Feeding horses can be enough of a challenge, without having to wonder if what you’ve heard lately is true. Here, we bust five common horse feed myths to help you out.
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I 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.
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.
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.
Protein is a very important part of every horse’s diet. Horses of all ages, developmental stages, activity levels, and reproductive status have essential amino acid requirements, amino acids being the building blocks of protein, and are what determine the quality of the protein.
Here’s an analogy: consider amino acids as letters of the alphabet, and protein as words with structures such as muscle being the complete sentence. Now put it all together; the combination of amino acids (letters) determines the quality or type of protein (word) that is formed. The body is made up of many different types of proteins, all with distinct amino acid profiles. If you have a shortage of or imbalance of the essential amino acids, the body cannot spell the words and complete the sentences, so the body can’t build and maintain quality tissues.
Consider this example:
Growing horses have high nutrient requirements, with quality digestible protein (amino acids) being a very important and significant part of that nutrient requirement.
Confusion often occurs between providing nutrients and calories. Providing a grain concentrate that is balanced for adult horses may provide too many calories (energy) and not enough of the nutrients (amino acids, minerals, fatty acids, vitamins ) the growing animal requires, for a couple reasons:
The result is a mismatched calorie to nutrient ratio, with too many calories and not enough of the nutrients (amino acids, minerals, fatty acids, vitamins) that they need to grow and develop properly. High calories without the right amount and type of nutrients to support the rapidly growing animal can be problematic. Resulting issues are often experienced as hay bellies, physitis, developmental joint disease (e.g. OCD), contracted tendons, etc.
Providing a diet balancer or a concentrate specifically designed to support growing horses is a great way to avoid the calorie to nutrient mismatch as well as provide digestible sources of those nutrients. Diet balancers tend to be very dense in their protein, vitamins and mineral content, and very low in calories themselves. This is why crude protein, for example, seems very high (e.g. CP 30%) in ration balancers and can cause concern among horse owners. Fear not, feeding rates for these concentrated products are much lower than a traditional grain formula, providing all of the balanced nutrients needed in a volume that a small stomach can handle, without all of the extra energy.
Having too much poor quality protein in the diet will not be utilized by your horse, and may result in an amino acid deficiency, and makes for an ammonia filled barn due to excess nitrogen being excreted in the urine. Having the right amount and combination of amino acids in the diet is key to supporting optimal growth and reducing metabolic waste.
Working with an equine nutritionist to find a horse feed that is specifically designed for growth and development and then following the manufacturer’s feeding directions should result in a practical and effective solution to ensure your youngster is getting the right balance of energy and nutrients, helping to avoid developmental issues and maximizing performance.
Nutrition articles frequently refer to protein quality and essential amino acids. When we use the term crude protein, we are essentially talking about a calculation based on measured nitrogen. Protein is about 16% nitrogen by weight, so if we measure the amount of nitrogen and multiply it by 6.25, this gives us a measurement of crude protein. It does not tell us anything about the quality of the protein. If you tested pure nitrogen this way, it would be 625% protein!
Digestible protein is that amount of the protein that is actually digested by the animal. In an over simplified example, if you fed 100 grams of protein and measured 50 grams in the feces, the protein would be 50% digestible.
What is really important to simple stomached animals (horses included) is the content of essential amino acids in the protein. We commonly talk about 10 essential amino acids (EAA), the amino acids that must be in the diet as the animal cannot synthesize them. These are:
A common memory aid in many nutrition texts books is to use the first letters of these 10 as PVT TIM HALL. (All of you who had a non-ruminant nutrition course still remember this acronym!)
The other 12 amino acids can generally be synthesized in the body and do not need to be in the diet, although there must be a supply of appropriate substrate to produce them. Animal nutrition text books cover this topic in excellent detail.
When we talk about limiting amino acids, these are the essential amino acids most likely to be restricting the use of the total amount of amino acids present. In most species, lysine is the first limiting amino acid, with methionine and threonine close behind. We commonly talk about amino acids as the building blocks of protein. If you are once you run out of an essential amino acid, you cannot build any more animal protein and the rest of the amino acids are used inefficiently for energy.
If you have a horse on a diet that is calculated to have adequate “crude protein”, but essential amino acids are not present, the horse simply cannot use the protein to build and maintain muscle, hair, hoof and skin and you will see changes in the appearance of the horse, such as loss of muscle mass, rough hair, scaly hoof surface.
These are all apparently simple questions, but actually we need to look at the nutrient supply and purpose a little closer.
Calories from fat/oil, digestible fiber (structural carbohydrates and starch & sugar (non-structural carbohydrates) are the key energy sources for horses. If a horse is thin, that tells us that the horse needs more Calories to maintain fat cover measured by Body Condition Score system. Those Calories can be added from extra fat/oil, extra digestible fiber or additional starch and sugar. Vegetable oil contains 2.25 x the Calories per pound of carbohydrates and is a safe way to add Calories. Switching to a highly digestible fiber source (better quality forage, added beet pulp etc.) can also add Calories of digestible energy (DE). It takes 2-3+ pounds of added feed to add 1 pound of gain, depending on the feed.
Adding Calories alone will not bring back the muscle mass. This will require added protein (really added essential amino acids, particularly lysine, methionine and threonine, the first 3 limiting essential amino acids). If a horse is getting adequate crude protein, but the protein is of limited quality and is low in one or more essential amino acids, the horse will not be able to utilize it fully to maintain or restore muscle mass. This is why it is essential to know the quality of the protein in feeds, particularly these first 3 limiting amino acids.
A common situation is an old horse retired to a grass pasture. It may be difficult for the horse to consume enough to maintain body condition, thus the horse loses weight. The grass pasture may also be low in crude protein and certainly low in essential amino acids, so the horse also loses muscle mass. Tough combination for an old friend!
The good news is that this can be reversed with the use of a well-designed senior horse feed providing both Calories and essential amino acids!
Technical reason: selenium is a key trace mineral in equine diets because it is a major component of glutathione peroxidase, which is an anti-oxidant enzyme, as well as several other enzymes.
Why you should care: Because selenium can also be toxic at higher intakes, it is also the only trace minerals regulated by the FDA. Most of the U.S. is selenium deficient in soils (and thus toxicity is not an issue in those areas), but there are some areas with high selenium in the soil where some plants accumulate unacceptable levels of selenium in forage and may cause chronic toxicity. If you aren’t sure about the levels where you live, ask area horse owners, farmers, or your local extension office.
How much is in the feed?
In the case of selenium, the label guarantee, which is “added” selenium, is listed in ppm = parts per million = milligrams per kilogram. The actual content will be slightly higher as there is naturally occurring selenium in the ingredients. The labeling requirement is based on added selenium per FDA guidelines.
FDA requirement limits added selenium in feed to a maximum of 0.3 ppm concentration in total diet. This is why the maximum on complete feeds – feeds that include enough fiber to replace the hay/pasture portion of the diet – is 0.3 ppm.
On feeds which can be fed at a maximum of 50% of the diet (not that horse owners generally feed it that high), the limit is 0.6 ppm added selenium. Chronic selenium toxicity occurs at about 10X the FDA limit, so there is a pretty good safety margin.
How much does a horse actually need?
A horse’s basic daily requirement for selenium is 1-3 mg per day. Some chronic selenium symptoms might appear above 10-15 mg/head per day.
To figure out what your horse is consuming, have your hay/pasture supply tested, and then add the amount it is consuming from the hay, to the amount it is consuming from any feed & supplements, and you will know if you need to make any adjustments to your horse’s overall diet. Depending on your area, it may also be useful to consider intake from water sources.
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.
We often receive questions from horse owners, wondering what the various units of measure on horse feed tags mean, and how they can use those units to figure out what their horse is consuming…and wondering why in the world they have to be so confusing, too!
In short, feed companies use the units of measurements on nutrients that we do, because we are required to. Why? Because horse feeds and other livestock feeds are labeled as required by AAFCO (American Association of Feed Control Officials) and the various state Feed Control regulations. These regulatory bodies establish the units which are to be used for each nutrient in tag guarantees.
To break it down, there are 4 common units used on feed tags. To help you understand them all, here’s a quick overview of how they work, along with examples of how to do the appropriate math:
Protein, amino acids, fat, fiber and macro minerals (calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and potassium) are listed as a % minimum or maximum.
Trace minerals (copper, zinc, manganese and selenium) are expressed as “ppm” or parts per million.
Vitamins A, D and E are expressed in IU/lb.
Vitamin C (or Ascorbic acid) and Biotin are normally expressed as mg/lb or milligrams per pound.
Still confused? Don’t worry about it. Just leave us your questions in the comments section below, and we’ll be happy to help you out!
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!