feeding directions, calculate how many POUNDS of feed per day your horse should be fed. (Tip – Nutrena offers an easy online calculator tool on each product page at www.NutrenaWorld.com)
  • Place an empty bucket on the scale.  Tare it so the scale is set to 0 with the bucket. Weigh the feed to be sure you’re giving your horse the proper amount according to the directions.
  • Over the next few weeks, check your horse’s body condition score and adjust within the feeding direction range until you’ve reached an ideal weight/condition.

There were many things my friend was doing correctly, such as feeding the correct feed and weighing it to ensure a consistent amount, but one missed detail was all it took to negate her efforts.  As soon as she bumped her horse to the recommended feeding rate, it all came together.  What do you find most confusing about feed?

*Assuming dentition issues, parasite load, hay quality/quantity and disease were ruled out.

Moving to a Boarding Barn – What I’ve Learned

For the 25+ years that I have owned horses, they have always been ‘home’. That is to say, kept on the same property where I lived. Recently I moved Ferris, one of my geldings, to a boarding barn in preparation for a career change (from dressage to Hunter… he LOVES the jump!) and sale. The decision to sell him was incredibly challenging emotionally. I bred him, raised him and did his initial training. But I also came to realize that, though he can do the lower level dressage work, his heart is in the jump….something that I’m not in a good position to do. Moving him to a boarding barn gave me access to a friend and trainer who is helping re-schooling him as a Hunter in preparation of selling him.

The move from home care to a boarding barn means having another person provide daily care and handling, and was something that took me some time to get used to. Thankfully, Mandy, owner and manager at the barn, was very understanding with me, is great at communicating and has done a fantastic job with Ferris for the last few months. If you are considering a similar move, whether for a short endeavor or as a lifestyle change, here are some tips I picked up from my recent experience.

Change in lifestyle
Ferris in StallAs I’ve shared in a previous blog, my operation at home is anything but fancy. We have a run-in/lean-to for the horses and they choose when to be in and when to be out. Ferris was used to spending a good bit of energy moving around 24/7 and burning calories to stay warm. With his new living situation, Ferris is now in a stall (in a heated barn) from 4PM to 8AM with pasture turnout during the day. I was initially concerned about this change in activity level and energy needs, potentially leading to excessive weight. As I soon discovered, he quickly adjusted and settled into the barn lifestyle … adores his stall!

Hay transition
Hay/pasture makes up most of a horse’s diet, therefore any change in hay, whether it be a different cutting, supplier, or variety should be made gradually. When I moved Ferris to Mandy’s barn, I also sent along a few bales of his current hay so that she could slowly transition him to her hay. He moved from grass hay to grass hay, which helped. In his new barn, he also has consistent access to hay day and night to keep his system active.

Water System
You might not think it’s a big deal, but a new water system may be disruptive. For example, at home, we have an outdoor, group automatic drinker while in his stall, Ferris has an individual one. Thankfully, the sound of water being replenished is similar, though he did scare himself the first time he drank! Since water is such an important element of a horse’s health and wellbeing, it’s a good idea to monitor their drinking the first few days after making the move. You might also train your horse to drink before you move him.

Feed Transition
Because he was living mainly outdoors at home, I was feeding Ferris a product that is high in fat, designed for hard keepers. It was a really good fit with his lifestyle at home, however the house feed at his new barn is SafeChoice Original, a similar, but slightly different product; higher in fiber and protein, lower in fat. Though Mandy will accommodate a different feed, I wanted to simplify by having him on the house feed. As with his hay, I brought along  bags of his feed from home to transition him to the SafeChoice in his first 7-14 days. At first, he refused to touch his feed (our best guess is that it was the stress of all the changes) so we backed off transitioning him and let him eat his normal feed for the first week. After that, we were able to start the transition again and today, he’s 100% on SafeChoice Original.

Stress of the Move
As you can imagine, the change in environment, smells, sounds, pasture boundaries, routine, activity level and horses were all very stressful for Ferris. He did show his stress for the first few days, but by day 4 had settled into the new routine and environment well. With the stress of all the changes and an increase in work load, he did lose some body condition in the first month, which was addressed with adjustments to his feed and hay.

All Settled In
Today, Ferris is really loving his new job and lifestyle! He is being ridden 5 days a week, of which one day is over jumps. His weight is back to a healthy BCS of 6 and he is adding endurance and muscle each week. We did adjust his feed routine a bit by adding a ration balancer to help with amino acids needed to build his muscles while balancing the energy from grass turnout. He is becoming more consistent and happy in his work and I am able to rest easy knowing he is comfortable and well looked after. Very soon, I will put him up for sale so he can find success in a second career as a Hunter.

I can’t stress enough the importance of good communication between you and the barn owner/manager. If you are used to daily feeding and caring for your horses, letting go and allowing someone else to do that may be a challenge. For me, it was important to discuss my horse’s behavior, routine and regular handling up front so that Mandy and her team were able to give him an easy transition and provide a positive experience. She has also been very good about telling me what’s happening, and I work to keep her informed of what I’m observing with him so together we formulate a plan. I consider her a partner in his care, and one that I’ve come to deeply trust.

Avoiding a Hay Belly

I’ve often heard, ‘my horse has a hay belly, what should I do differently?’ Or,” he’s really big in the belly but he doesn’t have good muscles.”   Apart from a broodmare belly, post-colic surgery effects or a parasite situation, the answer sounds like a nutritional imbalance.  The good news is, once you know what a nutritional imbalanced hay belly is and what causes it, you can make adjustments in your program and avoid it in the future.

What does it look like?

Willow has had 4 foals, and as a result, tends to show characteristics of a hay belly.

Willow has had 4 foals, and as a result, tends to show characteristics of a hay belly.

Have you ever seen a young or growing horse with a big belly while the rest of their body looks small? Or a mature horse that has a midsection that hangs low, while ribs are visible and muscles along the back and hindquarter are hard to find?  How about the ‘pregnant gelding’ situation?  All of these are describing a hay belly.  On a regular basis, you should conduct a body condition score on your horse to check for muscle mass as well as appropriate fat deposition in key areas.  It’s important to check all areas indicated, since a rib or belly check alone doesn’t provide all the information.

What causes it?

When too many low-value calories are consumed without adequate protein (including essential amino acids), the body stores the calories as energy in cells yet the needed protein isn’t available to maintain muscle mass. In the absence of adequate protein, muscles atrophy while stored energy increases. Over time, a hay belly emerges as muscle mass over the top is lost and gut size may expand.

The biggest factor is overfeeding fiber high in Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF) while under feeding adequate levels of quality protein. NDF is a measurement of cell wall content in plants such as grasses.  As the plant matures, it builds up stronger cell walls so that it may hold itself upright.  The stronger these walls, the less digestible these cells are for a horse.  So when fed very mature hay, your horse is less able to digest that hay, as compared to hay with a lower NDF value (less mature).  In addition to being higher in NDF, the grasses also tend to be lower in the quality proteins; important nutrients for developing and maintaining muscles.

How to prevent a hay belly

First, feed the best quality hay that you can find in the correct amount for your horse’s body weight, age and activity level. The hay that is smooth and ‘leafy’ tends to have levels of NDF that are better for the horse to digest. Hay that is pointy to the touch or looks like it’s a green version of straw should be avoided as it simply offers little nutritional value for the horse.

How do I get rid of a hay belly if my horse has one?

First, check the quality and quantity of hay your horse is eating. If the quality is adequate, then it’s time to reevaluate the quantity fed.  A horse should be fed 1.0-1.75 pounds/100 pounds of body weight of hay per day.  Not a fan of math? Yea, me neither.  Here’s a quick answer: for a horse weighing 1,000 pounds, that would be between 10-17.5 pounds of hay each day, ideally divided into 2 or even 3 feedings. Check to be sure you’re not inadvertently overfeeding, or underfeeding if your horse is actually bigger than 1,000 lbs. Learn to estimate your horse’s weight accurately here.

The last piece of the puzzle is feed. Make sure that the concentrate you provide is offering adequate quality protein.  Total protein alone can’t support or develop ideal muscles.  The right balance of amino acids is needed to build and maintain muscle quantity and quality.  Look for feeds that guarantee levels of Lysine, Methionine and Threonine.  These three key amino acids are the most important for your horse. And lastly, check to be sure you’re feeding the appropriate amount of concentrate.  Feeding a balanced diet and adding some exercise to help develop muscle mass and tighten up that tummy is a great way to reclaim that belly!

Group Feeding Tips for Small Facilities

Feeding TimeWe are a far cry from a fancy operation with four horses on my property to manage.  The horses in our herd live outside in one of two paddocks with fulltime access to a run-in shed which is divided in half.  They get rotational turn out onto the pasture whenever possible.

With the variety of horses we have, our little operation is anything but simple.  And oh how they vary!  One is a 32-year-old hard keeping Arabian mare with a princess complex who has progressively lost dentition efficacy in the last few years.  Next is her 14-year-old gelding son who is an air fern, aka quite possibly the world’s easiest keeper.  Finally the two Warmblood geldings, half-brothers both in light work.  One is a 16 hand, 10-year old fair doer while his brother (12 years) just under 16 hands, tends to be higher strung and a notch or two closer to being a hard keeper than his half-brother.

We feed good quality grass hay in small squares as we don’t have the storage space, equipment or desire to feed rounds. With these parameters, in combination with our variety of personalities, feeding time can be quite….interesting.  Over time, we’ve developed some strategies for making this living arrangement work.  Here’s a few you might consider if you have a similar herd situation:

  • Divide your herd by feeding needs and behaviors
  • Separate the bully of the herd.
  • If possible, put harder keepers with harder keepers, easy keepers with other easy keepers.
  • Keep an eye over time as the herd dynamics shift, the bullies can easily become bullied and go from ideal weight to underweight if you’re not checking regularly.
  • Check body condition score on a regular basis and be prepared to move horses around if dietary needs change.
  • Provide at least as many feeders as there are horses.  More if you can. Divide the ration of hay evenly among them.  This allows those who are bullied by others the chance to get what they need.
  • While on pasture, use a grazing muzzle on the easy keepers so that the harder keepers can have sufficient time with the forage.
  • When it comes to feeding concentrate, use paddock, pasture, round pens, arena etc.  to separate the herd.  This way, those who need a different feed type (example: ration balancer versus a senior feed) can get what they need and have time to eat it.
  • If you don’t have facilities to separate during the time to feed concentrate, consider guarding the slower eater so they can get sufficient time to eat their full ration. This may add time to the chore schedule, but it will help to ensure all horses are meeting their unique nutritional needs.

Keeping multiple horses with a variety of nutritional needs in a smaller space can be a challenge.  But with a little creativity and the right tools, you can be assured everyone gets what they need.  What ideas do you have to manage the variety of horses in your herd?

Senior Horse Care Tips

These days, horses are living longer, more productive lives than ever before.  Thanks to advances in care, medicine, nutrition and veterinary practices, it’s not unusual to find a horse active into their thirties.  But with more active years comes the need to provide accommodations which meet the special needs of the aging equine.

Turn-out and Exercise

Senior Horse in PastureMoving is a key factor in keeping your senior comfortable.  Not only does moving about help with preserving muscle mass, motion also aids in digestion, reducing inflammation and increasing circulation.  Daily turnout is a great way to provide this opportunity, as is regular exercise.  Some ideas to exercise include light schooling, trail rides, driving or hand walking.  Whether in a pasture or dry lot, daily turnout and frequent exercise of your senior horse will go a long way in providing a happy, healthy retirement. Plus it’s more time to spend with your aging friend.

 

Dentition

As horses age, their teeth change due to wear.  Hopefully your senior horse has had the advantage of regular dental care in their earlier years, setting them up for success later in life.  Regular dental checks and floats not only help to maintain good dental health, it also provides your senior with the best chance at chewing and digesting their feed and forage.

Forage and alternative options

With the change in teeth comes some accommodation to forage.  Though aged, the equine senior still requires fiber as the main source of energy. Changes in dental efficacy as well as digestive system changes means the importance of good quality fiber is even higher.  If high quality hay (more leafy, less stems) is not readily available, hay cubes are a good alternate source of easy to chew fiber.  If needed, hay cubes can be soaked, providing an easy to chew fiber source.

Feed and Mashes

Changes in the digestive efficiency of the senior horses requires some specific nutritional needs.  As the digestive system ages, the ability to digest and absorb nutrients is more of a challenge than in earlier years.  In addition, nutrients are needed in different ratios to support the aging body.  For example, higher levels of quality amino acids are required to maintenance muscle mass in the senior horse.  Feeds that are specially formulated for senior horses provide these higher levels of nutrients in the proper ratio.  Many varieties of senior feeds are considered ‘complete’, in that they contain higher levels of fiber, providing an alternative to forage, thereby making it easier for the senior horse to get the nutrients needed.

Blanketing

You may notice a difference in your horse’s ability to stay warm during cold or wet weather.  Blanketing may be needed to help keep your senior horse warm during inclement weather.  Not only does blanketing help with warmth, your senior horse isn’t spending valuable calories trying to stay warm, burning off energy and their weight.  Blanketing in extreme cold or dampness may help your horse in maintaining a desired body condition.

Senior horse care may require some extra steps and more attention to details, but with the right adjustments, your senior can enjoy productive, happy and healthy golden years.

Creative Reuses for Plastic Feed Bags

Plastic feed bags, also called, poly weave bags, have been on the market for many years now and unlike their paper predecessors, there are many uses of poly feed bags once their job of delivering feed is complete.

Why Poly?

Poly feed bags are made from a recyclable plastic material and generally fall into the #5 recyclable plastic category. Feed manufacturers and retailers alike have embraced the use of poly over paper for the many benefits they offer.  For instance, poly bags reduce or eliminate the need for shrink wrap on a pallet of feed, with the use of special glue that locks the bags into place.

For feeds higher in oil or molasses, traditional paper bags required an extra layer or two (usually plastic)  to keep the oil or molasses from seeping through the bag and compromising the strength of the paper.  In many instances, switching to  poly bags reduces the amount material used for feed bags.

Poly bags also reduce the amount of broken bags during moving in a warehouse or truck therefore, reducing the amount of wasted feed.  And though not waterproof, poly bags hold up better if exposed to rain, snow or other forms of moisture.

Ideas for Reuse

Here are some creative reuses of poly bags:

Container garden

Container garden

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bags as baskets

Bags as baskets

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bags as a tote

Bags as a tote

Bags as a raincoat in a pinch

Bags as a raincoat in a pinch

Bags as a dress

Bags as a dress

What creative ways do you reuse poly bags?

What’s the Shelf Life of Horse Feed?

Textured Feed PouringFeed freshness is a concern for many horse owners.  We all want to feed our horses the best we can.  When it comes to freshness there are several factors involved, one of those being the expected shelf life of feed.  Horse owners and barn managers who understand these factors and practice good inventory rotation will be able to provide their horses fresh feed on a regular basis.

Shelf Life

First, what is shelf life?  Shelf life can be described as the length of time a feed is considered to have the nutritional quality and physical characteristics as intended when it was produced from the manufacturer.

In food terms, you may see ‘Best if used by’ or ‘Sell by’ followed by a date.  Human food is tightly managed and there are regulations that food processors, distributors and retailers need to follow to make sure that the food they put on their shelves is within date.

Most horse feeds do not have a ‘Use by’ date due to the process of manufacturing as well as the different storage conditions that feed is exposed to from when it is made to the time it is in your scoop.  Therefore, understanding what affects the shelf life can help you to provide your horse with fresh feed on a regular basis.

Feed Form

The form of feed you purchase has an impact on its shelf life. For example, a feed in the form of a pellet has undergone a process which involves cooking with heat and steam, followed by the use of centripetal force to push it through a die (think Play Dough machine) before it is cooled and dried.  This high temperature cook and cool helps to make the nutrients more available for digestion as well as improves the shelf life (cookie dough is only good for a few days, but baked cookies stored properly can last up to 2 weeks – well, not in my house!).

On the other hand, ‘textured’ or grain-based feed (where you see the oats, barley or cracked corn) which has had oil and/or molasses added has not undergone the same amount of ‘cooking’ as a pellet and therefore has a shorter shelf life.  Alone, the dry grains have a good shelf life, but when oil, molasses or other liquids have been added, the shelf life is shortened.

Generally speaking, a pelleted feed stored in ideal conditions won’t begin to lose nutritional quality until it is approximately 6 months old.  That’s a long time for a feed to still be good!  On the other hand, textured feed tends to lose nutritional quality around 90 days from date of manufacture.

Mold

One of the biggest risks regarding storage of feed is the potential growth of molds.  Molds are present in low levels all around us, but when exposed to certain conditions, molds can proliferate.  Molds love an environment that is warm and moist therefore, feed should be stored in a cool, dry place.

So what can you do to make sure your horse gets the best nutrition from the feed you buy? 

  • Feed makers and retailers set their own guidelines for shelf life of their products and they vary by the product.
  • Warm or humid temperatures will speed up the deterioration of quality as well, so pay especially close attention in the summer, and possibly even purchase less feed on a more frequent basis during those warmer months.
  • When you purchase feed from your retailer, ask how long they have had the bag of feed and under what conditions it has been stored.
  • When you get feed home, be sure to inspect it, looking for bugs or mold.
  • If you see indications of either, take the bag back to your retailer immediately.
  • Do not feed moldy or bug infested feed to your horses.

Any feed you store on farm should be kept in a cool, dry place, protected from infestation of pests.  Read here for tips on how best to store feed on your farm.

Tour the Equine Digestive Tract

Ever wonder how your horse’s digestive system works? What goes on in there? Why are they so sensitive? And why should I divide the feed ration into 2 or 3 feedings per day? Let’s take a closer look to better understand.

The Equine Digestive Tract:

Digestive Horse Cecum_logo

Mouth & Teeth: Teeth are the beginning of the entire process. Designed to grind foodstuffs into smaller pieces, the act of chewing also stimulates three glands in the mouth to produce saliva. These glands can produce up to 10 gallons per day of saliva. The saliva contains bicarbonate (a natural acid buffer) and amylase (assists with carbohydrate digestion). Teeth are an important component to digestion and should be checked annually to insure proper function. A horse that is unable to effectively chew long stem forage, such as a senior horse, is at higher risk of impaction colic. If you have a horse like this, be sure to consult with your veterinarian for a comprehensive care and feeding program.

Esophagus: The purpose of the esophagus is to funnel food from the mouth to the stomach. Approximately sixty inches in length, this is a one-way passage. Unlike humans, horses cannot vomit. This is why horses who ‘bolt’ their feed (eat too fast and don’t chew adequately) can get into trouble and feeding practices need to be adjusted to reduce the risk of bolting feed.

Stomach: Small in size compared to the rest of the horse’s body, food will only spend about 15 minutes in the stomach before it moves on. The stomach is designed to function best when it is ¾ full; therefore, care takers are encouraged to provide horses with a steady supply of forage throughout the day. Because of the small size, a horse should not be fed more than 0.5% of body weight in one meal. Meals of grain are best divided into 2 or 3 portions per day.

Small Intestine: After leaving the stomach, food will spend anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes here; a good thing with the many nutrients that are absorbed. Nutrients such as proteins (amino acids), vitamins A, D, E and K, calcium, phosphorus, and other minerals along with starches and sugars. Cereal grains such as oats, barley, and corn that are high in carbohydrates (starch and sugar) are easily digested here. The horse doesn’t have a gall bladder, so bile from the liver flows directly into the small intestine to aid in the digestion of fat.

Large Intestine: is comprised of the cecum, large colon, small colon and rectum.

  • The cecum is located on the right side of the horse and is where fiber is digested and converted to energy and heat. The shape of the cecum is unique because the entrance and exit are located at the top of the organ. Able to hold up to 10 gallons of food and water, the cecum contains populations of bacteria and microbes which further break down food (fiber) for digestion and absorption. These microbes are accustomed to digesting a horse’s ‘normal’ diet, so any adjustments in feed or forage should be done slowly, allowing the microbes to adjust.
    • If a horse consumes too much starch in one meal, it is unlikely to be digested fully in the small intestine. It would pass through the small intestine into the cecum where the microbial organisms rapidly ferment the starch, producing excessive gas and lactic acid that could ultimately cause digestive upset or colic.
  • The large colon continues the digestive process by absorbing additional fiber components and water. This is where B vitamins are absorbed.
  • The small colon is where excess moisture is reclaimed to the body. This is also where the formation of fecal balls occurs.
  • The rectum is where the fecal balls are expelled.

With this short tour and explanation, we hope you have a better understanding of how your horse digests and absorbs nutrients, and that this also sheds light on why good feeding management and regular dentistry care are important aspect for the digestive health and overall well-being of your horse.

Feeding the Maintenance Horse

Vitamin in half

Feeding below the recommended amount of a particular horse feed, is analogous to only taking half of your daily vitamin.

I am fortunate in my job to speak with horse owners face-to-face on a frequent basis. During these conversations, I enjoy hearing about the horses they own and how great their horse’s look and perform.

Occasionally, I will hear someone mention that their horse looks great on hay alone and they only feed a ‘handful’ of grain in the morning and night, just for the vitamins and minerals.

I delicately point out that the analogous human activity would be chopping your daily vitamin into pieces and taking a fraction of one a day. This is an opportunity to discuss feeding rate, calorie requirements, muscle and hair coat quality, and making sure owners have selected the right feed for their horse.

In many of these instances, the horse in question is an adult in good body condition, on a good quality forage and light work load; in other words, a horse at maintenance activity level.  Even though this horse may be able to keep a good body condition score, without balanced nutrition, they will exhibit less-than-ideal muscling, hair coat and hoof quality.

A well-intentioned owner of this kind of horse might feel they need to provide some form of nutrition supplementation to their hay, as they should, but may not fully understand what is needed or the appropriate quantities. Feed, being as complicated as it can be, is often misinterpreted and either under or over fed. Here’s where we can help!

If a maintenance horse is in good or better-than-good body condition (a 6+) from their hay or pasture alone, they really don’t need more calories in the diet. But they do need something to fill in the gaps that the hay or pasture is not providing. These include vitamins, minerals and quality proteins (amino acids) their body needs for normal tissue repair, hair growth and muscle maintenance.

For this horse, a ration balancer is the ideal solution. A ration balancer (sometimes called diet balancer) is a concentrated form of feed without the energy provided by fats, fibers, starch and sugar of a regular feed. Ration balancers tend to have higher guaranteed levels of nutrients, but significantly lower feeding rates. Don’t panic! A protein level of 30% with a feeding rate of 2 pounds per day means your horse gets 0.6 pounds of protein. Compare that to feeding 6 pounds of a 14% regular feed = 0.84 pounds of protein per day. When you do the math, it’s really in line with a “normal” diet.

If this same horse would be slightly below ideal body condition, a feed designed to be fed to maintenance horses would be appropriate for calories and the balance of other nutrients. Be sure to follow the feeding rates and keep a close eye on how your horse responds to the feed, as you may need to adjust within the feeding rate guidelines.

When it comes to calorie management of the maintenance-level activity horse, remember to watch out for those treats, too. Calorie levels can vary widely so all the work you’re doing to manage intake with the feed scoop can easily be washed away with an indulgence in treats!

Feeding a horse at a maintenance activity level doesn’t have to be complicated. With a few pieces of information and the right feed, your horse can look and feel their best, even if they aren’t heading for the show pen.

5 Things I’ve Learned Working for a Feed Company

I am fortunate to count myself among those who grew up with horses.  My mother had grown up with a horse as her pet (Babe was her name) and much of what I learned came from how she had managed her horse.  This meant that I grew up with a …how to say….‘traditional’ mindset about nutrition; ‘hay and sweet feed now and then is all any horse needs’ and that is what my horse was fed….until I started working for a feed company.  Then, my nutritional education hit the fast lane!  Here are the top 5 things that I have learned about nutrition and management as a result of working for a feed company.

1. The purpose of feed.  Growing up, we’d use feed as bait to bring the horses off the pasture, a reward after a good ride (after properly cooling out of course) or on very cold days, but certainly not every day.  Most feeds are designed to provide a horse with the nutrients that hay or pasture alone cannot.  Many people think of feed as simply providing ‘energy’ which, many of them do.   When it comes to feed, you generally get what you pay for, so very often, the less expensive feeds are designed to provide the minimum amount of nutrition.  That’s why it’s important that you select the right feed for your horse so that they are getting the balance of nutrients that fit their needs, be it energy, biotin or high quality proteins, fed consistently.  Once you find the right nutrition for you horse, you might be amazed at how good they look and how happy they seem.

2. Paying more for feed can save money in the long run.  I used to feed an inexpensive sweet mix to my horse and spent my money on supplements to provide what the feed didn’t, as opposed to feeding her a fully fortified feed.   For the most part, a high quality, fortified feed that is fed at the right amount removes the need for most supplements and, you might be surprised to find it can be cheaper.  There are a few exceptions where it is either illegal or extremely difficult to include specific nutrients in a feed, such as joint support (it is against the law to include any ingredient that is considered a drug in horse feed).   In those instances, it does make sense to add a supplement to provide what the feed can not.

3. Feeding directions do make a difference.  Feeding directions matter because most feeds are formulated to provide a specific concentration of nutrients based on the pounds (not scoops) that are fed, which is a ratio of your horse’s weight.  In order to feed at the recommended levels, you need to know how much your horse weighs and how much your feed weighs.   Growing up, we just fed a ‘scoop’ regardless of the horse or feed.  Taking this approach will often mean under or over feeding your horse. If you start to feed at the recommended feeding levels and notice your horse not being in ideal body condition, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate whether you’re feeding the right feed.

4. Those extras actually do count for something.  I used to think that some of the extra ‘stuff’ that was provided in a fully fortified feed was just foo-foo dust or tag dressing. One of my biggest ‘ah ha’ moments came when I realized that (at least with Nutrena feeds) it’s not just adding another line to the guaranteed nutrients tag; it’s really providing a benefit to the horse.  I saw it when I switched my horses away from a local mill sweet mix.  The little things that are added do make a visible improvement in hoof quality, hair coat and even muscling.

5. Knowing your horse is the best way to feed him.  Horses are individuals; as a rider, that is evident.  However, I used to think that when it came to nutrition, there was very little variation.  How wrong I was!  Unlike production animals, humans have been selectively breeding horses for attributes other than feed efficiency.  Therefore, the general horse population has a wide range of nutrition needs from the easy keeper to the hard keeper and everything in between.  Staying closely tuned into your horse, changes in his performance, attitude and body condition score throughout the year and how he reacts to his feed and forage is all part of managing him as an individual.  When his job changes (increase or decrease in workload) or he reaches the next life stage, it’s important to reevaluate his feeding program to provide him what he needs.

I have learned so much about nutrition and management during my time as an employee of a feed company.  My assumptions have been challenged.  My knowledge expanded.  Thanks to scientific research, my horses now enjoy an improved level of nutrition, performance and appearance, and so can yours!