Horse Nutrition Made Simple

By Roberta Gleicher, Sales Representative, Purina Mills, LLC

Do you want your horse to be healthy and have strong muscles, bones and hooves? How about a shiny coat and good attitude? Developing the best nutritional program, along with proper training and management, can help you achieve this. Unfortunately, choosing the appropriate horse feed can be pretty confusing. Selecting the proper diet depends on so many factors: your horse’s age, weight, temperament, health, intensity, duration of activities, and the quality of the pasture or hay.

To select the appropriate food for your horses, you must evaluate them individually and objectively.  Some horses are naturally easy keepers (put on weight easily) and some are hard keepers (difficult to put on weight). This will affect which feed you select and the amount that you will feed.  But let’s be honest, sometimes we just love to spoil our horses. It may not be that our horses are easy keepers-it may be that we just love to stuff them with food! Often it makes us feel good to give them “a bit extra” because they seem so happy to eat it. Of course they are happy-they love to eat and would eat continuously if we let them. In fact their bodies are designed to eat (graze) continuously. Their stomach actually empties every 15-20 minutes so it’s no wonder they are always hungry. In the wild, they are able to walk around all day. They are kept physically active and mentally occupied because they spend their days seeking out the best grazing sites that Mother Nature offers. Sometimes the food supply is plentiful; at other times there isn’t much to eat. Their very survival depended upon their being able and willing to continuously eat, and be efficient at digesting it. That’s why the breeds of horses that developed in the wild or under harsh conditions tend to be relatively small and easy keepers. Think about how hard it is to prevent Mustangs, Islandics and most ponies from getting too fat when they’re kept in confinement. In fact, horses kept in confinement are a different story from horses wandering around on acres of land. They may become bored and can’t graze normally when they are confined to a stall or small paddock for most of the day. Some horses may start to graze, aka “wood chewing”, on their stall or fences instead. Others may develop vices like wind-sucking (cribbing), stall-walking or weaving. (Weaving may become contagious, so if one horse weaves don’t let the others see it.) However, if we keep hay in front of them all the time but don’t provide them with enough exercise, they may become obese. Obesity is not healthy. If they become too fat, they will become more prone to getting laminitis, founder, metabolic syndrome and joint problems. Besides, how many athletes can perform at their best when they’re fat? On the other hand, we have bred other breeds of horses for performance, not survival. Many of these horses are naturally hard keepers. Thoroughbreds and horses mixed with thoroughbred fall into this category. Thoroughbreds are bred for speed.  They tend to be nervous and have a high metabolism. Horses of any breed may eventually develop certain medical conditions like Cushings that make it difficult to keep them in good weight. If we don’t provide enough nutrition, they may develop other problems: they may suffer from a compromised immune system, not have enough stamina, develop saddle sores, have inadequate muscle development and get injuries that might have otherwise been avoided.

Roughage is the foundation of every equine nutrition program. A good rule of thumb is to make sure your horse gets 1%-2% of his body weight per day in good quality roughage. This means a 1000 pound horse should get 10-20 pounds (on a dry matter basis) of hay or pasture per day. That will provide the right amount of fiber, along with some protein, calories, vitamins and minerals. The additional feed concentrate with which you supplement the pasture or hay should then be selected based on the additional protein, calories, vitamins and minerals he needs. The simplest way to do this is to select a commercially made feed that meets or exceeds the National Research Council nutritional requirements based on age and activity level. Purina Mills’ diets are designed to help horses reach their optimal performance, not just their minimum daily requirements. This means Purina feeds will not only meet, but often exceed NRC requirements.

What if your horse can’t or won’t eat enough hay or pasture to meet his daily fiber requirement? This can potentially become a serious health threat. He could become underweight, develop chronic diarrhea, or suffer from a potentially life threatening problem such as colic or laminitis. To prevent this, you can use a high quality complete-with-roughage feed to achieve his daily requirement. 1 pound of Purina® Horse Chow #100® Horse Feed can replace 2 pounds of hay by providing additional fiber and other nutrients that may be missing. It achieves this without adding a significant amount of additional calories, so it works well for easy keepers. Since it can be fed with your regular concentrate as well as hay, 1-2 pounds per day can serve as “nutritional insurance” for those times when hay or pasture quality is poor. Equine Senior® and Equine Junior® Horse Feed are also complete-with-roughage feeds that can be used for this purpose, but will also be a significant source of calories. That is helpful for those hard keepers. In most cases, if you feed enough pounds of any of these complete feeds, you will not have to feed a concentrate along with them. So, if your horse has a condition where he can’t eat any hay, you can safely feed these as the sole ration. Sometimes there are special circumstances that keep horses from being able to consume hay or pasture. For instance, your vet may tell you not to feed grass or alfalfa if your horse is highly allergic to them, or to eliminate hay if it aggravates respiratory condition. Omolene #400® Complete Advantage Horse Feed provides complete nutrition and contains beet pulp instead of grass or alfalfa as roughage. Therefore, it can provide all the nutrients your horse needs when feeding little or no hay.

Many geriatric horses begin to lose weight because they have trouble getting nutrition from conventional feeds and hays. This can be because they develop teeth problems, or their digestive tract doesn’t absorb and utilize nutrients as well as it did when they were younger. As a horse ages, his entire digestive system begins to wear out. If he can’t chew and swallow properly, you may notice him quidding (balling up and dropping wads of hay or grass out of his mouth); or you may notice oats in his manure (if he can’t chew or properly digest coarse grains). Purina® Equine Senior® Horse Feed would be appropriate for these horses. What if a horse has no teeth and can’t chew? Just add warm water and Purina® Equine Senior® Horse Feed turns into a soup or mash he can drink. You can be sure he will get 100% of all the nutrients he needs. Hay quality varies and often contributes to developmental problems in growing horses. Once foals are weaned, you may want to get total control over their nutrition by using Equine Junior ® Horse Feed to replace hay until they reach 2 years of age.

It’s important to honestly determine how hard the horse is actually working. Feed manufacturers commonly classify horses as either Active Pleasure or Performance horses. Does he break into a sweat every day? If you overestimate your horse’s activity level you may feed too much and your horse will get too fat and/or too excitable. If your horse has too much energy, you may be feeding the wrong feed, over-feeding it, or your horse is not getting enough exercise. How do you know where your horse fits? Here is a rough guide to help you if you are feeding Purina Mills feeds:  (other manufacturers may use slightly different criteria)

Active pleasure horses spend their work hours mainly walking, doing some trotting and brief cantering 2 to 3 days per week or less, for 1 to 2 hours a day. They may be ridden easily in the ring or on trails; trail rides or pleasure-type classes at weekend show once a month or less. These horses don’t burn a lot of calories and can do great on concentrates like Omolene #100® Horse Feed, Strategy® Healthy Edge® Horse Feed or Equine Adult® Horse Feed. However, if they are such easy keepers that you can only feed them a couple of pounds of concentrate a day, they will be better off eating Nature’s Essentials® Enrich 12 or 32® Supplement with their hay. It provides all the protein, vitamins and minerals they need, but hardly any calories. It’s also suitable for horses needing a low starch diet.

Performance horses are usually categorized by the intensity of their workload-light, medium or heavy work. Their nutritional needs will vary with the amount of work they do. Horses are more likely to colic or founder if they are fed high levels of grain. Therefore, it’s safer to select concentrates designed for performance horses. Performance feeds usually have higher levels of protein, calories, vitamins and minerals to support this greater work load and should provide a greater amount of nutrients per pound of feed. That will enable you to feed the fewest pounds of feed possible and still get all the nutrition the horse needs. Performance horses doing light work are ridden for 3 to 4 days per week for 3/4 to 2 hours a day; mainly light effort trotting, cantering and/or jumping for at least half of the time they’re worked. They work moderately 2 to 3 times per week. They may be ridden on difficult trails, for show conditioning, harder ring riding, or hauled for competition 1 to 2 weekends a month. Performance horses doing medium work put out more effort. They’re ridden 4 to 5 days per week, at a minimum of 1 to 2 hours a day. At least half the time they’re worked they are doing medium trotting, cantering and/or jumping. They work hard 2 to 3 times per week. They may be ridden for long instances/duration, strenuous ring riding, working cattle or riding lessons for several hours a day, or hauled for competition 3 to 4 weekends a month. These horses will need more protein, calories and vitamins and minerals to support their efforts. Performance horses doing light or medium performance work will do well with performance feeds like Omolene #200® Horse Feed or Strategy® Professional Formula GX Horse Feed which are nutritionally highly concentrated. They also contain added fat to increase stamina. Performance horses doing heavy work are ridden 6 to 7 days per week for 1-2 hours a day at a minimum. They are doing medium to hard cantering, galloping and/or jumping for over half of the time worked. They work hard for at least 4 to 5 times during the week. Endurance, 3-day event, race or polo horses that train hard nearly every day and are hauled long distances, or on the road for competition circuit for the majority of the month, several months at a time fall into this category. They do best by eating the most highly concentrated high fat performance feeds like Ultium® Competition Horse Formula, Race Ready® Horse Feed, Omolene #200® or Omolene #500® Horse Feed.

Another category of performance horse includes horses that are growing or producing milk. To achieve optimum development, growing horses that haven’t yet been weaned need high quality amino acids and the proper amount and balance of vitamins and minerals in addition to the mare’s milk. Since hay can make up only a small portion of their diet at this young age, concentrates like Omolene #300® Horse Feed, Strategy® Professional Formula GX Horse Feed, or Ultium® Growth Horse Formula are needed to provide these nutrients. Lactating Brood Mares have extremely high energy needs and may consume twice the amount of concentrate they did before they began to lactate. They can benefit from eating roughage plus Omolene #200® Horse Feed or the same nutrient-dense concentrates their foals are eating. All horses need plenty of clean, fresh water and a salt block. Most commercial feeds contain some salt, but salt requirements will vary. Since salt intake is something most horses will naturally regulate well themselves, you can usually let them have access to as much as they want. There are exceptions to everything of course, so if you have any horses that consume it like candy, you may want to ration it out to them. It’s important to make feed and hay changes gradually in order to avoid digestive upsets. Do not change at a faster rate than 1 pound per day. If the horse is experiencing a lot of stress from campaigning, illness or age, I recommend limiting changes to ½ pound per day. That’s pretty conservative, but what’s the hurry?

It may take several weeks for changes in weight and attitude to occur, but when you successfully provide your horse with the best nutrition, the results will be worth the wait.