Horse eating from tub
Q. I was recently looking at a feed company’s product offerings and realized there are lots of feed types from which to choose. The company had four or five performance feeds and a couple different senior, broodmare, and young horse feeds, as well as feeds for horses with special needs. Why so many? Are they really all that different and, if so, how are you supposed to know which one to select?

A. The number of available options when it comes to selecting commercial horse feeds is mind-boggling, and, as you point out, there are often many options within one company’s offerings. Typically a company will offer different feeds for horses of varying life stages, as well as multiple options for working horses. Some companies also have economy and premium lines, as well as pelleted and textured options, which add additional layers of choice.

Life-Stage Horse Feeds: Broodmares, Young Horses, and Senior Horses

Two life-stage specific are feeds for (1) broodmares/growing young stock and (2) senior horses. If you look carefully you will often find some similarities between these feeds. They tend to have slightly higher protein, often 14% or higher for the mare and foal feeds. These feeds tend to guarantee essential amino acid levels, because adequate lysine is vital for growing horses.

Senior horses might also benefit from higher key essential amino acid levels because they sometimes don’t utilize dietary protein as well as younger horses.

Manufacturers typically design foal feeds to be offered alongside forage; therefore, these aren’t complete feeds (no additional forage is needed as long as feeding directions are followed), whereas many senior feeds are. This is because some senior horses are unable to chew hay. However, some senior feeds aren’t complete, and it’s important to check for these details.

Senior Horse Feeds for Younger Hard-Keepers

Just to make things more confusing, senior feeds are often fed to younger horses, because these feeds contain higher levels of fortification, more fiber, and readily digestible ingredients. This can make them a good choice for harder keepers of all ages. Plus, the high fiber content makes them relatively safe to feed in larger amounts.

However, it’s very easy to incorrectly portion senior feeds, and feeding only a pound of a complete senior feed is one of the most common mistakes I see as an equine nutritionist. When I ask the purpose of feeding this amount, the horse owner’s response is often that it’s a complete feed, so it provides everything their horse needs. This is indeed true if fed per the directions, but fed at a pound per day, deficiencies in key nutrients likely exist.

Horses With Metabolic Issues

It’s important to note that not all senior feeds are appropriate for senior horse that have metabolic problems such as equine metabolic syndrome (EMS), insulin resistance, or pituitary pars intermediary dysfunction (PPID, or equine Cushing’s disease). If you’re feeding a horse with these conditions, make sure the feed is appropriately low in nonstructural carbohydrates (NSCs).

Feeding Adult Horses

When it comes to selecting feeds for mature horses, work level is a major determining factor in what sort of feed is needed, combined with whether the horse is an easy or hard keeper.

A simple way to think about feeds for mature horses is to ask whether that horse can maintain ideal body weight when fed forage alone. If the answer is yes, then the feed will need fill in missing nutritional pieces forage doesn’t provide. Depending on the amount and quality of forage you feed this will most likely be trace minerals such as copper, zinc, selenium (depending on where forage is grown), vitamin E, and possibly vitamin A, combined with some quality protein.

Since added calories aren’t required in this easy-keeper scenario, the feeding rate per day of such a feed will be quite low, often 1 to 2 pounds per day. The feed ingredients will likely include soy bean meal as a protein source combined with a lot of mineral and vitamin sources. These feeds are referred to as ration balancers.

If your horse can’t maintain body condition on forage along, you’ll want to look for a slightly or much higher calorie feed.

Some feed companies make concentrate feeds that have a slightly larger serving size of no more than around 4 pounds per day. These are generally made up of a combination of high-fiber ingredients, soybean meal, a moderate-calorie ingredient such as wheat middlings combined with the vitamin mineral ingredients. Such feeds offer slightly more calories than a ration balancer and are often good for horses in light work that just need that little bit more than hay and a ration balancer, but not the calories offered by a true performance feed.

Despite the number of options, performance feeds have a number of similarities. The number one purpose is to contribute additional calories to the total ration in a denser form than forage. This means a performance feed typically provides approximately 1.5 times more calories per pound than a pound of forage on a dry matter basis. Some high-fat performance feeds provide even higher calorie levels than this. Most performance feeds also have a minimum daily serving size of around 6 pounds per day but can be fed at double this to very hard-working horses.

Because of the larger serving size, the vitamin/mineral concentration per pound is lower than in the ration balancer. This is why, if fed at amounts less than those recommended, nutrient deficiencies can result.

While performance feeds offer more calories, how they provide these calories can differ. Some performance feeds utilize higher starch grains, some contain super fibers such as beet pulp or soybean hulls, and others use fat sources such as rice bran and vegetable oil. High-fat, high-fiber feeds have become popular, and some of these feeds provide close to 2 Mcals of digestible energy per pound.

The type of work your horse does also impacts the type of performance feed you choose. Horses participating in competition disciplines where anaerobic work is necessary will benefit from performance feeds with higher starch versus those participating in aerobic disciplines, where high fat might be beneficial. Horses in some disciplines, such as eventing, do well with a combination of moderate starch (20-25%) combined with higher fat (8 to 10%).

Low-Starch Feed Options

Many low starch feeds exist, and many are suitable for performance horses, although they’re often misfed to horses with EMS doing only light work. Low-starch performance feeds are not low calorie, and I often see them being fed at 1 or 2 pounds to horse in little to no work because they’re insulin resistant and owners feel they “need” a low starch feed. While this is true, what they really need is a low-NSC feed that is formulated to be fed at only 1 to 2 pounds per day. This is most likely a ration balancer.

Take-Home Message

The number of commercial feed options for horses can seem overwhelming. Step back and think logically about your horse, his body condition, the level and type of work he does, and how easily he holds his weight. Then consider the type of feed you need and read the feeding instructions and ingredient list to make good decisions about the right feed for your horse.