Feeding Sunflower Seeds to Horses

Sunflower Seeds_Snack and Black Oil_BRSunflower seeds come in 2 basic classifications with some specialized varieties in each. Black oil sunflower seeds are primarily produced for sunflower oil production, and striped sunflower seeds are primarily produced for confectionary/human consumption.

  • Black oil sunflower seeds will be about 17% protein, 44% fat and 24% neutral detergent fiber (NDF).
  • Striped sunflower seeds will be about 16% protein, 24% fat and 40% NDF.

The hull of the sunflower is fairly tough and is not very digestible and the horse may not break all of the hulls when eating the seeds, so some may pass thru undigested. (The birds in your pasture will appreciate this!).

The black oil sunflower seeds are most readily available for purchase in bagged form as they are also popular for feeding birds and are the most widely used by horse owners. The oil content of black oil sunflower seeds is about 29% Omega 6 fatty acids and about .09% Omega 3 fatty acids. The oil is high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, which is why it is popular for human use.

The key element to consider in deciding if there is a good reason to use black oil sunflower seeds is to consider what you are actually adding to the diet and at what cost.

  • Current bagged retail price may be about $16.00-$20.00 per 20 pound bag.
  • This translates to $1600-$2000 per ton, which is fairly spendy for a horse feed!

If you feed a pound of black oil sunflower seeds, you are adding about 7 ounces of oil (less than a cup) and 2.72 ounces of protein with minimal digestible NDF or other nutrients. If you buy bulk soy oil, you should be able to add more oil at lower cost by adding straight oil and you will have a better Omega 6/Omega 3 ratio.

Black oil sunflower seed use for horses needs to be assessed basis what the ingredient actually adds to the diet and what the cost is compared to other ingredients or feeds.

Salt Blocks are Not a Complete Feed

A balanced, fortified feed is a better option than a trace mineral salt block.

A balanced, fortified feed is a better option than a trace mineral salt block.

As a feed consultant I hear quite often “My horse has plenty of hay and a salt block with selenium. That’s enough to meet all his nutrition needs, right?” My answer is always, resoundingly, “NO.” The truth of the matter is, while salt does have its place in the equine diet, the nutrient needs of a horse are much more complex than what a salt block with trace minerals can provide. So if you are depending on a trace mineral salt block to provide anything to your horse’s diet except for a source of salt, I would encourage you to keep reading.

Typical salt blocks are 95% or more salt and less than 5% mineral, so they do very little to meet the mineral needs of the horse. In addition, horses are usually inefficient at consuming salt in block form. They will lick for a short period of time each day on a salt block, but will not consume the sheer amount of minerals needed to have any effect on their nutrient needs.

A better solution to get your horse all the nutrients he needs is to provide a fortified feed that is fed according to tag directions. This will ensure that your horse’s needs for many things, including energy, protein, vitamins and amino acids in addition to minerals are being met. Then, provide loose white salt, which horses will more freely and easily consume, alongside the feed in a separate container. As always, be sure to provide plenty of fresh, clean water at all times, as consuming salt will also often increase water consumption.

Can You Feed the Flies Away From Your Horse?

In warm months, it seems like flies and other biting insects are always the #1 enemy of horses. They annoy, they bite, they cause itching, bumps, swelling and skin reactions. Often times horse owners go to great lengths to lessen the impact of flies on their horses. But can what you feed your horse actually have an impact on your fly population?

There are fly preventatives that may work for some horse owners which involve feeding a certain ingredient to the horse. Many people claim that giving apple cider vinegar daily will keep the flies away, while others swear by garlic powder or brewer’s yeast. The fact more often than not is that it is very difficult to get the horse to eat enough of these items to make a difference where flies are concerned because they typically have a strong taste and smell; the trick is getting the horse to ingest them at all. The important thing to remember is that horses are all unique and what works for your neighbor’s horse may not have the same effect on your horse.

Another alternative to feed the flies away is using a feed through IGR additive that is labeled for horses. This active ingredient does not get absorbed by the gut, but instead passes through into the manure, hence the “feed through” name. Once in the manure, the Insect Growth Regulator (IGR) causes the fly pupae to not mature into adult flies. With disciplined feeding, these products can be effective but may be expensive. One warning with this type of fly control – if you have close neighbors who aren’t controlling their fly populations you will likely see little difference because their flies will continue to come snack on your horse.

More traditional methods of fly control should not be discounted, including finding an effective fly spray, using fly sheets, and changing turn out times to when flies are less active. Cleanliness in your stable and proper manure management can also have an impact on fly populations.

How to Feed Electrolytes to Horses

We recently had a horse owner ask about providing electrolytes to her horses all at once, through the watering trough.  While in theory this might work, in practicality, it may cause some issues.

First, it is important to understand what horses need:

  • The key electrolytes are sodium, chloride, potassium and magnesium.
  • Forages and feed normally contain adequate potassium and magnesium to maintain body levels.

Then, we need to understand how a horse consumes & utilizes electrolytes:

  • The best way to add these to a horse’s diet is to provide free choice salt in a loose form at all times, as sodium and chloride are the primary electrolytes lost in sweat.
  • Horses may not consume enough salt if the salt is in block form, particularly during cold weather or hot, humid conditions.
  • Horses cannot store excess electrolytes and will excrete in the urine.

If you have particular events where the horses will be worked hard, particularly in hot, humid conditions, it is recommended to provide the additional electrolytes immediately prior to, during and immediately following a competition.  Maintaining water consumption is key to preventing dehydration and adding electrolytes to the water may not be desired.

Dr. Krishona Martinson at the University of Minnesota recently published a useful newsletter review that suggested that adding supplements to the drinking water for horses can actually decrease water consumption, which is exactly what you would want to avoid doing.

Adding Oil to a Horse’s Diet

Healthy, inside and out

Adding vegetable oil to equine feeds or to equine diets has been a standard practice for literally hundreds of years.  Old horse traders knew that adding oil could help slick up a horse for sale long before the science of measuring digestible energy was developed.

There are multiple ways that vegetable oils are added to horse diets.  A common practice among horse owners is to add various quantities of oil on top of an existing diet.  A cup of oil will weigh about 8 ounces and contain about 2,045 Kcal (Calories).  A 500 kg (1100 lb) horse at light work requires about 20 Mcal or 20,000 Kcal, so that oil would provide about 10% of the required DE per day.  For comparison, a pound of oats, as fed, provides about 1,320 Kcal, so adding oil provides a lot of Calories in a small package.

A key element to consider in adding oil on top of an existing diet is that oil adds only Calories (crude/unrefined oils may also contain some Vitamin E), so it is possible to alter the nutrient to Calorie ratios in a diet.  With the addition of moderate quantities of oil, this is unlikely to create issues.  If a substantial amount of oil is added on top of an existing diet, the diet may no longer be meeting the horse’s requirements for other nutrients.  Corn oil, soy oil and other vegetable oils may be used for top dressing diets.

Feed companies also add oil to formulated feeds and will declare the minimum amount of crude fat on the tag.  This is primarily from the oil in the grain and the added oil if above 3-3.5%.  A feed that is tagged at 7%  will generally contain about 3-4% added oil.  Internal formulations systems will also calculate the total DE of the feed, which includes energy from fat as well as from NDF (neutral detergent fiber), NFC (non-fiber carbohydrates) and protein.   This allows the company to maintain the balance of energy sources as well as appropriate nutrient to Calorie ratios.

If a product refers to Omega 3 or Omega 6 fatty acids, the actual quantity or % of each fatty acid may also be declared on the tag or on the bag.  The ingredient listing will generally identify the oil or oils that may be included in the product. 

Top dressing with oil is a common practice, which can be done successfully, when done in moderation with a careful eye on meeting the total nutrient requirements of the horse as well as the energy requirements.  Adding too much may result in other nutrient issues.

The Do’s and Dont’s of Feeding Treats

We all enjoy a treat once in awhile – a nice warm brownie fresh out of the oven, a cool slice of watermelon on a hot summer day – and your horse is no different. He will enjoy a treat from you every now and then, or even on a daily basis in small amounts . We share treats with our horses to say thanks for a job well done,  as a reward when training, and let’s admit it  – feeding treats to our horses makes us feel good, too.

There is nothing wrong with treating your horse. He deserves it, and so do you. But there are some guidelines we can use when selecting the type of treat,  as well as the feeding frequency and amount.

  • Select healthy vegetables and fruits as treats – these taste good to your horse and are usually close to foods they eat in their normal diet, so chances of digestive upset are reduced.
  • Feed only a small amount. Feeding your horse 15 large carrots at a time may create more of a meal than a treat. For an average size horse, one or two carrots is sufficient. Feeding too much of any treat can have negative effects on a balanced diet like lowering protein content, raising starch levels and diluting vitamins and minerals. In addition, too much of certain treats can lead to severe digestive upset and even colic or laminitis.
  • Feed sparingly. Treats are only special when they are not available all the time; feeding treats  free choice defeats the purpose.

What are Good Treats?

  • Healthy snacks like apple slices, carrots, and hay cubes are good places to start for a treat. Many horses will even enjoy a banana.
  • Commercially made horse treats can be a favorite for many horses and they may store and travel better than fresh fruit or vegetables when you’re on the road.
  • Sugar cubes are a very traditional (although not very healthy) treat for horses.

What Treats Shouldn’t I Feed?

  • Don’t feed lawn clippings (these can contain poisonous plants, can cause choke, and can drastically change the pH of the hindgut )
  • Cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower can cause severe gas if fed in large amounts
  • Potatoes and Tomatoes are members of the nightshade family and while some people report feeding these with no issues it is best to avoid them. 
  • Don’t feed unpitted stone fruits, as the pits can cause choke.
  • Chocolate – while your horse may enjoy it, chocolate can cause a positive result in a drug test.
  • Fresh bread, donuts, etc. – these items can become a doughy mass in the digestive tract and cause a blockage.
  • Sweet Feed (COB & unfortified sweet grains) can quickly unbalance the diet when enough is fed as a “treat”.

When feeding treats, remember the acronym A.I.M. – Always In Moderation. Keep your treats as close as possible to the natural diet and enjoy being a hero to your horse!


Ration Balancers vs Regular Horse Feeds

Gayle shows off her horse, IM ALittle Too Kool~ who is in wonderful condition thanks to a very well balanced diet!

I recently received a call from a horse owner that said she needed to put her horse on a diet. Her 1000 pound mare is a body condition score of 7. Her vet had recommended she put the mare on a ration balancer. When she priced products at the local feed store she thought that the price of a balancer was too high. Since her mare has free access to pasture, she felt that 1 pound a day of an economy feed would be good, with a few supplements. She was wonder what supplements would be best for her mare?

I told her she was on the right track to reduce the horse’s calories, but there was an easier way to put the mare on a healthy diet. I pointed out that the feed tag on the product she was feeding had a feeding rate of 0.5 pounds of feed for every 100 pounds of body weight. So, for her mare to get the proper fortification of vitamins and minerals listed on the tag, she would need 5 pounds per day.

Cutting the ration down to only 20% of the required feed rate and adding supplements could get costly, as well as establishing an imbalance in micro and macro minerals. I suggested she consider a ration balancer. The concentrated nutrient levels allow for low feeding rates. A good quality balancer will contain prebiotics and probiotics to help support nutrient digestion. They will also feature guaranteed levels of biotin to support muscle, hair coat and hoof development. In addition they will also have guaranteed levels of amino acids to support muscle maintenance and development. Not to mention that a quality balancer will also use organic trace mineral complexes to increase bioavailability and protein utilization.

When we compared the balancer to top dressing the economy feed, the balancer was a much better value on a cost per day basis.  That’s why it’s always important to do the “cost per day” math, rather than getting fixated on the price tag on the bag, and remember to include the cost of supplements needed if a lower-quality, less expensive feed is being investigated.

Horse Feed: More Than Just Percentages

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.

Horse owners frequently compare feeds based primarily on the information on the feed tag or supporting data from web sites.  While this is a quick comparison to make, it may not always be the best comparison.  Why, you ask? Well, what is most important to the horse is the total amount they actually consume.  To get this number, the percentage in the feed must be multiplied by the amount fed, making sure to account for different unit of measurements, such as supplements that are fed in ounces instead of pounds.

One example where this is important is with the protein percentage.  As ration balancer horse feed products are becoming more and more popular, some folks see that they typically have 30% protein or more, and worry that the level is way too high for a horse.  But with a ration balancer, a 1000 lb horse only gets 1-2 pounds of the product a day, compared to 4-6 lbs of a more traditional 12% feed.  So, if we do the math, here’s what we see:

  • 30% protein X 2 lbs of feed = 0.6 lbs of protein a day from a ration balancer
  • 12% protein X 5 lbs of feed = 0.6 lbs of protein in a day from a traditional feed

Another example where this calculation is useful is in the variety of fat supplements available on the market today. 

  • A powdered fat supplement has 99% fat, being fed at a rate of 2 oz a day, adds 0.124 lbs of fat to the daily diet.
  • A stabilized rice bran supplement that has 22% fat, fed at a rate of 2 lbs per day, adds 0.44 lbs of fat to the daily diet.

And of course, on top of this, we must ALWAYS remember to factor in the hay – not just the grain.  A horse will consume much more hay per day than grain, so the difference in a few percentage points is magnified when looking at the hay portion of the diet.  It may take a little math, but looking beyond the percentage of a particular nutrient is something your horse would thank you for if he could speak!

Balanced Mineral Supplements for Horses

I had stopped at one of my large training barns to check on their horses diets, as they had just returned from a recent show circuit. The owner said the horses were doing well, but he was going to tweak their diets just a little. He had purchased a bag of selenium from a local milling company and just wanted to top dress a little extra.

Mineral Interactions in Horses

Unfortunately for him, the truth is that more is not always better. I explained how vitamins and minerals need to be kept in certain ratios and levels in order to keep horses healthy, and random adding of supplements can endanger their health.  For example, copper and zinc must be kept in a 3:1 t 4:1 ratio for proper bone growth, development and maintenance. In young growing horses, having this ratio out of balance could lead to Developmental Orthopedic Diseases. I also noted that not all are horse feed supplements are created equal.  In the case of minerals, organic complexed trace minerals (minerals that are tied to an amino acid) have increased bioavailability over the oxide or sulfate forms.  

Horses have mineral requirements which are broken down into Micro and Macro. Macro minerals include calcium, phosphorus, sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium and sulfur. These are required in gram amounts in the diet. Micro, or trace, minerals include copper, cobalt, manganese, zinc, iron and selenium. These are required in much smaller quantities in the diet, and are measured in “parts per million”, or ppm. A part per million is equivalent to one drop of water diluted into 50 liters (roughly the fuel tank capacity of a compact car). Micro and macro minerals play an important role in bone development, muscle, hair coat , appetite, as well as skin and hoof integrity. The key is that they must be balanced in the horses diet.

Supplementing Horse Diets with Omega Fatty Acids

As you look at your horses’ diet, it is important to remember that horses need a balance of both omega-3 and -6 fatty acids for optimal health and performance.  One isn’t necessarily better than the other; they simply have different roles in the body and must be in balance with each other for optimal health. 

As herbivores and nomadic grazers, horses are naturally adapted to a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids (ALA) compared to omega-6 fatty acids (LA).  The little bit of fat found in forages, particularly fresh pasture, is naturally high in ALA (omega-3) whereas oils from grains and seeds tend to be higher in LA (omega-6).  

Diets that include supplemental fat along with grain concentrates may have a skewed ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids, and may not be as beneficial as a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids.  Dietary supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids has been shown to provide numerous benefits to horses, pets, and humans including:

  • Improved skin and hair coat quality
  • Decreased joint pain in arthritic individuals
  • Improved bone formation
  • Reproductive benefits
  • Prevention of gastric ulcers
  • Anti-inflammatory effects:
    • Alleviate allergic hyperactivity
    • Support horses in heavy work
    • Reduce exercise-induced bronchiole constriction

Unfortunately, scientists have not yet pinpointed the ideal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids for horses, however, fortifying a diet with these fatty acids to achieve a ratio of 2 – 5:1 omega-3 (ALA, EPA & DHA)  to omega-6 (LA) may provide some key benefits to your horse.  

As always, when adding dietary supplements to the diet, make sure the total diet stays balanced and that changes are made gradually so the horse’s digestive track has time to adjust.  Benefits from providing omega fatty acids in the diet are not realized immediately, but take 30 – 90 days of supplementation before benefits are detectable, so be patient and make sure your expectations are realistic.

Omega-6 fatty acids Omega-3 fatty acids
Corn oil (LA) Flaxseed (linseed) oil (ALA)
Safflower oil (LA) Fish oil (EPA, DHA)
Rice bran oil (LA) Soybean oil (ALA)
Sunflower oil (LA) Canola oil (ALA)
Borage (starflower) oil (LA) Mustard oil (ALA)
Cottonseed oil (LA)  
Grapeseed oil (LA)  
Peanut oil (LA)  
Primrose oil (LA)  
Sesame oil (LA)  
Soybean oil (LA)