keeping horse diets consistent
Q.I have five horses of all types and ages, and we all winter in San Diego, California, and summer in Rapid City, South Dakota. I have a hard time finding the same feeds in both locations and know that there are different regional nutrition requirements for things such as minerals based on the available hay and pasture. My herd includes two horses over 20 years old (one with pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction, PPID or equine Cushing’s), two 7-year-old , and a Thoroughbred who struggles to keep weight on.  Is there any way to make this simple?

—Marlene via email

A.Maintaining a similar diet between both locations for your horses will reduce the risk of conditions such as colic and gastric ulcers that can result from the stress of dietary changes. It’s hard for me to know how similar your horses’ needs are because I don’t know whether they’re working and, if so, how hard or what their body weights are. However, there are some basic things that I think you can do that will hopefully keep things simple while at the same time meeting their needs in both locations.

Start With Forage

I would find a good clean grass hay as the basis of all their diets. Ideally this should have a low non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) content, so that it is safe for the horse with PPID. Try to find tested hay that has an NSC of 12% or lower on a dry matter basis. Then you might consider having some alfalfa on hand to feed the Thoroughbred who is harder to keep weight on. Try to shoot for feeding about 70-75% of the forage as grass hay and the rest as alfalfa. If any of the other horses drop weight on grass hay alone, you could also give them some alfalfa. But keep in mind that some horses with PPID don’t seem to handle alfalfa well.

Add a Ration Balancer

Then I would find a ration balancing feed from one of the major national brands, which would be available in both locations. These feeds are highly fortified with trace minerals and necessary vitamins and provide a source of good-quality protein. They are typically low-calorie and have a small 1- to 2-pound per day serving size for most horses.  If you continue to have concerns with weight management, and feeding forage alone isn’t enough, you can add additional calories from unfortified sources such as beet pulp.

And an Omega-3 Source

While your two locations are in geographically very different areas, the majority of nutrient needs are going to be the same. Zinc and copper tend to be low in forages no matter the location, and vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids are low in hay. The ration balancer will take care of the zinc and copper and will provide some vitamin E, but it might not be enough and you might have to supply some additional vitamin E. You’ll also need to add omega-3s separately—flax seed (ideally ground), flax oil, or camelina oil are good plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids.

Make Sure You’re Not Feeding Too Much Selenium

One nutrient that will likely differ between the two locations is selenium. South Dakota has high selenium soils, but a good amount of the grass hay fed in the southern California is sourced from the Pacific Northwest, which is low in selenium. The ration balancers I’ve mentioned have added selenium, which might or might not provide too much selenium when combined with the forage you feed when in South Dakota.

I would highly recommend having that forage tested or consulting with a specialist familiar with the type of forage you are feeding when in South Dakota so he or she can determine whether you need to feed something other than the ration balancer while there. You can also have your veterinarian perform blood work to check your horse’s selenium levels, and this is a good option if testing hay is not a possibility. Talk to your veterinarian in South Dakota to see what he or she recommends.

Consider a Prebiotic

Inevitably you will be changing the type of forage you are feeding, so you might want to feed a good prebiotic leading up to, during, and for a few weeks after the move. Feeding live or hydrolyzed yeast are good options as they support the hindgut environment and beneficial bacteria. Make sure that the colony-forming units (or CFUs—a unit used to estimate the number of viable bacteria or fungal cells) are in the tens of billions, as anything less than this might not be effective.

Take-Home Message

If you’re a snowbird who migrates with your horses, finding a consistent feeding program can pose challenges. Focus on a forage-first diet and have your hay tested to ensure you aren’t overdoing certain nutrients, such as selenium. When it comes to selecting supplemental feed, choose national brands that are available anywhere in the country.