Unbalancing a Balanced Horse Feed Diet

I was helping a colleague do a horse nutrition training seminar the other day and the question came up “Is it okay to supplement a commercial feed?” Specifically, this person was feeding half oats and half SafeChoice to her horse. My colleague had a great answer for this. He picked up a half full glass of Coke – “Pretend this is SafeChoice. Balanced perfectly to provide just the right things in the right amounts.” Then he picked up a pitcher of water – “Now pretend this is the oats. Not nutritionally balanced, low in protein and high in starch.” He started pouring the water into the glass until the mixture reached the top. The result was a watered down, light brown mess that looked unappealing and I am sure tasted the same way. The message here is simple – commercial feeds are formulated to be complete in their vitamin/mineral content, protein level, energy and fat levels. When fed at the recommended amounts per day based on work level you are meeting your horses’ nutritional requirements and delivering a specific and targeted amount of nutrients. There is no need to add/substitute/mix anything else. If you take that same feed and mix it (with things like straight grains, sweet cob, etc) – the result is an unbalanced feed that does not meet the needs of the horse. The protein gets lowered, the vitamin and mineral contents become diluted and things like calcium and phosphorous and copper and zinc can get out of balance. What you get is a diluted mess that is only doing half the job. To get the full benefit of a commercial balanced feed, use it according to tag directions and resist the urge to dilute it with anything else!

33 Replies to “Unbalancing a Balanced Horse Feed Diet”

  1. This is all well and good but most recommended amounts seem to be way more grain than anyone feeds. most people I know don’t feed more than 1 or 2 lbs of grain a day and they aren’t going to change. What does hay do to the balance? Feeding straight alfalfa certainly messes with the calcium/phosphorous balance. How can the grain balance both an alfalfa diet and a grass hay diet?

    1. Hi Lola, thanks for the great comments and question. You are correct that a lot of folks don’t feed enough – we try to recommend a change in feed for these situations whenever we can. If a horse is only recieving a pound or two of a feed that is designed to be fed at 4 to 6 lbs per day, aand are maintaining good body condition, then they really belong on either a lite product or a ration balancer. Those products are specifically designed to deliver the needed nutrients in a samll feeding amount that leaves out the calories of a traditional feed.
      As for the question about accounting for the forage, it would be impossible to create a feed for every type of hay out there. So, we take what we know about the nutrients in forages, and what we know about the ranges of nutrients a horse will stay healthy in, and use that. With the calcium:phosphorus ratio, aslong as there is at least a 1:1 ratio, a horse will do fine, and they can actually tolerate a significantly higher ratio of calcium to phosphorus. Grass hays tend to run right in that even range, so we keep our feeds with slightly more calcium than phos, to account for that. With alfalfa, there is generally plenty more calcium, and our feeds don’t push the ratio enough to put the horse too far.
      Hope that helps answer your questions! Please do let us know if you would like more info.
      Thanks! Gina T.

  2. I know quite a few people who do this or only feed half the recommended amount…To me it’s pointless to even waste the money if your not going to feed for maximum nutrition that the horse requires….

    1. Hi Lori,
      Thanks for the comment. We would agree with you, of course! If your horse is only requiring a small portion of the current feed to stay in good body condition, then it’s likely that a lower calorie feed that is specifically designed to be fed at a lower rate, such as a ration balancer like our Empower Balance, is a better choice for that horse.
      Thank you!

  3. My horse gets the most grain in the barn so i feel like i am feeding him too much-he gets a mix of safe choice and barn pellets and i am thinking of putting him on safe choice strictly but i want to change him over slowly. He is a big horse 1200 lbs in a work program and it getting about 12 lbs of grain a day-is this too much-i think body wise he looks fine. The other horses at the barn though not as big but work just as much get about 6-8 lbs a day.

    1. Hi Emma,
      Thanks for your question! It sounds like you are on the right track – when you switch your horse totally over to SafeChoice you should be feeding .75 -1 lb. per 100 lbs. of body weight in a medium work program. So for your 1200 lb. horse you are right on target at 12 lbs. per day. This feeding rate ensures that he is getting the right amount of vitamins, minerals, protein, energy, etc. that he needs to meet the minimum requirements for his work level. If your feeding program is working for you and your horse and his body condition is where you want it I wouldn’t worry about comparing your program to others in the barn. Do what works best for you and your horse!

      1. Thanks for the reply,
        I think I am most worried as there is so much hype about diets being high in starch causing problems, etc…. and although safe choice is a controlled starch it is still a starch. His body condition looks great to me so I am reluctant to change the amount but at the same time do not want to over-do anything and cause him harm.

  4. I read your blog about unbalancing a balanced horse diet and have this question.

    My horse is 15.3 hands and a halter mare in the AQHA registry she weighs about 1250 lbs. I am currently feeding her 4 lbs of 14% grain and 4 cups of hole oats and about 4 lbs of grass alfalfa mixed hay( twice a day). By feeding the oats am i unbalancing her diet. Oh the Grain is Utium.

    1. Hi Phillip,
      Thanks for your your question! I would cut out the oats. In your case, you are feeding a pretty small amount that will have a minimal effect on the overall diet. However, if you want to simplify your feeding program and eliminate the chance that you are diluting the vitamin/mineral package in your feed the oats would be easy to get rid of . Additionally, oats can add extra uneeded starch to your horses’ diet. Feeding 1 – 1.5% body weight in hay or pasture along with the minimum recommended level of concentrate for your horse’s work level should make a safe and nutrititious diet and would not require any additional supplementation with straight grains.

  5. i agree that the horse wont receive the nutritional level promised if the feeding directions are not followed for the specific feed. but for example my horses activity level is low and get plenty of grass hay. if they received the amount of grain most feeds recommend they would loss their minds, they would be unhappy and hot. not to mention the horses digestion that was not designed for large quantities of what i would call “rich” food. I was feeding lmf super supplement but realized that within the first ingredients are corn, wheat, oats and molasses. but they say its ideal for horse that need low or no grain? my horses body weight is good, they are happy and calm. i would love to give them a supplement for vitamin and mineral but they don’t need the extra energy. what do you think, what would you recommend?

    1. Hi Rachelle and thanks for the great question! The dilemma that you face is a common one – you don’t want extra energy but your horse still needs the vitamins and minerals that will help them perform their best. We recently came out with a product to address this exact situation. Our Empower Balance is designed to provide a great vitamin mineral package without a lot of extra energy. This product also has very low feeding rate, of .1-.2 lbs. per every 100 lbs. of body weight based on a maintenance diet. The protein level helps to supplement and balance out grass hays. I would encourage you to check out our Empower Balance and give it a try!

  6. we mix our own feed (45% oats, 30% barley, 25% cracked corn), and a few TBS each of apple cider vinegar and vegetable oil~ is 2pounds/day enough for a 900-1000lb horse for maintenance?
    how can we ensure that she is getting all the vitamins/minerals that she needs?
    she has a salt block and mineral block, is that enough?
    (i just am leasing her)
    thanks so much in advance!

    1. Hi Jane!
      Thanks for your question. The best way to ensure that your horse is getting all the vitamins and minerals that she requires is feed them to her in her feed or as a supplement daily. With a mineral block it is hard to tell what the intakes are, and depending on the type of block and feeding situation she may not be getting what she requires for her work/activity level. In your case I would recommend a feeding a commercial feed like SafeChoice. If she is at a maintenance work level you will be feeding roughly the same amount – .25 lbs. for every 100 lbs. of body weight. This feed will provide fiber and energy like your grains do with the added benefits of being lower in starch and having a complete vitamin and mineral package included in the pellet. This way, if she eats her feed every day then you know that she has also taken in the vitamins and minerals that she has a requirement for. To know if you are feeding enough for your particular horse you should monitor and record her body condition score frequently. This will dictate whether you should feed more or less.
      Hope this helps!

  7. I’m a bit confused about commercial feeds, too. The labels never explain how to balance the grain amount with the hay your horse is getting.

    I have an 11-yr old 4th level Oldenburg/TB who works 5 days a week. He’s a very easy keeper, and I often have to cut his grain back a bit when he starts to look chubby. He’s maintaining his weight well, but I’d like a little more energy without adding hotness. He can be a tiny bit sluggish sometimes and we’re going up a level this year so the work will be more intense. However, TC Low Starch made him nuts and he can get spooky very easily.

    Here’s his current regimen. Do you think I should switch from SafeChoice (which he’s been on for years) to something like Empower Balance Grass?

    3 flakes Timothy hay (at a boarding barn–don’t know weight)
    1 flake Alfalfa hay
    4 lbs SafeChoice
    SmartVite Easy Keeper Grass
    CW daily wormer
    Cosequin ASU
    Hyaluronic acid, Collagen, Silica, monthly Adequan

    Thanks for any insight you can offer!

    1. Hi Savannah!
      Thanks so much for your inquiry! You may want to take a look at how much hay you are feeding – that may be contributing to your horse being such an easy keeper. Horses require 1.0 – 1.5% of their body weight in dry matter daily to meet their fiber requirements. Also, when you feed SafeChoice at the minimum recommended daily amount you are meeting your horses’ vitamin and mineral requirements. I would be careful about adding another vitamin/mineral supplement like the SmartVite because you could be over supplementing. Now, as for your question about Empower Balance – if your work level is going to be increasing I would actually leave him on the SafeChoice. Empower Balance is a proteing and vitamin mineral supplement that is great for easy keepers, but with the work load like what you are describing it is actually good to provide more “fuel” for your horse. SafeChoice provides that fuel in the form of safe starch levels and fat for energy. I hope this answers your questions!

      1. Thanks, Tiffany! I really appreciate the help. Sounds like I should cut back on the hay when he gets chubby instead of cutting the SafeChoice.

        For horses in 4th level work, do you recommend something link XTN, or do you think that would make him to hot and/or fat? I really need to increase his energy a bit and I’m not sure if I can do that by increasing the SafeChoice or if I should be switching to a different feed.

  8. Hi,
    I had been feeding both my QH and mini Safe Choice and everything was perfect. Once in awhile I’d put in cut up apple and carrot for a treat. I was very secure in knowing they were eating appropriately. All of that has changed.
    I’ve found myself in the terrible situation of no longer being able to afford the feed. I started feeding the Stock and Stable 12 feed (half the costs of Safe Choice). Both the horse and mini seem to be hungry all the time, though they aren’t losing weight. My friend talked me into adding crimped oats, telling me it will ‘fill them up’. Though that doesn’t seem right, oats are energy. So I’ve tried it, and have been mixing the 12 feed with the oats.
    Now I have a 6 year old horse that is running around, bucking and chasing the mini for the fun of it. The worse part, he’s taken to jumping the fence and getting onto my front porch. This is great fun for him.
    I want him back on the Safe Choice, but it’s just not financially do-able. I worry about fiber, proper minerals and overall health. What are my other options?

    1. Hi Mary, Sorry to hear of your situation. A better option for them, if they seem hungry, is to offer more hay or pasture. It’s actually pretty unlikely that a couple less pounds of grain makes them hungry – it’s more likely simply a boredom issue, plus a simple routine change that might be stressing them out. The addition of hay, or more ‘play time’, can help both of those.
      Thanks~ Gina T.

  9. Hi! I changed my two horses; 18 yr Kentucky mtn gelding and a 11 yr Peruvian Paso gelding, about 3 months ago, from Purina Active senior healthy edge to Nutrena Empower Balance to try it out as on Purina, they were getting chunky – too much so I thought. The Mtn. gelding can go down or up on weight easily and the Paso is a very easy keeper. I did some research and decided with all included, that Empower Balance sounded like the best option. They are currently putting on a beautiful winter coat, they are looking great and everything seems to be working out as how this product is promoted. I’m pleased thus far! I love the fact I only have to feed a lb. of it daily to each horse along with their good grass hay, plus overall, it’s more economical too. I’m anxious to see how they shed out next Spring!

  10. I get a little tired of the rhetoric about “only” feeding expensive commercial feeds. I am also suspicious that prognosticators of this idea are indirectly on feed companies payrolls. Feeding straight oats may only be 80% as good as feeding Purina products, but it is certainly far from the truth to compare oats to 100% dilution like the picture of water. Straight oats can get the job done at 1/3rd to 1/2 of the cost, and even for less than that if one can grow their own.

    1. Hello Marko,
      Thank you for sharing your opinion. We certainly welcome all theories here! Of course, we choose to disagree that oats work well for all horses. Certainly they are better than no grain at all for horses in work, but there are simply imbalances in the nutrient profile of oats that leave holes in the overall nutritional profile for the horse, that can result in deficiences in the long term that can affect the health of the horse.
      Regarding your comment on the water dilution example, yes that is more extreme than the dilution that oats does to a commercial feed, but keep in mind that it was simply an example to make a point. Water may not provide a lot of actual nutrition, but it is still a vital part of our diets, of course!
      Thanks for checking in with us! ~ Gina T.

  11. Good Afternoon,

    While I am not feeding Safe Choice, I am however feeding the Empower Ballencer. Ive absolutly fell in love with this product, but I have added a few of my own items to it as well, mainly during the winter because there is not as much fresh grass here in NH. I was just wondering what the consequences of mixing other feed items to this grain would be.
    One of my horses, shes eight and is just being broken to ride, I add a third of a cup of oats into her ration (.1 pound of the ballencer), and my other horse who is ten and is a 14 hand morgan quarter horse cross, is ridden at least five days a week for minimum of 45 min, varrying from endurance, jumping, and flat work, gets a cup of oats, 1/2 quart of soaked beet pulp, and 1/2 quart of soaked alfalfa/timmothy pellets to help ballence the beet pulp allong with his .1 pound of ballencer. he gets approxamently 5-6 flakes of hay, depending on his work load. They both have done an excellent job maintaining their weight and ive noticed marked improvemnt in their feet and coats, both of them getting dapples in the middle of January. Should I be concerned with altering their mineral ballences to much, or is the amount of other stuff not making that big of a differnce to their diet? This is probably the happiest and healthyist ive ever seen them. Thanks so much for your time.

    1. Hi Leanne, Thanks for stopping by, and glad you like the product so well! Based on your above descriptions, those small amounts of other ingredients are not likely to do much in the way of hurting the mineral ratios of Empower Balance. That said, they honestly probably aren’t doing a lot to help anything either – 1/3 cup, or even a full cup, of oats is not adding much in the way of nutrition.
      Good luck! ~ Gina T.

  12. I have old horse with arthritis in jaw on previcox having a hard time eating any hay
    On bran equine senior probiotics in mash
    Plus pellets all mixed.what soft food can I give him??

    1. Hello Lisa, Thanks for the question. The best solution, if your horse needs more calories to keep his weight up, is to simply increase the amount of the senior feed mash you are providing. This could be increasing the amount at each feeding by a pound or two, or another option is to add an additional feeding per day. This will provide the most balanced nutrition option to keep the overall health of your horse in alignment.
      Thank you ~ Gina T.

  13. I am feeding an older horse half can senior safe choice and half can stock and stable twice a day plus hay. Is she getting too much nutrients that could contribute to seizures?

    1. Hi Debi,
      Thank you for your interesting question regarding your older horse that you are feeding half a can of SafeChoice Senior and half a can of Stock & Stable. Unless you have a really big measuring can, I would not expect any excess nutrients that would cause seizures.

      That said, has this horse been checked to see if it might have a chance of having the genetic condition HYPP, Hyperkalemic Periodic Paralysis? This is a metabolic condition that does cause seizures under certain conditions if the diet is above 1.1% potassium. This is a condition that traces its origin back to a single Quarter Horse stallion, Impressive. There is also a condition called Equine Motor Neuron Disease or EMND that can cause some coordination issues.

      I would recommend your work with your veterinarian to determine the cause of your horse’s seizures. Once the cause is known, there may be some diet adjustments that could be useful.

      Best wishes,
      Roy J.

  14. My 13-year old thoroughbred cross mare weighs 1049 lbs, 15.2 hands, gets daily about 2 lbs pelleted food, 4 flakes coastal hay, pasture 24/7.
    We have had much rain, so the grass is prevalent and available.
    Currently she is maintaining her weight and energy levels, in fact sometimes too much energy. I have considered the Empower Balance Grass Formula since it says it is formulated for the horse that gets adequate energy from good quality forage. Texas summers are hot and sometimes without rain, and the available grass will die back. So I am not sure she would be getting adequate energy from that part of forage. If I increase the hay, would the Empower Balance still be a good choice?

    1. Hi Karen,
      Thank you for your question. It sounds like Empower Balance could be a great option for your horse and conditions. Also, it’s great you started thinking ahead about the benefits of this product as you transition into summer conditions that may be dry and hot. Additionally, it will help keep your horse’s diet balanced if you need to transition to more hay. It also is fed at a low feeding rate, so it’s also a great value. Here is another resource to check out, if you have further questions on fine-tuning your horse’s diet: http://www.toplinebalance.com. This tool allows you to enter specifics about your horse, and get a customized feeding plan.
      Best of luck!

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