Five Myths of Horse Nutrition

As researchers and feed companies alike continue to make progress in understanding nutrition, more and more once-commonly held beliefs about horse feed are becoming obsolete.  Here are five common misconceptions about horse nutrition and what it means for you.

  • MYTH #1 : Horses don’t need ‘grain’
    • Most horse owners judge the effectiveness of their feeding program based on the weight of their horse(s).  Given good quality pasture or hay, the majority of idle horses will appear to do just fine without additional supplementation. Though this is a good foundation to start from, it is important to consider other health factors influenced by nutrition, such as hoof quality, muscle development, maintenance, performance and bone integrity. 
    • Providing your horse a feed that delivers the appropriate levels of amino acids, vitamins and minerals is the foundation for good nutritional health.  Most forages are either deficient or counterbalanced in many of these important micronutrients and offering a commercially balanced feed that is compatible will provide your horse what he needs to meet his minimum requirements.  A ration balancer provides this type of nutritional supplementation without adding calories.
  • MYTH #2 : All pelleted feeds contain floor sweepings
    • In the early days of pelleted horse feeds, this was probably based in reality more times than not.  Today however, it is not a common practice.  A reputable feed manufacturer will have stringent quality control programs in place such as HACCP (Hazardous Awareness and Critical Control Points) that prohibit the use of any material that is not an approved ingredient. 
    • In addition, the traceability of ingredients used in feeds is increasing in importance as the ingredient supply is stretched between feed, food and fuel.  Increased traceability means less chance of non-approved ingredients being included in pellets.  The bottom line: good quality control practices in the industry means quality ingredients and products you can trust.
    • Finally, using poor quality ingredients is just bad business.  Think about it this way: if a feed company manufactured a poor quality feed that animals did poorly on, than owners would stop purchasing it.  It is in the best interest of everyone involved to make quality feed from the start.
  • MYTH #3: Ingredient by-products are fillers
    • By-products such as wheat midds, soy hulls and corn germ meal are derived from the milling or processing of grains generally for food production.  For example, wheat midds are the husks remaining from flour milling, soy hulls are the husks of soybeans derived in the crush process for soy oil and beet pulp is a by-product of the sugar extraction process from sugar beets.  All of these by-products contain valuable nutrients that are readily available for digestion.
    • Because they are involved in the processing of ingredients for food, there is also quite a bit of variation in the levels of nutrients from differing suppliers or between loads.  A reputable feed company will test in-bound ingredients to ensure they contain quality nutrient levels, and then formulate their use based on what they provide.   Ask your feed manufacturer how they monitor and control the quality of ingredients coming into their feed mill.
  • MYTH #4: Corn is bad for horses
    • Feeding corn to horses does come with inherent risks.  First of all, certain strains of molds commonly found growing on corn create toxins called aflatoxins.  It is important that any feed maker test in-bound loads of corn to detect and reject loads based on the level of these toxins present.
    • Whole corn contains somewhere around 65% starch which, if consumed in large quantities, could overwhelm the digestive tract of the horse. Corn is however, an energy-dense ingredient, making it a highly available and desirable ingredient to provide energy in a feed ration. 
    • When fed alone, corn, like any other single grain is not nutritionally balanced to meet a horse’s needs. However, when provided as an ingredient in an overall balanced feed, it makes an excellent part of the makeup of the whole feed. When sourced, tested, processed and managed correctly, corn can bring many benefits to horse nutrition.
  • MYTH #5: Protein makes horses ‘hot’
    • We as horse owners have been programed to seek out a feed which provides a protein percentage that we believe our horses need, based on something someone somewhere told us.  Maybe it was mom.  Maybe it’s what worked for grandpa’s horses.  Whatever the source, you may be surprised to hear that protein does NOT make horses ‘hot’.  In fact, horses don’t even need protein….rather, their nutritional requirements are for the amino acids called Lysine, Methionine and Threonine. These are the building blocks of protein.
    • Protein is the least efficient energy source for horses, as compared to fiber, Non-Structural Carbohydrates (NSC) and fats.  The metabolic pathways which convert protein into energy actually burns a lot of energy to convert (as compared to fiber for example), creates waste and is particularly hard on the kidneys when fed above requirements.  Ammonia production is an output of excess protein digestion; for a stable full of horses, this can have a huge impact.
    • As you consider protein in your horse’s diet, be sure to check that the feed provides guaranteed levels of Lysine, Methionine and Threonine.  This way, you know your horse will be meeting his nutritional requirement.

The study of nutrition has come a long way in the last 20 years and will continue to evolve thanks to investments in research and development.  Who knows what myths we’ll debunk in 20 years…..?

17 Replies to “Five Myths of Horse Nutrition”

  1. Very interesting article. Also, very informative. I could use a coupon or two for a discount on Nutena feed. Thank you.

  2. Knowing all this helped me make Sothend Hardware in Spanaway WA. the top feed dealer in the mid 90’s, two years in a row. Still feed only Nutrena!!! All my horses are in their late teens to 30 yrs old and doing great!

    1. Hi Sherry!

      Thank you for your commitment to Nutrena! So glad to hear our products have helped your horses age well into their golden years!! Please let us know we’re here if you have any questions or concerns about your feed.

      Megan C.

  3. My Saddlebred mare is 19 years old. I have owned her since she was two. She has always had a very strong ammonia smell in her urine. I have always fed her Nutrena. Right now she gets a mixture of SafeChoice original and Nutrena Senior. Is there anything you can suggest to cut the ammonia from her urine?

    1. Hello Cheryl-

      Thanks for your great question and for feeding Nutrena!

      High ammonia odor in urine is an indication of excess protein in the total diet, which would include forage and treats. Legume forage commonly tends to be higher in protein than grasses, but having your hay tested is always a good idea. You might try to change her from her current hay to a lower protein grass hay.

      Also, if your mare receives commercially made treats, you may consider the amount of protein provided from them.

      The addition of a yucca supplement has helped some horses with this as well. As always, it’s a good idea to work with your vet to find the best solution for your particular horse and situation. Please let us know if you have additional questions!


  4. I am a little confused about the protein needed for horses. My horses are on the Safe Choice Special Care, which has 14% protein. They are also on really good hay that has been tested at 14% and higher. Is this protein bad for my horses? What percentage of protein is good?

    1. Hi Mindy, Great question. You can find more on protein levels for horses in this blog post:

      A couple things to note when reading that article – the mature horse recommendation is appropriate for inactive to moderatly active horses. If you are working your horses regularly, they may require more than the 10-12% protein listed, in order to continue to repair & build muscle tissue after exercise. Also, excess protein is simply excreted in the urine. Unless your horse has a specific disease that causes reduced functioning of the kidneys, a little additional protein in the diet should not cause any issues.

      Finally, what really matters is the level of amino acids your horse is getting, rather than the percent crude protein. You can have a 14% crude protein grass hay and it will still be lower in amino acids compared to a 14% alfalfa hay. Also hay quality and pasture quality changes frequently, so the cutting of hay you are feeding today maybe 14% crude protein but the next cutting could be less or could be baled too mature and have lower nutrient levels. It’s a very good idea to get your hay tested regularly, if you feel the protein level is of concern for you.

      Thanks! Gina T.

  5. I am feeding safe choice original to my paint horse.
    I have been lectured to that I am feeding to much protein and it is making my horse hot.
    Please explain to me why Nutrena has formulated their product with that 14% protein since the requirement for a horse in work is 10-12%.

    1. Hi Erica – That is a great question, and a common one among horse owners. There are a couple keys to understanding this:
      1. That 10-12% recommended range is for the TOTAL diet – hay + grain, not just the grain. The majority of grass hays are low in protein – it’s not at all uncommon to have less than 10% protein in a grass hay. Relative to the hay/pasture, grain is fed in a very small amount – so the higher protein in the grain helps to offset that just enough to bring the total diet in to the proper range. Also, if your horse is working/exercising at all, they need incrementally more protein, to build & replace the muscle tissues – so they do need a little more protein in the diet for that.

      2. Protein is not responsible for making your horse hot. This is a bit of an “old wives tale” from back in the day before horse owners knew, from a scientific standpoint, what they were feeding. Protein actually takes about the same amount of energy to be digested, as it gives the horse – it’s basically a wash. “Hotness” can come from total calorie intake being too high, or from feeding a high starch level horse feed. Before horse owners knew much about the nutrient content of grain, they knew if they feed a higher protein feed, the horse would become “hot” – what they didnt know is that depending on the combination of grain used to get that higher protein level, they could be potentially skyrocketing the starch level as well.

      Or, it can come from personality (some horses are just naturally more excitable – just like humans!), or from a variety of environmental factors – change in where they are stabled, who they are stabled with, predators in the area, weather changes, etc.
      We hope this explanation helps you out! If you have more questions, please let us know. Thanks ~ Gina T.

  6. What do you think of a plain oat and corn mix? It is mixed from the feed mill. My filly had a bout of colic right after she was weaned but luckily came out of it. It is still being fed to them. We live in northern MN and free feed round bales of hay.

    1. Hi Holly,

      Thank you for your question about a plain oats and corn mix for your filly along with free choice hay. Oats and corn are very acceptable grains for horses, as a source of energy (Calories), primarily from starch. Corn will normally be about 8-9% crude protein and 65-70% starch and oats will be about 11-12% protein with 42-48% starch. Mature horses maintain body condition on straight grains plus hay, salt and water, but may experience some limited muscle mass maintenance and development, hair coat or hoof quality issues due to limited amino acid intake and some trace mineral and vitamin limits.

      If you are feeding a grass hay or mixed hay, your growing filly may be low on essential amino acids, particularly lysine, methionine and threonine and may be low on some minerals as well. These marginal levels might limit the muscle mass she will develop and may also show up in a bit rougher hair coat and a bit of a pot belly. Proper mineral levels are important for bone growth. Grass hay fed with straight grain may have also have a calcium/phosphorus imbalance. If she is not growing as rapidly as you might expect or if you see any signs of nutrient issues, you might want to look at adding a ration balancer suitable for her age and growth.

      Best wishes,
      Megan C.

  7. Thank you for info I resqued a 24 year old mare. Don’t know much about horse care BUT she’s happy/full of energy! I feed her sr.feed and pasture grass. But we are in the middle of ice/snow storm and want to make sure she has enough to eat!

  8. I have a few racehorses for the love of the animal more than anything the big boys here in England have it pretty much sewn up. So you are always looking for an edge I believe a happy horse is an edge as but feeding is important to the horse and me and I am always open minded within reason as the horse comes first.
    In racing everyone screams protein ie a race mix must be in the region of 14% unlike a cool mix 10% so I found that bit of your article particularly interesting what would you suggest as an alternative ?

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