We all know the importance of a well-balanced diet to our horses’ overall health; our veterinarians, farriers, feed store owners, and nutritionists drive that message home on a regular basis. However, how we reach that point of balance can vary greatly and can impact our pocketbooks significantly. In general, if we are willing to put in the extra little legwork, we (and our horses) might get significantly more out of our feed and, perhaps, even save some money in the process.
Assessing a horse’s diet accurately is a key part of that legwork. Using the National Research Council’s Nutrient Requirements of Horses (2007), you can estimate your horse’s energy, protein, calcium, and phosphorus requirements, among others, using information such as body weight, activity level, and physiologic status (in a period of growth, lactation, etc.).
Once you know your horse’s nutritional requirements, you can look at your available feedstuffs and determine how they contribute to meeting these requirements. In general, we feed our horses a blend of forages (hay or pasture), concentrates (grains and grain mixes, often commercially formulated mixed rations), and sometimes supplements. To balance a ration, start by looking at the nutrients the forages provide and add concentrates and supplements as needed to meet any deficiencies. Typically, forages are the least expensive part of the diet, while commercial concentrates and supplements are the priciest. Thus, if you can maximize the amount of forage you feed, which in fact meets many of your horse’s nutritional needs, you can potentially save money.
Forage is King
Horse owners tend to underestimate forage’s nutritional value in the overall diet. Pasture and, to a lesser extent, hay can provide sufficient energy (calories), protein, and minerals for most horses. Pasture is also an excellent source of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and E, though these amounts decline when pasture grass is cut for hay and stored.
"Pasture has adequate amounts of nutrients to support many classes of horses, including pregnant mares, a class of horses representing some of the highest metabolic requirements," says Emily Glunk, MS, who is working on her doctorate at the University of Minnesota and has completed research on forage utilization in horses. "Hay, on the other hand, is usually lower in caloric and nutrient content due to drying and processing; however, it can still provide a large portion of a horse’s nutrient requirements, in particular energy, protein, calcium, and phosphorus."
Forage’s nutritional quality depends primarily on the plants present. For example, a pasture or hay with a high concentration of legumes (such as clover or alfalfa) offers higher protein and calcium levels than one composed of mainly grasses (such as timothy, fescue, or orchardgrass). The plant’s maturity also greatly affects quality, with younger plants (in their ¬"vegetative" stage, rather than mature and with seedheads present) having higher nutritional quality than older plants.
Pasture management strategies also impact forage production and overall quality. Glunk suggests implementing rotational grazing (dividing pastures into smaller grazing plots) as opposed to permitting continuous grazing over the entire pasture. "Rotational grazing has been shown to increase yield of forage per acre, thus resulting in more nutrition available per horse," she explains. "Soil samples of your pasture should be taken to provide information for accurate fertilization to also improve yield and nutritional quality. (Cultivating) a variety of warm- and cool-season grasses will help provide adequate forage for a longer grazing season."
Determining the nutrients your forage provides requires knowing the forage’s specific nutritional composition: While you might obtain some hints simply by recognizing what plants are present in your hay or pasture, having them analyzed is vital to balancing your horse’s diet accurately. Basic nutritional analyses cost only $15-25, but you might need to run more than one to account for variations in different hay batches, areas of pasture, or even time of year (or day). Glunk encourages horse owners to order a pasture analysis at least once per year and to have each batch of hay analyzed to increase the accuracy of ration balancing. More detailed analyses that measure additional vitamins or minerals might be more expensive.
Assessing how much hay your horse eats simply requires a scale, though determining pasture intake is a little trickier. Horses consume on average 1.5 g of dry matter per kg body weight per hour; however, Glunk’s research results suggest horses might not consume grass at a constant rate while at pasture. "Depending on the length of turnout time, intake ranged from 0.55 g /kg body weight/hour when horses were out for 24 hours compared to almost 2 g/kg body weight/hour when turnout was limited to three hours," she says. "In fact, horses are able to consume 50% of their daily caloric requirements in only three to four hours of grazing, which has significant implications for ration balancing, particularly for horses that are at risk for obesity."
Because owners usually purchase concentrates to meet nutritional needs that forage does not satisfy, maximizing horses’ forage quality and intake is one important step toward cost saving. Analyzing hay and pasture is, indeed, an investment, and higher protein hays containing legumes typically cost more than grass hays. However, savings in concentrate costs generally offset these expenditures, as analysis allows you to select any needed concentrates more accurately, and high-quality hay can mean the horse requires smaller amounts or lower protein concentrates.
These concentrates are a mixture of cereal grains (oats, corn, etc.), byproducts (alfalfa meal, beet pulp, etc.), protein (soybean meal), fats (oil), and additional vitamins and minerals formulated to meet a specific class of horses’ needs. After you have determined what your horse is getting from his forage, design a ration suited specifically to meeting his remaining nutritional needs. For example, if your horse’s forage meets his protein requirements easily but does not meet his energy needs, you could offer beet pulp and/or oats, along with some vegetable oil, to create a lower protein, high-energy feed (just be careful not to offset any other nutritional needs or ratios).
If all your horse needs is some vitamins in addition to the nutrients his forage provides, you can purchase a vitamin supplement. In fact, after your hay or pasture analysis you might find that only a few minerals are lacking, and you can purchase those individually (i.e., rather than buy a broad-range mineral supplement, you can purchase dicalcium-phosphate to top off the calcium and phosphorus in your horse’s diet). Purchasing vitamins and minerals directly from a feed mill (rather than a tack store) is also a way to save money.
Let’s say you’re feeding lower-quality hay and your horse’s diet lacks energy, protein, and several vitamins and minerals. It might be more cost-effective to purchase and mix the raw ingredients (yourself or at a feed mill) than to offer a commercial mix. Alternatively, many feed companies offer lower-cost feed mix options that might be perfectly suitable for your horse. The time and care required to hand-mix daily rations is one reason we often purchase commercial professionally formulated feed mixes. Many feed companies have technical representatives who can help you choose a commercial grain mix based on your hay or pasture analysis results.
Finer ration balancing and hand-mixing can be beyond an average horse owner’s scope; he or she must pursue a nutritional consultation. A quick Internet search can return a wide range of professionals available who offer equine nutritional consultation, charging anywhere from $50-200 per hour to a flat fee of $80-250 per horse). Group discounts might be available if you have more than one horse or if owners of a few horses at your barn want to hire someone together. While these costs can seem high, consider the individual’s education (often a doctoral degree in equine nutrition) and the time and costs associated with a consult (site visit, mileage, ration balancing software, etc.). Furthermore, similar to a hay analysis, a nutritional consult is an investment in your horse and might help you manage any nutrition-related conditions, along with saving you some money in unnecessary feed costs.
"Clients see a return on their investment in a consultation from a qualified nutritionist right away because I generally recommend dropping a lot of ineffective supplements and often change the type of hay and concentrate the horse is getting so that it better suits their needs," says Amy M. Gill, PhD, an independent equine nutrition consultant based in Lexington, Ky. "A one-time fee each year is quickly recouped if the client saves up to $50 or $100 per month by eliminating an expensive, ineffective, or redundant supplement."
A word of caution: You often get what you pay for. Look for a nutritionist who ideally has a PhD in equine nutrition (though a Masters degree might be sufficient) from a respected university, has extensive hands-on experience, and might also have additional qualifications (e.g., a "professional animal scientist" designation, or PAS).
As Gill acknowledges, ration evaluation might reveal that the wide range of ¬nutritional supplements we use are not even necessary. "If the horse is being fed the correct forage and concentrate or protein, vitamin, and mineral supplement, further supplementation of vitamins, minerals, and additional protein is not useful and may be detrimental," she explains.
Specialty supplements might also be more economical if you focus on the key nutrients. For example, hoof supplements contain a wide range of vitamins and minerals, though the key nutrient that has been scientifically proven as effective in improving hoof quality is the B vitamin biotin. Thus, Gill says, it might be cheaper to purchase straight biotin, rather than the commercial blends that include many other ingredients.
Another word of caution: Very few available supplements have been scientifically proven to (successfully) treat or improve the vast majority of issues they are marketed for. Therefore, unproven products might be draining your wallet unnecessarily. In some cases, medications targeting the same health issue that seem more expensive are more effective and in the long run might also be cheaper. For example, ulcer supplements seem cheaper than omeprazole, but they might be less effective at curing existing ulcers. Similarly, your veterinarian might recommend injecting your horse’s joints periodically with hyaluronic acid rather than using oral joint supplements, many of which have conflicting evidence to their effectiveness. Thus, first consult him or her about adding supplements to your horse’s diet.
Your focus when designing your horse’s diet should be meeting his individual nutrient requirements. With a little effort and, perhaps, an initial investment, you can meet these needs; you never want to skimp on your horse’s nutrients to save a few pennies. You might find, however, that in being deliberate about balancing his diet you actually save money. Always work with a qualified equine nutritionist (either an independent nutritionist or one who works with a feed company) and your veterinarian to implement a proper feeding plan for your horse.