Changing Horse Feeds – A Lot Like Horse Training

Most horse owners have a pretty steady routine when it comes to working with their horses, and that includes keeping a consistent feeding schedule and program in place, which is a good thing for the horse.  However, a variety of situations, from moving to a new place, to a change in the horse’s health, can require a change in habits and possibly in diet.

Chris Cox, renowned clinician and dedicated SafeChoice® feeder, offers this advice on preparing your horse for change:  “I never ask a horse to do something I haven’t prepared it to do.  By the time I’m asking a horse to step on to a trailer, that horse has all the preparation it needs to do it – and by prepare I don’t mean desensitize.  I don’t desensitize my horses as much as a lot people do.  It’s easy to overdo it and end up dulling your horse.  It’s okay for your horse to react to something, but if it is properly trained it won’t overreact.”

Chris’s training tip follows easily right in to the realm of changing your horse’s feeding program. Abrupt change, while a horse can manage and get through, isn’t the most desirable scenario.  Gradual introduction of whatever is new to the feeding program, whether it is a change in the amount fed or a change to an entirely different type of feed, should be done incrementally over a period of about 7 days.  This time frame allows the horse’s digestive system to adjust to the new levels of nutrients being digested, and also allows time for the sometimes-picky-eaters to realize that the new feedstuff is, in fact, OK to eat.

Preparing your horse, whether it is in feeding practices, daily schedule, or training, will set you and your horse up to make changes successfully.

Feeding Horses During Hot Weather

Performance horses in all disciplines, from racing to western pleasure, are expected to deliver optimum performance all year around, regardless of temperature. Summer conditions of high temperature and humidity presents several challenges to the horse owner. Proper management of working conditions, water consumption and feeding practices can help meet the challenge.

Working Conditions:

  1. Early morning and evening rides are better for both horse and rider.
  2. Horses confined during the day should have shade, ventilation and fresh clean water. This applies to horses in stalls, at shows or in the pasture.
  3. If horses must be trained or shown during the heat of the day, they should be offered water regularly. A hot horse should not be allowed to drink large quantities of cold water then stand, but a horse cannot cool down properly if it is dehydrated. The rule “six sips and walk” provides a good guideline. Horses going in classes throughout the day must be allowed to drink regularly, as dehydration and heat stroke can be deadly.
  4. Loss of fluid can also make a horse prone to colic. If a horse stops sweating, immediate action is required.

Feeding Management Practices:

  1. Adjust the energy sources fed. The horse’s total thermal load can be reduced by using highly digestible fiber sources and added fat feed sources.
    1. High fiber hay produces more heat increment or heat of digestion than lower fiber hay.
    2. Fat produces the lowest heat increment.
    3. The most heat efficient hay source for a performance horse would be an early cut grass or grass legume mixture. This hay should be fine in texture and relatively soft to the touch.
  2. An added fat feed or the addition of corn oil to the diet will provide higher energy with lower intake, and will assist in reducing the thermal load. Added fat diets may also produce the additional performance benefits of increased endurance and reduced fluid loss.
  3. Feeding small amounts throughout the day rather than two large feedings may also be beneficial as the heat produced by digestion can be spread out.
  4. Very high levels of protein should be avoided as the excess nitrogen increases fluid loss due to the higher urine output.

Feeding Salt & Electrolytes:

  1. Loose trace mineral salt in a feeder protected from rain should be available free choice. Manufactured feeds will generally contain 0.5%-1.0% salt, but a performance horse may require 4-6 ounces of salt per day to maintain electrolyte balance. Horses will generally not consume this much block salt.
  2. Electrolyte supplements may be beneficial immediately before and during a competition, but care must be exercised to make certain the horse is consuming adequate water.
    1. Giving a concentrated electrolyte without adequate water consumption may actually increase the potential for a problem.

Summer is a great season to spend more time with horses. Proper management can help make certain it is pleasant and safe for both horse and rider.

Reading Horse Feed Directions – How Much to Feed?

When horse feeds are formulated, they are developed to provide nutrition to all sizes of horses – nutrient needs go up as the size of the horse goes up.  So, feeding directions are often provided in the following format:

  • Activity Level                   Lbs of feed per 100 lbs of bodyweight
  • Maintenance                     0.3-0.5
  • Light Exercise                   0.4-0.6

So, how do you figure out how much to feed your horse? Start with knowing the weight of your horse.  Then, divide that weight by 100, and then multiply the result by both of the amounts of feed given in the directions above.  The resulting two numbers will tell you the range of how much to feed your horse to give them the nutrition they need for both their size and their activity level.

Example Feeding Directions:

1200 lb horse, in light exercise.

  1. (1200 ÷ 100) = 12
  2. (12 × 0.4) = 4.8
  3. (12 × 0.6) = 7.2

In this example, this horse would need to eat between 4.8 and 7.2 lbs per day of this feed to receive the nutrition he needs.  Some horses that are easier keepers can fall to the lower end of the range, while harder keepers may need to push the upper limit.

If you do this math for your horse, and find that you are feeding outside of the designated range, you should search for a feed that is more suitable to your horses needs.  Hard keepers, for example, may require a feed that is higher in calories per pound, while easier keepers might require a feed with fewer calories and more concentrated levels of vitamins and mineralsSuch a feed might cost more per bag, however the ability to pack more punch in a smaller feeding might actually result in a cost saving!

Making Cents Out of Horse Feed Costs

I was recently called to a boarding and lesson barn to help the owner evaluate her feed program.  With the rising costs of bedding, labor, insurance, electricity and hay, she wanted to look at options at saving money. 

The farm housed about 40 Thoroughbreds.   Twelve of the horses were active in a lesson program, and the other horses activity levels ranged from pleasure maintanece to moderate work/show.   The Body Condition Scores of the horses ranged from 4 to 6, and the owner explained that some of the horses were harder keepers than others, with daily grain intake ranging from 1 to 18 pounds of grain per day per horse.

We examined the hay and found it to be a good quality timothy grass mix.  The horses were getting about 1.5% of their body weight per day in hay. For grain, she was using an economy feed that was priced at $8.99 per bag.  She felt that with the large number of horses on the farm and rising cost she could not afford the premium feeds that were almost $14 per bag.

When we examined the feed tag from the manufacturer, the suggested feed rate was 1 pound per hundred pounds of body weight (that’s 10 lbs of feed for a 1000 lb horse!), and the fortification of the product was minimal.  The owner then explained that she and the boarders did purchase supplements to provide added biotin, yeast culture, copper, zinc and selenium.  Some of the hard keepers were also given a fat supplement.

To determine how much she was spending on feed, we did the following math:

  • Current Feeding Program = 10 lbs feed + supplements
    • ~ $8.99 per bag / 50 lbs per bag = $0.18 per pound
    • ~ $0.18 per pound X average 10 lb per day feeding = $1.80 per day per horse
    • ~ Plus the various costs of nutritional supplements to make up for the lack in feed
  •  
  • Proposed Feeding Program = 5 lbs feed + no supplements
    • ~ $14.00 per bag / 50 lbs per bag = $0.28 per pound
    • ~ $0.28 per pound X average 5 lb per day feeding = $1.40 per day per horse
    • ~ No need for nutritional supplements!

When we calculated the cost per horse per day based on feed consumption and supplements, some of the horses exceeded $3 per day!  When we compared that to the feed rates on the premium line feeds, not to mention complete fortification levels and the time savings in not having to sort out servings of supplements every day, the premium feed was a better value in the long run.

Storing Horse Feed for Freshness

Welcome to July!  We are in the full swing of summer with heat and humidity in many regions of North America.  The higher temperature and moisture levels common this time of year can make feed freshness a challenge, requiring extra attention to how feed is stored.  Read on for a few tips on storing horse feed for freshness, and see how well your barn is set up to store feed. 

Many of us purchase feed by the bag and transfer the contents into a container which is kept in a feed room or designated area of the barn or shed.  The container that feed is kept in as well as the location of the container play an important role in how well the feed stays fresh. 

If possible, use of a waterproof, seal-able container to store your feed.  The container should be able to keep pests such as mice and insects from enjoying an “All You Can Eat Buffet” on your dime.  A waterproof container will insure the feed stays dry if there is unexpected water leakage into the area.

The location that the feed bin or container is kept is also important.  If you have a designated feed room or area in your facility, check to see that it is not exposed to unnecessary moisture such as a leak in the roof or sweating pipes overhead.  Elevating the bin off the floor will help keep feed dry should there be rain-in or minor flooding.  Also, check to see if your feed bin is sitting in the hottest part of your barn or shed.  For metal sided buildings, this could be the South or West wall which receive the strongest of the sun’s rays and tend to hold heat longer.  Relocating the bin to a cooler or dryer area will go a long way in keeping your feed fresh. 

Whenever possible, try to practice inventory management of feed in the form of FIFO; an acronym which stands for First In First Out.  FIFO is a method to manage the freshness of perishable goods such as produce, baked goods or dairy products.  The premise can also be applied to feed, where feed already in the bin is fed prior to the feed that was just purchased.  Also, between feed rotations, periodically wash and thoroughly dry the container to help get rid of build-up at the bottom.  Using this method can ensure that the feed you are scooping has not aged beyond its ideal shelf life.  

Taking some time to check these few steps will go a long way in keeping your horse feed fresh. Stay tuned for a future post regarding factors that impact the shelf life of your feed! Until then, happy riding!

Feeding the “Easy Keeper” Horse

Most every horse owner has had, or knows of a friend’s horse, which could “live on air”. Sadly, air has no nutritional value. So, what do we do with these horses that look at a bag of feed and start to pack on the pounds? Care must be taken to ensure that they receive nutrients needed to stay healthy, while keeping calorie count under control.

As always, 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.

Ensure that the easy keeper is receiving sufficient forage – maintaining gut health through plenty of long-stemmed fiber intake is key. Then, evaluate what else to feed – often times, access to high quality hay or pasture that contains ALL of the nutrition a horse needs is limited, and the need exists to get more protein, vitamins and minerals in to the horse. There are a number of low-inclusion horse feed products on the market that provide needed nutrition without extra calories.

Finally, evaluate the exercise program. Just like humans, exercise goes hand-in-hand with diet in a weight loss or weight control program. Even a daily walking program can help some of those easier keepers maintain a trimmer profile.

Horse-Life Balance

Like many of you, I am fortunate to have my horses in my life. But having horses often means giving up time for other parts of my life, such as going out with friends, cleaning the house (oh darn) or other hobbies.  Horse people have a saying: if your house is clean, you’re not spending enough time in the barn.

I was fortunate enough to grow up on a small hobby farm with horses.  My parent’s told me that if I wanted to have horses as a ‘grown up’ that I needed good grades in school, to get through college and get a good job.  Horses are not exactly a low investment hobby, so I followed their advice.  Now that I have the degree, career and horses, time seems to be the biggest constraint.

There is a certain amount of irony to this; the job that pays for the horses is the biggest thing that keeps me from spending time with them.  I don’t believe that I am alone; countless other professionals or college students must have this same struggle. 

During the week, I get home after a long commute (I live out in the country so my horses can be with me), feed the horses, clean the barn and check fences.  If anything has been broken, it gets fixed.  Add in time to feed and care for the dogs, myself and it’s already late in the evening, nearly time to go to bed just to get up early for the long commute to work the next morning.

My solution so far has been to ‘schedule’ my saddle time.  Weather permitting I designate an evening during the week after work to be ‘horse night’.  If I’m too tired from work, I will only do grooming or ground work.  So instead of cleaning the house, walking the dog or weeding the garden, the horses get their much deserved attention.  This is a sacrifice I’m willing to make; I’m sure the weeds will be there tomorrow.

What do you do to strike the balance in your life?

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 5-9% fat range, and some horse feeds are up in the 10-12% 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.

Fueling Dreams

Have you ever noticed how passionate a horse owner is about horse feed?  Granted, there are some folks I’ve met who are indifferent, but more often than not, when I ask a horseperson about their choice of horse feed, eyes brighten up and energy increases as they explain why the feed works for their horse.

As a 20+ year horse owner, I can certainly understand!  The connection we have with our horses is unlike any other; the enrichment of having a horse in your life is difficult to put into words; achieving dreams and beyond, teaching us the entire way.

Recently, I read an article about a Miniature Horse stallion named Buckeroo, standing at Little King Farm in Madison, Indiana.  This horse not only changed the business of Little King Farm, he changed the lives of Ed and Marianne and their family by opening up the world of possibilities (literally!) all the while teaching valuable life lessons: “to respect, be loyal, take responsibility, see things through with dedication and (he) taught them with love.”  This stallion created an international business that has fulfilled Marianne and Ed’s dreams and then some.

The story of Buckeroo resonated with me as one example of how horses can make our dreams come true. Henry David Thoreau once said ‘Dreams are the touchstones of our character.’  How passionate are you about fueling your dreams?