Nutrients Requirements for Horses

The National Research Council’s Nutrients Requirements for Horses, which lists the appropriate nutrient levels that should be included in equine diets, could be getting an update in the future. But how and when does an update to such an important resource happen? And how might the public be able to help an update come to fruition? Here’s what you need to know.

Established by an Act of Congress and signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), is a private nonprofit society of distinguished scholars charged with providing independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology. The National Research Council was established in 1916 as a NAS operation to investigate how the study of science and resulting data could help develop American industries and contribute to national security. Since then, the NAS and the National Research Council have provided independent, objective advice to a variety of agencies, including the USDA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDS).

In 1989, the National Research Council published the first edition of Nutrient Requirements of Horses (colloquially called the NRC), which covered the dietary and nutrient requirements for horses based on breed, age, exercise intensity, and reproductive state (i.e., pregnant or lactating).

“That reference book is my ‘go to,’ ” said equine nutritionist Jennie Ivey, PhD, PAS, an assistant professor and equine extension specialist for the University of Tennessee, in Knoxville.

Information contained in the report is slated for revision every 10 years, said Robin Schoen, MA, director of the NAS Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources, in Washington, D.C. The latest NRC update was published in 2007.

“Agencies such as the FDA uses our books as reference for regulations for the safety of animal feeds, so we look at whether something needs to be updated and ask if there is enough new stuff to warrant an update and whether or not there are new feed ingredients,” she said. “Sometimes those new ingredients night include co-products (or byproducts), such as oat meal husks, that come from the production of something else.”

The update process begins by establishing a committee of volunteer scientists—including researchers and nutritionists—who review existing data and determine whether an update is necessary and what information might be included in the revised report.

“The committee is in charge taking a deep dive into the literature to decipher what differences there might be in the available literature,” Schoen said. “For example, one Canadian study might say that a horse needs a certain nutrient, but there might be a report from another group saying something else. They have to read every paper and report out there and make their recommendations.”

That done, those recommendations are then given to another independent committee for review. The entire process—from research to publication—takes about two years, Schoen says. Though the work is exhaustive and time consuming, recruiting volunteers for the research committee is not difficult, Schoen said.

“It’s usually a combination of young and senior people, and it’s kind of a big deal,” Schoen said. “It’s like having a PhD. Its something you definitely want to add to your CV (Curriculum Vitae).”

Financing the $400,000 cost of preparing and publishing an update is another matter. Schoen said some of the revenue is provided by agencies that contribute to NAS operations, such as the FDA or USDA. 

“But, like all government funds, those are shrinking,” she said.

Other revenue is derived from contributions financially interested parties, such as by large-scale manufacturers, livestock and crop producers, and industry associations, she said.

“Some of the big companies have funds set aside for research and education, and some funds come from those grants,” Schoen said. “But we decide what percentage of the money we receive comes from financially interested parties. The NAS is pretty protective of its independence.”

So, this time, funds for the proposed NRC update could come from public contributions, as well.

“We’ve never done crowd-funding for something like this, but I’d rather have money come from the general public.” Schoen said. “We’ll see.”

In the meantime, discussions on the possible update are still in the works. Schoen said the committee will spend the next six months deciding whether a horse nutrition update is warranted.

Whether and how the public might financially contribute to the effort will be decided, as well.

For now, though, horse owners will continue to benefit from the 2007 update, whether they realize it or not.

“The information contained in the big book or the update is much too technical for most horse owners to read, but if an owner calls me … I can tell them what nutrients they need,” Ivey said. “I can put it though the system and get the answer.”