Simplifying Feeding at a Multidiscipline Boarding Barn

Q. I recently started a new position managing a barn of 15 horses. Some belong to the facility owner, others are boarders. We have a mix of breeds and sizes, and most of the horses are competing—some harder than others and some at higher levels than others. Our feed room is a bit of a disaster, because every horse eats something different. Right now, we provide forage, and the owners provide their own additional feed. We’d like to include grain or concentrate in our board to streamline feeding and make things easier. What feed would you recommend to simplify our feed room while still meeting the different horses’ needs?

A. Feed rooms can get out of control quickly when you have a large number of horses. A good feed room spring clean is always a good idea, and I think it can be valuable to assess a feed program on a somewhat regular basis and ask what can be done to improve it and potentially better meet the horse’s needs.

Starting with quality forage is key. I always recommend having a couple of different sources or types of hay available when hay is necessary. Harder working horses in good health can require forages with higher nutritional values, whereas the easy keepers and any with metabolic issues benefit from forages of lower nutritional value. Performance horses often benefit from having a small amount of alfalfa in their ration for the added protein quality and stomach-buffering capability. Therefore, in an ideal situation I would have two types of grass hays and alfalfa available as my hays and access to pasture turnout where appropriate.

To this forage foundation I would add a good-quality ration balancer for the easier keepers that will provide all the pieces missing in the hay. These include a higher-quality protein source, a good source of calcium, and trace minerals, as well as vitamin E. If a horse is unable to maintain condition solely on a ration balancer and hay, then having access to a performance or senior feed is very helpful.

I would choose a low-nonstructural-carbohydrate (NSC) performance or senior feed (something around 10% NSC) and a moderate-NSC feed (low to mid–20% NSC). This would enable me to support the harder working or harder keeping horses that need a little extra NSC, such as show jumpers, eventers, and barrel racers, as well as those who might need more calories but have metabolic concerns or just don’t require as much NSC for the type of work they do.

For those horses that are unable to maintain condition on a hay and ration balancer only but don’t require a full feeding amount of the performance/senior feeds, the ration balancer can be used in combination with the performance/senior feed at a lower intake level to “top up” the diet.

Alternatively, instead of having fortified performance/senior feeds, you could have a ration balancer and then use unfortified feeds such as beet pulp, oats, and rice bran for additional calories as needed. You can switch up the amounts of oats, beet pulp, and rice bran depending on whether you feel you want more starch, fermentable fiber, or fat in the ration (check with your veterinarian or equine nutritionist for guidance).

To all these diets, I would add a source of omega-3 fatty acids and salt. Additionally, individual horses might need specialty support in the form of supplements, which the owners would provide.