Hay or Grain First?

A friend recently asked me what was the correct feeding order, hay George eating hay in his paddockfirst or grain? This is a great question, and despite the controversy, I cannot find any hard data that suggests feeding hay first will have an effect on the horse’s health, unless over 50% of the diet is concentrate per feeding.

First, you need to look at the big picture. Horses by nature are grazing animals, not meal eaters. A horse should be provided with 1.5 to 2% of his total body weight per day in forage, i.e. a 1000 pound horse would receive 15-20 pounds of hay per day, depending on caloric needs and type of forage. To minimize waste I like to see the forage placed in a slow feed net, this also helps to replicate grazing.

The dietary needs are then balanced with a concentrate that may vary in weight from 1 pound to no more than 5 pounds per feeding. This where you really need to pay close attention to the feed rate and directions on the product you select. Due to the small size of the horse’s stomach, it is never recommended to feed more than 5 pounds of concentrate at any one feeding.

Horses are continuous grazers, and will graze 18 hours in a 24 hour day. To maintain normal gut function, saliva is produced up to 30 gallons in a 24 hour day, during this gazing period. This helps the horse maintain normal gut function, stabilizing the intestinal pH and keeping ulcers in check. Not to mention the periodontal impact.

Having forage first can be a benefit for those horses that tend to bolt their feed or concentrate. Again we need to look at the big picture and time between feedings. I also realize that for large farms and commercial operations it may be more labor intensive to make the feeding process a two-step program. If you board your horse a great treat is providing a serving of an additional forage source, such as a hay extender.

So hay or grain first is really not the issue, rather a balanced feeding program and feeding schedule is key.

You’re So Lucky!

This weekend I attended my 3rd Awards banquet for the 2014 show Region 14 Arabian Sport HOrse Rider Handler of the Yearseason. My horse and I completed the season earning state, regional and national championships. Considering that I am 60 years old and have been working with this horse for the past 4 years, I am very proud of our accomplishments. A friend told me we are just “So lucky to win all those awards”. I feel we are blessed to have earned these honors but it is more than luck. I look at the equation like a balanced triangle.

I like to start with the horse. So first I make sure I have the right horse for the job. I purchased my horse Rhinestone Cowboy AF as a potential horse I could show in trail class on the Arabian circuit.

At a local show, a nationally recognized Arabian judge commented he was very correct and would do well as a Sport horse. We watched a few Sport Horses classes and other friends encouraged us to enter the division. They were right and he has proven to be an outstanding Sport Horse Hunter under Saddle. I adjusted my goals for my horse with his development and athletic ability. It was a learning curve for me, and a lot of great people in the Sport Horse industry encouraged us to compete. So having the right horse for the job is important.

Next let’s look at the training aspect. You would not think of sending your child to school and telling the teacher you want the child to read at 6th grade level in 60 days, yet people expect miracles from their trainers. It takes time, patience and more time to properly train and school a horse. It is not within my budget to send my horse out for training, so he is home schooled. That does not stop me from seeking advice, attending clinics or watching trainers work horses. So many of our industry’s professionals are more than willing to help an amateur solve a problem or evaluate a situation, if you just reach out to them, but respect time and professionalism.

The third side to the triangle is diet. You would not train to run the Boston Marathon on a diet of fast food, why would you expect your horse to be any different. I start our program with the best quality hay I can find. I then feed my horse 2% of his body weight per day in hay. I balance the diet with a quality performance horse feed that provides chelated minerals, pre and pro biotics and is formulated at a safe NSC level. My personal choice is Pro Force fuel by Nutrena.

I only attended 3 shows last season one each month during June, July and August. I want the experience to be enjoyable for my horse as well as myself. I realize judging horses is like judging living art work and it is one person’s opinion. If my horse worked a good class, that is what matters to me. It is a hobby and we are there to have fun. We have worked hard to prepare for the show, and we are there to show what we can accomplish. My horse will have good days and bad days, and I need to know when he has reached his limit both physically and emotionally.

As I look at the triangle I feel confident I have the right horse for the job, worked to obtain realistic goals, and provided my horse with a balanced diet. We were blessed with an outstanding year and lucky to have so many great people in the industry encourage us!

Top Tips for Feeding Your Horse This Spring

Toby GrazingFeeding your horse during the longer days and warmer temperatures of the spring season can often be different than your chosen winter-feeding program.

Keep the following diet and feeding considerations in mind to help your horse smoothly transition from winter to spring:

Tip 1: Monitor Your Horse’s Body Condition

We all know every horse is different. This means that some horses will have gained winter weight from working less, while other horses will have shed a few pounds keeping warm in the cold. Before even thinking of altering your horse’s spring-feeding regimen, first evaluate his body condition. With the help of your veterinarian or a knowledgeable equine professional, determine if your horse is too skinny, too fat or carrying just the right amount of weight.

To monitor your horse’s weight without using a scale, you can utilize the body condition scoring method. This system will help you estimate the fat present on your horse’s body. Once you have estimated the level of fat cover, you will be able to more accurately determine whether you should increase or decrease your horse’s caloric intake.

It is important to note that each horse will require a different body condition level that is dependent on a number of factors, including: age, level of work, breed, current or past injuries, etc.

Tip 2: Don’t Forget About Concentrates (Grain)
Many horses are fed grain on a daily basis. Throughout winter some horses need extra grain to maintain their ideal body weight, while other horses have their grain reduced, due to inactivity. Adjusting the type and amount of concentrate or grain your horse consumes should be done slowly and carefully. A horse’s internal digestive system is built for slow changes.

With this in mind, monitor his level of work and body condition. If your horse’s work level is increased, he might need to receive more grain. Conversely, if his work level remains the same, and he is able to safely consume spring grasses, then your horse might need to receive fewer concentrates.

Whatever adjustments are made, make sure your horse is still receiving the appropriate level of essential nutrients, such as amino acids, vitamins and minerals. Achieving this may require a change in the feed product being used. Horses requiring additional calories could be bumped up to a higher-calorie performance horse feed, while those needing fewer calories could go down to a ration balancer product.

Tip 3: Horses Tend to Eat A lot of Forage
It is no secret that horses eat a lot of forage. However, what most people don’t know is that a horse’s forage is only as good as the fiber that it contains. Pastures often lay dormant during winter, which can reduce a horse’s natural intake of grass forage. As a result, many equestrians will feed their horses extra forage via hay or beet pulp. This feeding tactic can be great for the cold months, but it should be re-evaluated in spring.

When spring arrives, most pasture paddocks will be filled with new grasses rich in sugar. Monitor your horse’s body condition score as it begins to consume the rich green grasses. Horses that gorge themselves on spring grasses may encounter some serious health issues. For example, overweight horses or those with Cushing’s disease, insulin resistance or laminitis will need to be carefully monitored. High sugar and starch levels of spring grass can aggravate the latter conditions. In these instances, reduced turnout time or a grazing muzzle can help limit pasture intake for certain at-risk horses.

Tip 4: Lots of Fresh Water
This last suggestion holds true in any season: Horses need to have access to plenty of fresh water 24 hours a day. Warmer temperatures and an increase in body sweat can result in dehydration. Make sure that your horse has water access post workout. Some equestrians also add electrolyte supplements to their horse’s feed. These supplements can help replenish essential nutrients during particularly warm or hot weather. Of course, consult your veterinarian if you have further questions.

Spring is a fantastic time of year for horses and equestrians. It is a chance to shed bulky winter clothing and spend time riding to your heart’s content. However, spring is also a time that a horse’s body condition should be properly monitored. If you need to make any changes to your horse’s spring feeding regime, be sure to make the changes slowly and consult a nutritionist or your veterinarian for advice or guidance.

Ashly Snell works at Dover Saddlery and enjoys eventing with and caring for her two Dutch Warmbloods. She has been an avid equestrian for 20 years.

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.

Do You Know the Feeding Rate For Your Horse Feed?

scooping feedI was visiting with some friends at a recent horse owners meeting. I saw a trainer I had visited several times in the past few years, answering nutrition questions and making recommendations. I asked how his horses were doing and if he had made any changes to his feed program. He replied that he had switched to a competitor’s product a few months ago and the results were terrible. His horses had lost weight, their coats were dull and he went back to feeding his old mill mix.

I asked which product he was feeding in particular and if he was feeding it to all of his horses? He had chosen a product that was designed for maintenance level horses, not show horses or breeding stock. For horses working harder an added supplementation and proper feed rates would be imperative.

Although I was disappointed he hadn’t tried Nutrena products, I went on to ask if he followed the directions on the tag? He responded that he can never figure out all that garbage on the tag and fed his horses as he always does. There was part of the problem!

A feed tag will give you a statement of purpose, what type of horse and life style it is formulated to be fed. Next it will list the recommended feed rate. This can vary from 1/4 pound to 2 pounds per hundred pounds of body weight, depending on the fortification and quality of nutrients.

I was familiar with the product he had tried and their feed rate for horses working at a performance level would be 1.5 pounds per hundred pounds of body weight, or 15 pounds per day for a 1000 horse. This would have to be broken down into 3 feedings to be fed at a safe consumption rate, and could also mean added labor for his farm, not a bargain.

When I mentioned what I believed was the recommended feed rate for the product he was surprised. He said he would never feed that much of a concentrate to any horse. Again, he reiterated he doesn’t have time to read tags and do the math. I told him it is like making a box cake. You need to follow the directions, if you don’t use the entire box of cake mix, you won’t get the desired results. He did laugh at my remark, but I also think he understood the concept.

Does My Horse Need a Diet or Exercise Change?

I recently taught an Equine Nutrition class to a group of seniors at an area college.  Our focus for the classroom lecture was dietary assessment by body condition scoring, weight and topline evaluation.   After the lecture I conducted a lab to apply hands on practice of what we had just reviewed.

One of the students asked if we could evaluate her horse during the lab session. The evaluation proved to be a classroom classic. The horse was a 4 year old Warmblood gelding. He was 17.1 hands and 1350 pounds. The horse at first glance appeared to be round and in good flesh, but as I ran my hands over his withers and back you could feel a lack of muscle and coverage.hand feeding red size

I asked the student what the horse’s current diet consisted of, she replied 20 pounds of first cutting hay per day and 8 pounds of locally grown oats. The calorie content of the diet appeared to be sufficient, however the amino acid balance was lacking. The student also mentioned she had her saddle recently refitted and the chiropractor out because the horse was having back issues.

With the move to college, the horse’s workload had increased and the need for additional fortification was obvious. I suggested that the student purchase a ration balancer to balance the needs of the young horse’s diet and help replenish his topline.

One of the students in the lab then challenged my recommendation.  She stated that she was an Equine Physiology major and felt my diagnosis was incorrect. She felt that by working the horse in a more collected manner, engaging his hind quarters and coming up under him would help to strengthen and develop his topline. She thought he looked fat and did not need to change his diet.

I went on to explain that the horse’s current diet was similar to a young child that would be on a straight rice diet, which is deficient in amino acids. You would see a round abdomen, but lack of muscle mass. If that child were getting ready to compete in a marathon, I doubt running extra laps would increase muscle mass, unless we supplemented the diet properly.

Again, your horse will tell you what is lacking in his diet, if you just take the time to look.

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!