Feeding Schedules for Horses

A few months ago, I received a call from a farm that was experiencing numerous cases of colic. They were concerned that their grain was the cause of the problem and asked me to visit their farm.

When I arrived at 8:30 am, the horses were just being fed. As I walked into the barn I noticed all of the stall fronts and side boards showed signs of chewing. I also noticed that many of the horses had little or no water in their buckets. Each horse received a large scoop of sweet feed and a flake of hay.

I reviewed the horses’ weight and body condition scores with the owner and trainer. Based on that assessment, I suggested they move to feeding hay at a rate of 1.5% of the horses’ body weight, and grain at the rate of 0.5 %. I also suggested going to a pelleted feed, as the horses were passing a lot of undigested grain in their manure. I encouraged the farm to select a pellet high in fiber and fat, and that contained yeast cultures to aid in the digestion process.

I then asked the farm owner to describe the daily routine at the farm. He explained once the horses are fed, they begin a daily work and turnout routine. At about noon, they are given another flake of hay or have round bales in their turnout area. By 3:30, all of the horses are brought in for their evening feeding. The evening feed consisted of a scoop of grain and two flakes of hay. The barn is closed for the day by 4:00 p.m. The horses were receiving all of their daily rations in 3 feedings, but they were within an 8 hour period.

By spanning the daily rations over a 14 hour period, ensuring full water buckets throughout the day, and following the product selection suggestions I had made, the farm has now been colic free for over 6 months!

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.

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.

Horse Feeds & Supplements: What to feed?

Horse owners often wonder if they are providing enough nutrition to their horses.  In today’s world of hundreds of supplement selections available at the local tack shop or on-line, owners can start to feel as if they must be doing something wrong if they aren’t supplementing the normal hay and grain rations provided.  Here’s a few key tips to make sure you are doing everything right for your favorite equine friend – keeping in mind, of course, that quality hay/pasture fed at approximately 1.5% of body weight is the key base to all horse rations.

Feeding a commercially prepared grain:

  1. There are a myriad of choices available on the market today, to fit all types of horses.  Work with your local feed retailer, or contact your feed company of choice, for assistance in selecting what suits your horse best.
  2. Then, make sure you are feeding within the directions on the feed tag or bag.
    1. If you are feeding above the recommended range in order to keep condition on your horse, consider moving up to a higher fat feed that packs more calories per pound.
    2. On the flip side, and much more common, is feeding below the recommended feeding allowance because the horse is an “easy keeper”.  In that case, the concentrate is not providing enough of the nutrients for the horse, and you should look for a lower calorie or lower feeding rate product to ensure your horse is receiving the nutrition it needs.

Feeding supplements:

  1. If you are feeding a quality commercially prepared feed, and you are feeding within the recommended amount for your size horse, then vitamin and mineral supplements are not needed, and often recommended against.
    1. There are a host of nutritional inter-dependencies, such as copper and zinc or calcium and phosphorus working together, that commercial feed companies account for when designing products, and adding a vitamin and/or mineral supplement can interfere with those ratios and potentially cause problems.
  2. Gut health, as well as hoof & hair coat, supplements abound.  Before you buy one, check your feed tag to see what it might already be providing.  Many premium horse feeds today already contain yeast and/or probiotics for gut health, and several contain biotin & methionine – the two key components of a lot of hoof supplements.  Depending on your feeding program, you just might save time & money by not needing to supplement those.
  3. Joint and other supplements – while good joint health starts with proper nutrition from a young age (think “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”) many horses require additional support. However, there are limitations on what feed companies can put in to feeds, so these are often necessary as “extras” in the diet.