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.

Flash Fred – Our Inherited Horse

We inherited Flash Fred (my daughter has a creative naming process) from a friend of ours. This horse was slowing down in his old age and could no longer keep up with the rigorous lifestyle required on a full scale cattle ranch. In return for a good place to live out his last years we obtained this 20 year old (give or take a few years) sweet and gentle gelding for our girls. For us it was the perfect arrangement.

The horses that help our kids love horses are truly priceless.

Fred arrived in the middle of July and he was in surprisingly good body condition; I rated him about a 4.75. The problem was, we didn’t know anything about what he had been eating or what his previous history was, other than when we picked him up he was in a partial drylot but had just come in off of dryland pasture.

We decided to start Fred off slow. We had some irrigated grass pasture that we wanted to utilize but we didn’t want to turn him loose on it until we saw how he handled feed. For the first week he stayed in a drylot pen at our barn – he had plenty of room to wander around and get used to his new surroundings. We also gave him free choice plain white salt and plenty of clean, fresh water. For feed he got 2% of his bodyweight in medium quality grass hay and a ration balancer with a full vitamin and mineral package. He tolerated all this well (he also tolerated our 2 and 4 year old pretty well, which was great news!), so after the first week we worked on turning him out to pasture.

This was a slow process – many times new horses have a long history that new owners know nothing about: a tendency to colic, a predisposition to laminitis, allergies to certain leaves or weeds,  and the list goes on and on.

We didn’t want to take any chances with Fred, so his first taste of freedom in the irrigated green grass was a measly 20 minutes. He looked at me like I was crazy when I caught him right back up and put him in his pen! The next day he was out for a little bit longer, and gradually as the days went by we increased his time on grass by 20 minute increments until we had a good idea that he was doing well and not having any digestive upsets. To get him on a full day’s turn out took over two weeks – but keeping him healthy was definitely worth it. We continue to make sure that he always has access to clean, fresh water, plain salt and we give him a small flake (about 5 lbs.) of hay when we bring him in at night along with the maintenance ration of balancer. We score his body condition once a month, and so far the grass is agreeing with him! 

Today Fred is thriving – he is enjoying his relaxing grass pasture and our little girls are enjoying him! As the weather turns cold and the grass goes away, we will get him going on a senior type feed – so stayed tuned for that journey!

Selecting the Right Feed

Browsing through the aisles of your local feed store, it’s likely you have noticed the variety of horse feeds available.  National brands, regional brands and local manufacturers all crowd the shelves, adding to the confusion.  Which feed is right for your horse?  Here is a quick guide of what to consider when you are contemplating your feed selection.  Start by assessing your:

  1. Horse’s life stage
  2. Horse’s activity level
  3. Any health issues your horse may have
  4. Feed budget

Most feeds are designed to meet the specific nutrient requirements of life stages and activity levels of horses, and generally will specify on the packaging what they are designed for.  When estimating your horse’s activity level, be reasonable in your classification since over feeding energy can make him ‘hot’ and he may gain unwanted weight.  Generally when people see this happening, they tend to reduce the amount fed below the recommended feeding rate instead of changing to a lower energy feed.  This is not advised, as dropping below the recommended feeding rate means your horse is not getting the essential micro-nutrients he needs.  Try switching to a lower energy feed such as a maintenance feed or balancer.  Most maintenance feeds are formulated to provide mid to low energy levels.

If your horse has a specific health issue that can be influenced by his feed, make sure to seek out the information from the bag, your veterinarian or directly from the manufactor.  For example, horses with a history of feed-related laminitis are often best suited to a diet feed or ration balancer which provide much needed minerals and vitamins while keeping starch levels under control.

Complete feeds such as this textured one, are balanced on all nutrients.

Finally, consider your budget.  The features and benefits of feed typically drive up the cost; so ask yourself, can I afford to feed this product at the recommended feeding levels?   Note that feeding rates vary between products and this can influence the cost to feed your horse per head, per day; it is not enough to consider the price per bag alone.  If you are feeding an inexpensive feed but loading it with supplements, it may cost you more than purchasing a commercial complete feed and cutting out the supplements.

Complete feeds are formulated with all the necessary nutrients to meet your horse’s needs in the proper ratios.  When feeding a complete feed, be sure to follow feeding directions closely and monitor his weight through assessing his body condition score and calculating his weight periodically.

This is a very quick guide to help you navigate the increasingly complex decision of how to select the feed that is right for your horse. For more in-depth information, refer to a feed selector or ask a qualified equine nutritionist.

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.

How to track your horse’s Body Condition Score

While knowing your horse’s weight is critical to making sure your horse is receiving the care it needs, tracking your horse’s Body Condition Score over time is an ideal (and easier) way to make sure your horse is doing as well as you want him to.

Developed through extensive research by Texas A&M, the Body Condition Score (BCS) is measured on a scale of 1 to 9, with 1 being “Poor” and 9 being “Extremely Fat”. Click here to download a chart describing each of the scores, along with a tracking form for your use.

You can easily determine your horse’s BCS by looking at the amount of fat deposited in six key areas of your horse’s body:

  1. Along the neck
  2. Along the withers
  3. Crease along the back
  4. Over the ribs
  5. Behind the shoulder
  6. Over the tailhead

As a general rule of thumb, growing and performance horses, as well as general-use horses, should be kept at a BCS of 4-7, with a 5 being “ideal”.  Broodmares should generally be kept at a 5.5-7.5.

Learning how to assign a Body Condition Score may take a little practice, and what you call a 4.5 might be a 5 to your neighbor, but what is most important to your own herd is that you assign scores to each horse, then track them over time to ensure that everyone is receiving all the care they need.

For your reference, here is a quick “how-to” video: