Understanding a Horse’s Topline: The Impact of Nutrition

A horse’s topline — the muscles that support the spine, from neck to hindquarters — plays an important role in how a horse performs, looks and feels. Nutrition is the single most important factor in achieving a healthy topline. To learn more, visit ToplineBalance.com.

Do You Know the Feeding Rate For Your Horse Feed?

scooping feedI was visiting with some friends at a recent horse owners meeting. I saw a trainer I had visited several times in the past few years, answering nutrition questions and making recommendations. I asked how his horses were doing and if he had made any changes to his feed program. He replied that he had switched to a competitor’s product a few months ago and the results were terrible. His horses had lost weight, their coats were dull and he went back to feeding his old mill mix.

I asked which product he was feeding in particular and if he was feeding it to all of his horses? He had chosen a product that was designed for maintenance level horses, not show horses or breeding stock. For horses working harder an added supplementation and proper feed rates would be imperative.

Although I was disappointed he hadn’t tried Nutrena products, I went on to ask if he followed the directions on the tag? He responded that he can never figure out all that garbage on the tag and fed his horses as he always does. There was part of the problem!

A feed tag will give you a statement of purpose, what type of horse and life style it is formulated to be fed. Next it will list the recommended feed rate. This can vary from 1/4 pound to 2 pounds per hundred pounds of body weight, depending on the fortification and quality of nutrients.

I was familiar with the product he had tried and their feed rate for horses working at a performance level would be 1.5 pounds per hundred pounds of body weight, or 15 pounds per day for a 1000 horse. This would have to be broken down into 3 feedings to be fed at a safe consumption rate, and could also mean added labor for his farm, not a bargain.

When I mentioned what I believed was the recommended feed rate for the product he was surprised. He said he would never feed that much of a concentrate to any horse. Again, he reiterated he doesn’t have time to read tags and do the math. I told him it is like making a box cake. You need to follow the directions, if you don’t use the entire box of cake mix, you won’t get the desired results. He did laugh at my remark, but I also think he understood the concept.

High-Fat Horse Diets: Performance Horses

A high-performing horse can have up to twice the calorie requirement as the same horse in a maintenance stage. Owners and trainers of performance horses often give more feed to meet that calorie need. Because horses can use fat as a calorie source efficiently, and fat contains more than double the calories of starch, high-fat horse feeds make perfect sense to increase the energy intake without greatly increasing the quantity of feed needed. 

Feeding higher-fat, controlled starch level feeds can play a role in lowering the chance of colic and laminitis by reducing the amount of starch (carbohydrates) in the ration.  Here’s why: 

  • Horses with a very high grain ration are often at risk because high levels of grain feeding can cause a starch overload in the small intestine and cecum.
  • Overloading the small intestine with starch allows that extra starch to pass in to the cecum and large colon, which is where forage is digested.
  • Fiber digestion is accomplished by the bacterial and protozoal populations residing in these organs. When starch enters the cecum the pH drops and this bacterial population dies.
  • This can result in a cascade of events that may include colic, laminitis and death.

Keep in mind that starch is still a crucial part of a horse’s diet, and is required for proper muscle function.  As horse owners, it is best to work towards an optimal balance of all nutrients in the diet, not the use of one to replace another.   A proper balance of controlled starch levels, along with increased fat levels in the horse feed, will help deliver a horse that is ready to go and has the fuel in the tank to keep on going.