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.

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 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.