Draft Horse Nutrition – Feeding the Gentle Giants

ClydesdaleThe Belgian, Clydesdale, Percheron, Shire and Suffolk breeds are the primary draft horse breeds in the U.S.  The breeds are named for their country or area of origin.  The Belgians originated in the Belgium, the Clydesdales originated in the river Clyde district of Scotland, the Percherons originated in the Perche region of France, the Shires originated in the east of England and the Suffolk originated in the counties of Norwich and Suffolk in England.  They were originally imported to the U.S. for true horsepower and are now very popular for shows, pulling competitions, parades and work.  The commercials and advertising associated with the Clydesdales have made that breed one of the most recognized of the draft breeds.

Draft horses are large, heavy muscled animals that are relatively slow to mature and are metabolically very efficient.  Mature horses will weigh anywhere from 1500 lbs to well over 2000 lbs.  Hoof quality, bone strength, muscle development and hair coat are all key criteria that are important in raising and using draft horses.  As draft horses perform work, energy requirements increase substantially.

Good quality forages, grass or grass/legume mixtures, are an important part of the draft horse diet.  Horses will consume 1.5-2.5% of bodyweight in forage.  Properly balanced grain mixtures, pelleted or textured, may be used to provide the additional energy, amino acids, minerals, trace minerals and vitamins to balance the diets.

Poor quality hoof growth can be a problem with draft horses.  The use of feeds containing biotin, zinc and methionine may be beneficial for these horses.

Draft horses may also be affected by Equine Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy, which used to be called Monday Morning Disease or Azoturia.   This conditions results in the horse “tying up” with stiff muscles and reluctance to move.  These horses may benefit from a diet that has controlled levels of non-structural carbohydrates or soluble carbohydrates (starches and sugars) and that contains added fat from vegetable oil as well as optimum selenium and vitamin E levels.  Regular exercise and turn out are also important for these horses.

Growing draft horses may also develop Developmental Orthopedic Disease problems as a result of genetics, conformation, stress or improper nutrition.  Feeding a balanced diet and avoiding excess body condition score may be beneficial in reducing the risk of these problems.

Be sure to provide free choice salt and access to fresh clean water for all your draft horses, especially those who are performing heavy work.

4 Replies to “Draft Horse Nutrition – Feeding the Gentle Giants”

  1. Re. Draft deaths his fall in NJ, and CT

    So it comes down to this.
    Extreme changes in temperature, drafts keep on eating but stop drinking.
    They get an extreme temperature not controllable by antibiotics, but it’s really the colic that does them in.
    At least three cases i know of in Sept.
    This comes from a good source here In NJ.
    Any horsie types or draft owners want to comment?
    Please do.

  2. I live and work at a horse rescue. We are teying to put the weight back on two older drafts and keep a third in healthy weight. We’ve fed healthy edge and haystack in a runny soup for a week and then not so runny. Then free feed ih a hay pasture for a couple of weeks. Still ribby and sunk in hips. What is the trick to feeding a draft to gain weight?

    1. Hi Maria,

      Thank you for your question about feeding some rescue draft horses. Putting weight, and particularly muscle mass, does require time and good nutrition. I am assuming with your experience that you have had the horses checked so that they have been de-wormed and had their teeth floated if needed. After that, re-feeding requires a combination of energy (Calories) and high quality protein with essential amino acids to build muscle. You did not indicate what type of hay the horses were consuming. Hay will generally not be a readily available amino acid source to build muscle. In order to gain weight and muscle mass, the horses need to be consuming energy and amino acids (along with vitamins and trace minerals) ABOVE their maintenance requirement. It take about 2.5-3.5 pound of feed per pound of gain.

      You might consider the following options:
      1. Continue offering hay and pasture free choice (you may want to have a forage test done) and offer a balancer type product such as Empower Balance at recommended feeding rates to help amino acid intake
      2. If the horses have any dental issues, Senior Horse Feeds, such as SafeChoice Senior or comparable products, work very well for rescue horses. You can gradually increase the feeding rate until you start to see the horses gain weight, then hold them at that rate until they reach the desired Body Condition Score and Topline Evaluation Score. In estimating the feeding rate, you need to use the horse’s target weight, not the horse’s current weight. If their target weight is 1600+ pounds and they currently weight 1400, you should use the 1600+ pound feeding rate. The target weight may be higher, depending on breed and height. The nice thing about Senior Feeds is that are quite safe and can be fed at fairly high intakes. Salt and fresh clean water need to be available. Many rescue horses are salt deficient.

      Best wishes,
      Roy J.

    2. Slowly introduce corn oil into the diet at each feeding. Start with 1/4 cup and build up to up to two cups/day. This will provide calories from fat and not grains which can be unhealthy for drafts. Take a look at this link:
      https://www.ruralheritage.com/vet_clinic/epsmdiet_goals.htm
      Diseases and disorders which can be helped by an appropriate diet, also serves to prevent the diseases in the first place. jmho
      For older drafts, you can hand feed small amounts of some coarse salt, since they may not get enough from the block. Google this as the amount depends on your draft’s weight and condition. Cornell has excellent info for draft horses and their extension service is a great resource.
      Good advice from Roy J here. Cheers!

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