Equine Diet Don'ts

Every day, multiple times a day, you feed your horse. It’s part of the lifestyle of owning horses, and we’ve all learned to appreciate the smell of freshly baled hay and molasses-flavored grain before we’ve had our own morning coffee.

And while you certainly take feeding your horse seriously, it’s easy to overlook some keys to success. Below, we’ll talk about five common mistakes you might be making and how to rectify the situation to improve your horse’s gut health and overall well-being.

1. Feeding by scoop or flake instead of by weight.

Raise your hand if you have ever defaulted to the statement, “My horse gets a scoop of that.”

If you’ve been a horse owner for any amount of time, you probably have your hand up. Everyone has made this mistake at one time or another, either with grain or hay (“He gets two flakes.”).

Here’s the problem with feeding horses by the scoop: Each concentrate or complete feed, while similar in volume, differs in weight. Commercial grain mixes are formulated to be fed at a specific rate; this information is always located on the bag or feed tag. Feeding rates ensure horses receive the correct ratio of micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, which are required in small amounts but have major health implications.

As for hay, one flake of grass hay, on average, weighs 3 to 5 pounds and one flake of alfalfa hay weighs 5 to 7 pounds. Given that a horse requires at least 1% of its body weight in hay or other forage every day, these 2-pound fluctuations in “flakes” can add up to a big difference in your horse’s diet, which affects microbes in the gut that thrive on fiber found in forage.

Jessica Leatherwood, PhD, assistant professor of equine nutrition at Texas A&M University, in College Station, says, “While it may not be practical to weigh your hay on a daily basis, it would be beneficial to weigh hay routinely in response to either new shipments or sources.”

Do this instead:

  • Consult the feed tag for feeding rates based on your horse’s age and activity level.
  • Use a scale (it could be a small kitchen or luggage scale) to measure out the recommended amount of that particular concentrate or complete feed.
  • Pour that grain into the scoop you use so you know how much you need to feed each day. Don’t forget to zero-out the scale first. Divide into the number of times per day you feed and voila!  you know exactly how much grain you must give your horse each feeding for optimal nutrition in scoops. “Consider a single meal of grain to be offered at 0.5% (and up to 0.75%) of the horse’s body weight,” says Leatherwood. If you change the scoop you’re using or switch grains, repeat this process. Once you measure it out by weight once or twice, you won’t have to use the scale.
  • Weigh a few flakes of each batch of hay so you know how much they weigh or if the weight fluctuates. Of course, this varies by bale, so don’t get too obsessive. If you are new to this, weigh flakes periodically to get an idea of what different weights feel like. This practical step will help you offer your horse a consistent amount of hay; with time, your arm will start to become your scale. 
Equine Diet Don'ts

2. Feeding senior feed ­unnecessarily.

A common mistake horse owners make is feeding senior feed to a horse that does not yet have a need for it. While it shouldn’t cause health problems, senior feed is designed to be used as a complete feed. Complete feeds include the fiber portion of a horse’s diet and are designed to be fed to older horses who can no longer chew or digest hay.

“Just being old doesn’t mean a horse requires a senior feed,” explains Brian Nielsen, PhD, PAS, Dipl. ACAN, professor of equine nutrition and exercise physiology at Michigan State University, in East Lansing. “Research done at Michigan State University (Elzinga et al., 2014) revealed that there are no major differences in the ability to absorb macronutrients between older horses (19-28 years) and younger adult horses (5-12 years). This means that there is no need to have a horse on a senior feed simply because they are getting old. However, if your older horse has poor dentition or other problems related to aging, senior feeds can be a wonderful tool to improve the health of your horse.”

Rather than classifying an animal as senior based on his numeric age, consider aging a horse by his physiological changes. One telltale sign is failing dentition and the inability to consume hay efficiently. For this reason, senior horse feeds are formulated to be fed at very high feeding rates, typically upward of 10 pounds per day to account for the forage portion of a horse’s diet.

If you are feeding a nonsenior horse a scoop of senior feed, you’re doing him a disservice by not meeting his micronutrient requirements.

Do this instead:

  • Ask yourself why you’re feeding your horse a senior feed. Is it just to give her a grain treat? Is it for added calories and energy?
  • If you are using senior feed as a treat, a better option might be a ration balancer, which you can feed at low rates of 1 to 2 pounds per day while offering your horse all the required vitamins and minerals. If your horse needs added calories, fat, protein, or energy, choosing a performance horse feed designed to be fed at 3 to 7 pounds per day might be a better option.
  • Talk to an equine nutritionist to be sure your horse’s hay and grain are meeting his nutrient requirements.

3. Overestimating how much work your horse does.

Considering domestic horses evolved from wild predecessors who traveled 20 to 30 miles per day to meet their feed and water needs, it’s clear that most domestic horses are not getting as much exercise as they used to. Further, we tend to overestimate the amount of exercise they do get.

While an unpopular opinion among some, it’s better to be able to see a hint of a horse’s ribs than fat deposits.

“It is challenging to have horse owners feed their horse in a manner that encourages an appropriate body condition score, as people are used to seeing overweight horses and believe it looks good,” says Nielsen. “There is an old saying that ‘fat hides a lot of sins.’ A large number of individuals in the horse industry believe they are knowledgeable but often mistake a horse that is fat for one with good muscling. That being said, it has been known for about 100 years that calorie restriction can lead to a longer life.

“As often happens with horses, dogs, and other pets, many people fall into the trap of ‘killing them with kindness’ by allowing their animals to become overweight,” he continues. “Many health problems could be avoided if horse owners were more diligent in regulating the body condition score of their animals.”

Nielsen is not advocating for skinny animals but, rather, bringing awareness to the fact that fat horses are at significantly higher risk for developing serious and painful health conditions than a slightly ribby horse.

Do this instead:

  • Get real about and classify your horse’s activity level based on the National Research Council’s Nutrient Requirements of Horses recommendations. Keep in mind that most horses fall into the light or moderate work category.
    • Maintenance: Nonworking horses
    • Light work: 1-3 hours of work per week
    • Moderate work: 3-5 hours of work per week
    • Heavy work: 4-5 hours of work per week with significant amounts of time spent cantering
    • Very heavy work: 6-12 hours of work per week
  • Feed at rates that match your horse’s true activity level and increase the ration based on his metabolism. 
  • Be cognizant of a horse that is putting on too much weight or getting too thin. Aim for a body condition score between 4 and 6, and adjust the amount you feed accordingly. Remember, if you change your grain or hay rations, weigh them and feed at a rate that meets your horse’s micronutrient requirements.

“If a horse is no longer performing well on feed, go back to your forage source first and evaluate both the quality and quantity that you are providing,” adds Leatherwood. “In some cases a horse might not require additional grain but, rather, a higher-quality fiber source.”

Equine Diet Don'ts

4. Oversupplementing or changing supplements frequently.

If you’re currently feeding your horse Betty-Crocker-style (i.e., mixing up a whole recipe of grain and supplements at mealtime), you could be doing more harm than good.

A bunch of supplements that were not designed to be fed together can create competitive inhibition and interactions between macro- and micronutrients in the horse’s gastrointestinal tract. For example, excess zinc in a horse’s diet can negatively impact the body’s ability to absorb and use copper. It’s all a balancing act.

At the very least, this means some or most of what you’re feeding your horse might not be used, translating to wasted money. At worst, your horse’s body is overwhelmed and not absorbing the nutrients it needs.

“Supplements are one of the ways in which horse owners often waste money,” says Nielsen. “The number of supplements on the market that have never been proven to do anything far exceeds those that have been proven to be ­efficacious.”

Do this instead:

  • If you are feeding more than two supplements, work with an equine nutritionist to make sure the products don’t have negative interactions and/or side effects when used together.
  • When adding a new supplement to a horse’s ration, be sure to give it ample time to work. In many cases supplement companies say it takes a minimum of 60-90 days to realize a product’s full benefits. Don’t give up too quickly or change supplements too frequently, which could cause GI upset and overwhelm the horse’s body.
  • If you decide to make changes to your horse’s diet, be they in the form of hay, grain, or supplements, do so slowly to minimize digestive disturbances. Leatherwood suggests “a seven- to 10-day transition period in which you add and replace 25% old with 25% new hay or grain. For example, you might feed 25% new with 75% old for two to three days, then 50% new with 50% old for two to three days, and finally 75% new with 25% old for two to three days.”

5. Feeding in meals instead of continually.

Horses’ digestive tracts were designed for slow, continuous feeding rather than the two to three meals per day the domestic lifestyle has normalized. While constant feeding isn’t typically conducive to human schedules, you do have options.

Do this instead:

  • Find a way to offer your horse the most natural lifestyle possible. Some ideas include slow feeders or haynets or keeping your horse on pasture for as many hours per day as is appropriate.
  • Invest in automated feeding stations that distribute customized amounts of feed and forage to individual horses at multiple intervals throughout the day.

Take-Home Message

As horse owners, we’re always trying to do our best for our horses, including at feeding time. Just like our diets sometimes need a tune-up, these recommendations can serve as the level-up you need to ensure your horses’ optimal health.

You might be surprised at the differences you see in your horse’s attitude, condition, and performance when you tighten the nutritional bolts.