How to Weigh Your Feed

Feed your horse by weight, not by volume.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When to Feed Ration Balancers

While recently reviewing farms feed program, the manager explained that some of her horses only received 1 pound of grain per day.  She felt their weight was good, but yet they appeared to be lacking something in their diet.  She was wondering what type of supplements she could add.

When we looked at the tag on her feed, the problem was obvious.  Her feed was designed for to be fed at a rate of 0.5 – 0.75 pounds per 100 pounds of body weight.  This means that to provide proper fortification for a 1000 pound horse, she would need to feed 5 – 7.5 pounds per day.  By that standard, her horses that were only getting 1 lb per day were not receiving the nutrient fortification they needed for optimum health, and thus her feeling that  “they appeared to be lacking something”.  Her farm was feeding good quality hay at a rate of about 2% of each horse’s body weight, and the overall body condition of the horses was good, but we needed to balance the amino acid and vitamin/mineral fortification.

We reviewed the farms hay test results to establish our baseline.   I explained that she could easily improve her horse’s diet with the use of a ration balancer. Balancers have a low feeding rate, generally from 0.25 to 1 pound per head per day, but they contain a concentrated mix of the extra vitamins, minerals and protein required to help horses achieve their full potential.

She was a little unsure about feeding something with a 30% protein level, but I explained that if you do the math, feeding 1 lb of a 30% protein feed is actually providing the same to a little less than feeding a standard 12% feed at a higher rate.

Key features to look for in a ration balancer include:

  1. Probiotics and prebiotics to enhance fiber and protein digestion, as well as mineral absorption. 
  2. Organic complexed trace minerals to increase the bioavailability – an example of this on the tag would be “zinc methionine complex” in the ingredient list.
  3. Added biotin and methionine, which are important for hoof and hair coat.
  4. Guaranteed amino acids (lysine, methionine, etc), mineral, and vitamin levels.

A good quality ration balancer will provide your horse with dietary essentials, and often no additional supplementation is needed!

Overweight Horses: Winter Management

Feeding the overweight horse can be tough, but winter poses an even greater challenge with managing a delicate balance between providing enough energy to stay warm, yet not so much he is unable to shed those unwanted pounds.

When considering the feeding program for your overweight horse, first take into consideration the forage type, quantity and frequency he is being fed.  The overweight horse benefits most from grass hay over legume hay due to it’s reduced calorie content.   Most overweight horses do best on grass hay with a ration balancer to provide balanced levels of necessary vitamins, minerals and amino acids.

Consider how frequently he has access to his forage.  Is he limit fed or allowed free access anytime of the day or night?  Generally speaking, limit feeding the overweight horse is one half of a critical equation to helping him shed those pounds.  Forage should make up the bulk of any horse’s ration and the overweight horse is no exception.  His forage ration should be between 1.0-1.75 lb. hay per 100 lb. body weight, per day.  For a 1,000 lb. horse, this would range from 10-17.5 lb. of hay each day.

Next, consider his living arrangement: Is he kept by himself or does he share feed with herd-members?  If possible, put him in isolation from other members of the herd to help control his intake.  Overweight horses may be considered ‘survivors’ in the wild as they oftentimes bully their way into their herd-member’s food supply, but as domesticated animals, they need not exhibit this behavior when a consistent, good quality supply of food is provided.  Isolating him from those he can bully will keep his portion size to what you fed him.

Next, take into consideration how he is managed:   Is he kept in a stall, coat clipped in a heated barn?  Is he turned out on a regular basis?  Does he live outside with access to a run-in or loafing shed?  How he is managed can play into how to help him lose weight, yet stay warm during the oftentimes brutal winter months.  Horses that are most frequently stalled benefit from turnout, safe footing permitted.   Those  turned out full-time should be monitored for the need of a blanket should weather conditions deteriorate enough to warrant; moisture penetrating the thick winter coat as well as a biting winter wind can cut through the toughest of their protections.

Cooper and Ferris in a snowstorm
Ferris and Cooper enjoy turnout in the winter months; it keeps them fit and happy.

Finally, consider his activity level.  Winter in most parts of the United States bring snow, ice and/or frozen footing which can pose a challenge for horse owners.  Good footing is essential for reducing the occurrence of injury during exercise and this is no less important than in the winter months.  Here are a few suggestions for exercising your overweight horse when the footing is less than ideal.

  1. Hand walking – up or down the driveway, on a trail or around an arena is good for him and a great time to bond.
  2. Pasture turnout – solid footing permitting, turn him out for time to romp in the snow and work off some energy.
  3. Time on the lunge line – provides better control over his activity level than turnout and he can work faster than a hand walk.
  4. Trailer to a near-by indoor arena (if there is one close by) for lunge-work, saddle time or just some quiet hand walking.

Helping your overweight horse lose during the winter can be a delicate balance, but with some effort and creativity he can start out the New Year on the way to being a trimmer, healthier horse.

Feeding Horses in the Winter

Horse in pasture during snow fall

As I was reviewing the feed program for one of my client’s lesson horses, she mentioned ordering corn to add to the feed for the winter. She felt this would provide the horses extra warmth in the cold weather. This is a common winter practice with many farms, and I explained to my client that she was correct to increase the horse’s caloric intake with falling temperatures. There is a much better alternative to corn, though – it is much more efficient and effective to increase the forage portion of the diet to help create internal heat in the winter. This is due to the fermentation process the forage goes through in the hindgut, and the heat that process gives off.

The term “critical temperature” is used determine at what temperature a horses nutritional requirements change to maintain normal body temperature. I use the temperature of 40 F as a benchmark for calculating winter diets. In essence for every 1 degree below critical temperature, I increase the horse’s caloric intake by 1%. So, if my 1000 pound horse were receiving 18.6 Mcal (18,600 calories per day), I would increase his diet by 1860 calories when the temperature goes to 30 degrees (10 X 186). If my hay has tested at 1 Mcal (1000 calories) per pound, an additional 2 pounds of hay will help my horse maintain his body condition at that temperature.

I also encourage my clients to feed a well fortified concentrate during the winter months. The lack of fresh pasture, limited sunlight hours, and often diminished hay quality require better fortification. Make sure your horse feed provides adequate levels of vitamin A, D and E.  Feeds offering probiotics and prebiotics, as well as biotin are also encouraged. If you are feed a grass hay or alfalfa hay, make sure your calcium and phosphorus levels are also balanced accordingly in your feed.

Water consumption is imperative during winter months. Make sure that the buckets are free from ice and frozen debris. In the winter horses will consume 10 to 12 gallons of water per day. Ideally the water temperature should be at 50-65 F to encourage drinking.

Examine your horses body condition score monthly during the winter to maintain a healthy horse!

Feeding Beet Pulp For Weight Gain in Horses

Many horse owners ask if beet pulp is a good way to put weight on a horse. This is a great question, as many horse owners struggle to keep weight on their horses, whether they are being used heavily or they are simply trying to maintain a “hard keeper”.  Weight gain in horses is a function of Calorie intake, just as it is in humans.  If a horse needs to gain weight, you have to increase the Calorie intake per day above the current level that the horse is being fed.

Beet pulp is what we sometimes refer to as a “super fiber”.  Because it has a high percentage of highly digestible or readily fermentable fiber, it contains more digestible energy per pound than hay and is actually about the same as oats, as beet pulp contains about 2.98 Mcal/kg.  Unless there is a lot of molasses added, it is also fairly low in starch and sugar with a non-structural carbohydrate level of about 9.8%. That is why it is considered a fairly “safe” energy source.  Soy hulls have a similar status, with a digestible energy value of about 3.0 Mcal/kg.

So, if one kilogram of feed that contains 1.4 Mcal/kg is removed and replaced with one kilogram of beet pulp that contains 2.98 Mcal/kg, then 1.58 Mcal or 1,580 Calories have been added, all while feeding the same amount of stuff.  Because beet pulp is highly digestible, the horse has less gut fill and can actually consume a bit more per day as well, so the feed intake and Calorie intake can be further increased, which supports the weight gain theory that many horse owners follow.

That said, beet pulp is not a well-balanced feed.  It has low mineral content, is a very poor amino acid source, and only contains about 9.3% protein.    Beet pulp fits into a feeding program very well as an energy ingredient, but it needs to be balanced for the other nutrients.

In conclusion, it is important to bear in mind that rarely is a single ingredient the answer to an equine nutrition situation.  Ingredients on their own are simply not balanced solutions.  While beet pulp is a very viable ingredient for use in a horse’s overall diet, and it can definitely be used to increase the caloric intake, it needs to be evaluated in the scope of the entire diet to determine if the horse is receiving a balanced ration.  For most horse owners, the simplest route if beet pulp is a desired ingredient is to purchase a commercially available feed that incorporates it as a major ingredient and adds the needed protein, vitamins and minerals to balance the diet for overall health and well being of the animal.

Taking Weight Off of Easy Keeping Horses

We hear often from people that “My pony is so fat!” It is often followed with, “He doesn’t need to be fed anything – he so much as sees a bag of feed and he gains weight.”

Obesity in horses can lead to laminitis, overheating and numerous other health issues. Ideally, chubby horses should have their nutrition monitored closely. Three good practices to manage these types of easy keepers are:

  1. Limit their forage first and provide a controlled-calorie horse feed to complete the missing nutrients from the forage. This still allows the horse or pony to feel as though it gets fed, too.
  2. If monitored well, grazing muzzles work for overweight horses on pastures, allowing them only small bites of grass but maintaining free access to run with the other horses.
  3. Not surprisingly, most effective is daily exercise. Increasing the amount of calories burned each day reduces the amount that are stored away as fat.

Taking weight off of an easy keeper is no small task, but is well worth it in the long run. Keeping our equine friends fit will help ensure they stay with us for years to come.

Reading Horse Feed Directions – How Much to Feed?

When horse feeds are formulated, they are developed to provide nutrition to all sizes of horses – nutrient needs go up as the size of the horse goes up.  So, feeding directions are often provided in the following format:

  • Activity Level                   Lbs of feed per 100 lbs of bodyweight
  • Maintenance                     0.3-0.5
  • Light Exercise                   0.4-0.6

So, how do you figure out how much to feed your horse? Start with knowing the weight of your horse.  Then, divide that weight by 100, and then multiply the result by both of the amounts of feed given in the directions above.  The resulting two numbers will tell you the range of how much to feed your horse to give them the nutrition they need for both their size and their activity level.

Example Feeding Directions:

1200 lb horse, in light exercise.

  1. (1200 ÷ 100) = 12
  2. (12 × 0.4) = 4.8
  3. (12 × 0.6) = 7.2

In this example, this horse would need to eat between 4.8 and 7.2 lbs per day of this feed to receive the nutrition he needs.  Some horses that are easier keepers can fall to the lower end of the range, while harder keepers may need to push the upper limit.

If you do this math for your horse, and find that you are feeding outside of the designated range, you should search for a feed that is more suitable to your horses needs.  Hard keepers, for example, may require a feed that is higher in calories per pound, while easier keepers might require a feed with fewer calories and more concentrated levels of vitamins and mineralsSuch a feed might cost more per bag, however the ability to pack more punch in a smaller feeding might actually result in a cost saving!

Feeding the “Easy Keeper” Horse

Most every horse owner has had, or knows of a friend’s horse, which could “live on air”. Sadly, air has no nutritional value. So, what do we do with these horses that look at a bag of feed and start to pack on the pounds? Care must be taken to ensure that they receive nutrients needed to stay healthy, while keeping calorie count under control.

As always, start by taking a Body Condition Score and determining the current weight of the horse, and tracking those two elements over time, so you can know for sure if you are making progress or not. It’s easy to fall in to the trap of trying to remember what the horse was like a couple months ago, so a tracking program will help give a fact basis to your feeding program.

Ensure that the easy keeper is receiving sufficient forage – maintaining gut health through plenty of long-stemmed fiber intake is key. Then, evaluate what else to feed – often times, access to high quality hay or pasture that contains ALL of the nutrition a horse needs is limited, and the need exists to get more protein, vitamins and minerals in to the horse. There are a number of low-inclusion horse feed products on the market that provide needed nutrition without extra calories.

Finally, evaluate the exercise program. Just like humans, exercise goes hand-in-hand with diet in a weight loss or weight control program. Even a daily walking program can help some of those easier keepers maintain a trimmer profile.

Feeding Horses that are Hard Keepers

Much like teenage boys, some horses seem to be able to devour every bit of feed in sight, and still not gain weight. Unlike the teenage boys, however, and unfortunately for the owners of these hard keepers, this generally isn’t just a stage that the horse is going through. So, what is the best way to feed a horse to increase weight gain to the desired level, and then maintain it there?

First, start by taking a Body Condition Score and determining the current weight of the horse, and tracking those two elements over time, so you can know for sure if you are making progress or not. It’s easy to fall in to the trap of trying to remember what the horse was like a couple months ago, so a tracking program will help give a fact basis to your feeding program.

Second, weigh both the hay and any grain you are feeding your horse. A bathroom scale can do the trick, or especially handy is a fish or luggage scale that you can hang a bucket from. Every barn has a different scoop, from the old reliable coffee can to a plastic scoop purchased at the feed store. Weighing the scoop, then weighing it with the feed in it, allows you to mark your scoop so you can see where to fill it to for various feeds & weights of that feed. Note that not all feeds weigh the same, either, so measure each one independently.

Third, ensure that the horse is receiving enough forage in the diet. This is the base of any feeding program, and a good target is to be feeding 1.5% of body weight in forages. For a 1000 lb horse, that means at least 15 lbs of hay. Weigh a few flakes of hay and see just what a flake is from your supplier. Not all small square bales are created equally!

Fourth is the grain portion of the diet. A key thing to look at in evaluating feeds for hard keepers is the “Crude Fat” content of a feed. A basic corn/oats/mineral sweet feed mix will likely run around 2.5-3.0% fat, since that is what is naturally present in a lot of grains. These are fine for easier keepers, but many active horses need more – there are a variety of horse feeds on the market today that are in the 6-7% fat range, and a few horse feeds even reach up to the 12% fat range. Remember to feed within the guidelines printed on the tag, so that you get the nutrition portion of the diet correct. Start your horse on a higher fat diet slowly to allow them to adjust to the increased fat, and work up to a level where the weight starts to come on. Once you’ve reached a desirable weight and body condition, you can begin to back off the amount fed until you determine the amount of feed that will help maintain your horse for the long haul.