How To Feed Performance Horses on a Budget

Q. Do you have advice for those of us feeding performance horses on tight budgets?

Glen from Trinidad

A. In my job as an equine nutrition consultant, clients commonly come to me with long lists of products they’re feeding their horses. This is particularly true of my performance horse clients. When added together the cost of these products is significant, sometimes exceeding $5 per day. This kind of budget is not realistic for many who own performance horses. So, your question is a good one.

My advice is to start at the foundation of your horse’s diet and to be fastidious about management. Don’t scrimp on quality forage—it’s the best investment for your feeding dollars. The more you can feed your horse like a horse, the less likely you will incur expensive veterinary bills associated with conditions such as gastric ulcers and colic and the less reliant you will be on concentrate feeds. Make sure the forage is clean and as free of dust as possible, as this will protect airway health. Feed as much forage as you can to honor your horse’s digestive tract anatomy and physiology.

Forage, however, cannot provide everything your horse needs all year round. Even if your forage source is pasture, at some point in the year its quality and abundance will likely drop. Neither pasture nor hay typically provides adequate levels of trace minerals, might not provide adequate vitamins such as vitamin E and, depending on the individual horse and discipline, might not provide adequate calories. This makes a concentrate, commercial feed, or a balancing supplement necessary.

Select a feed you can offer properly per the manufacturer’s directions. If you’re only going to feed a couple of pounds a day, don’t be fooled by the fact the performance or senior feed is significantly cheaper per bag than the ration balancer. Those feeds have daily feeding rates typically in the range of 0.5 to 1 pounds per 100 pounds of body weight. Feeding less than this will leave your horse with key deficiencies that over time might cause health issues and have you reaching for hoof supplements, coat products, and additives that support topline development. Paying more per bag for the ration balancer and feeding it per directions will likely save you money in the long run.

Other essentials include:

  1. Fresh, clean water;
  2. Salt provided daily, ideally in the feed, with free access to an additional source;
  3. Omega-3 fatty acids for horses not grazing pasture for 12 or more hours per day; and
  4. Possibly additional vitamin E for those same horses.

Vitamin E supplementation is relatively expensive, and not all horses require it. So, put some money toward getting your horse tested to see whether supplementation is necessary. Horses with deficient or marginal levels of vitamin E in their bodies are at risk of developing conditions such as vitamin E deficiency muscle myopathy and equine motor neurons disease, so this is an investment worth making. Ask your veterinarian to take blood during an already-scheduled visit such as spring or fall vaccinations or during a dental check to save on an additional farm fee.

Whether your horse is going to need supplements depends on his individual needs. Does he have underlying health conditions that need additional support, such as allergies, or need digestive tract support? Do you have the budget remaining to add a joint supplement if you want one? If you decide to add other products, have a clear reason for adding them. Don’t add products just because someone else in your barn is doing it for their horse and seems to be having good results. Their base diet might not be as solid as yours, or their horse’s situation might not be the same as yours. Also, don’t feel bad if you don’t have the budget to add more. Very little research exists on the efficacy of many supplements. If possible, try to use products backed by research so you have some peace of mind that the products do what they say they will.

Also consider investing in a consultation with a qualified equine nutritionist. While it might include an upfront expense, if you explain your situation, they should be able to help guide you toward a diet that meets your horse’s needs as well as your budget. That peace of mind can be priceless.