Recipes for Success: Formulating Equine Diets

Does your horse need a dollop, dab, pinch, or peck? Learn to formulate a diet based on age, body condition, and health status

Whether your adult horse is an average Joe, an easy or hard keeper, an athlete, a golden oldie, or has an underlying medical condition that requires a special diet, he has certain nutrient needs and calorie requirements you must factor into his daily rations.

“Diet is the foundation of equine health and welfare,” says Kathleen Crandell, PhD, a nutritionist with Kentucky Equine Research in Versailles. “This holds especially true now more than ever, considering the recent explosion of equine obesity and other nutrition-related diseases.”

In this article we’ll provide practical recipes for adult horses at various life stages and with specific medical conditions.

Even the best chefs in the world, however, can’t please every palate. You’ll likely need to fine-tune your horse’s diet based on his particular needs and preferences.

Maintenance Diet

Forage Feed 1.5-2% of body weight (BW) on a dry matter basis (including pasture or hay/haylage) per 24 hours. This is equivalent to 15-20 pounds of dried forage each day for a 1,000-pound horse.
Salt Offer a salt block (not a red mineral block) or top-dress feed with 1-2 tablespoons of table salt per day.
Water Provide ad-lib.

 

A maintenance diet is one that provides all the essential nutrients (vitamins, minerals, protein, fat, carbohydrates, etc.) a horse needs to maintain a healthy body weight. The maintenance diet is suitable for many pleasure horses without medical conditions, including horses in light work.

If your horse’s forage source is primarily hay, with minimal pasture, it becomes particularly important to weigh your hay rather than simply counting flakes.

“The National Research Council and recent research have shown that our modern-day forages are low in some essential nutrients,” says Crandell. “This is why equine nutritionists often promote a ration balancer or vitamin/mineral supplement for horses on pasture or hay alone.”

A ration balancer is designed to provide horses with all the nutrients they need that aren’t already met by quality forage.

You can easily modify this maintenance diet to meet the needs of easy keepers, defined as horses that easily maintain a body condition score (BCS) of 5-6 on the nine-point Henneke scale (TheHorse.com/137703). The major difference is you’ll need to restrict the number of calories they consume. Try decreasing the forage you feed to 1.4-1.7% of BW for easy keepers, and monitor body weight and BCS routinely to avoid obesity. In addition, consider adding more exercise. Several studies show that a combination of diet restriction and exercise achieves better results than instituting either change alone.

Hard Keepers

Forage Start by providing the maximal amount of high-quality forage. You can offer as much as 2.5% of BW in forage on a dry matter basis per day, some of which can be alfalfa. Replacing regular hay with 5-6 pounds of alfalfa can provide approximately 1,500 more calories per day.
Concentrate If your horse needs more calories than alfalfa alone can provide, add a concentrate. Start with a lower-starch concentrate rich in super fibers.
Fat To add calorie-laden fat, top-dress the concentrate with about ¼ cup of vegetable oil at each meal. Increase this amount to 1-2 cups at most over two to three weeks to allow the gastrointestinal tract to adjust.
Salt Offer a salt block or top-dress feed.
Water Provide ad-lib.

 

Hard keepers have difficulty maintaining a body condition of 5-6. They require additional calories either in the form of more forage, concentrates, and/or fat than that of the basic maintenance diet.

Performance Horses

Forage Offer 2-2.5% of BW in forage on a dry matter basis. High-quality hay and super fibers such as beet pulp and soy hulls ferment more efficiently in the large colon to produce energy.
Concentrate For additional calories that forage alone can’t provide, offer concentrate feeds specially formulated for performance horses.
Fat If your horse needs even more calories, offer vegetable oil (as described for hard keepers).
Salt Offer a salt block or top-dress feed.
Water Provide ad-lib.

 

Performance horses, like hard keepers, require extra calories to maintain appropriate condition. First, though, you need to be certain your horse is actually in heavy work before offering a high-calorie diet.

“According to the National Research Council’s Nutrient Requirements of Horses, examples of horses in heavy work include those involved in ranch work, polo ponies and show horses, low- to medium-level eventers, and horses in race training,” Crandell says. “These horses exercise about four to five hours per week with an approximate breakdown of 20% walking, 50% trotting, and 15% each of cantering, galloping, or other skills training.”

Performance horses require approximately 25% more calories than the basic maintenance diet provides. Further, be certain to include starch in performance horses’ diets to ensure they have enough energy and stamina for their jobs.

As an aside, says Crandell, “always add concentrates to the horse’s diet slowly at a maximum of 5 pounds per feeding or a maximum of 1.5% BW per day. Spread the concentrate out over several feedings rather than the traditional meals at breakfast and dinnertime.”

Horses With Endocrine Issues

Forage

Offer only sufficient forage to maintain a BCS of 5-6. Forage should have <10% nonstructural carbohydrates (NCS, simple sugars that raise blood sugar). If your hay contains more than this, soak or steam it to achieve <10% NCS.

Ration Balancer

Supplement the diet with a low-intake ration balancer if soaking or steaming hay to replace vitamins and minerals leached during the  process.

Salt Offer a salt block or top-dress feed.
Water Provide ad-lib.

 

For horses with endocrinopathies such as insulin dysregulation (abnormal blood insulin levels) and equine metabolic syndrome, the idea is to provide less sugar and starch for the stomach and small intestine to absorb into the bloodstream. Instead, offer low-NSC forage, which is fermented in the hindgut to provide energy with little increase in blood sugar. You’ll need to have each batch of new hay or haylage analyzed to determine its percentage of NSCs (find out how at TheHorse.com/19037). Low-sugar, low-starch diets also help minimize laminitis flare-ups, a common sequelae in these horses.

According to the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), horses with pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID, or equine Cushing’s disease) also benefit from low-NSC diets.

“Limited sweet feeds and higher-starch concentrates should be offered to horses with PPID due to the increased risk of laminitis,” says Crandell.

The AAEP also recommends offering metabolic horses low-sugar commercial senior feeds. If your horse needs extra calories in addition to forage and a commercial feed, consider adding dietary fat.

Senior Horses

Forage

Give 1.5-2% of BW in forage on a dry matter basis.

Concentrate

For healthy elderly horses that tend to lose weight, offer commercial feeds that prevent weight loss. These contain 10-14% protein in the form of soybean meal or legumes, added fat and phosphorus, and restricted calcium.

Alternative Fiber Sources

You might feed seniors with dental issues high-fiber commercial pellets, soaked hay cubes, or soaked unmolassed sugar beet pulp.

Fat

To add energy (calories) to the diet, gradually include vegetable oil as described for hard ­keepers.

Salt Offer a salt block or top-dress feed
Water Provide ad-lib

 

As the population of senior and geriatric horses grows, so does interest in the best ways to feed them. Nicola G. Jarvis, BVetMed, CertAVP(EM), CertAVP(ESST), MRCVS, senior veterinary surgeon at Redwings Horse Sanctuary, in Norfolk, U.K., recommends basing diet decisions on horses’ apparent age and disease status rather than simply chronological age.

“Horses that are maintaining good body condition, are clinically normal and in use, either performance or reproduction, can manage just fine on a standard adult maintenance diet,” says Jarvis. “It is only once problems arise—failing dentition being the commonest challenge older horses face—that diet must be altered.”

Signs of dental disease can include quidding (dropping partially chewed food from the mouth), halitosis (bad breath), sinusitis (sinus infection), pocketing food in the cheeks, weight loss, inappetence, dysphagia (difficulty swallowing), and changes in fecal consistency.

“Routine annual dental care is essential in all horses but may need to be carried out more frequently in the older horse,” says Jarvis. “Nonetheless, these animals may still have dental issues that result from age rather than dental disease, such as ‘smooth mouth’ or missing teeth. They may be unable to chew forage sufficiently, which may result in (additional signs such as) choke or impactions of the large colon (a form of colic).”

To prevent choke or colic, she says, these horses benefit from a “no long-fiber diet” composed of commercial high-fiber pellets, for example. You can offer these dry or soaked, and they’re often low in starch and sugar and, therefore, suitable for older horses with PPID.

“Be aware that other factors can also contribute to weight loss, such as chronic pain due to osteoarthritis or social issues such as competition for food by herdmates,” Jarvis adds.

Broodmares

Forage

Offer ad-lib. Avoid tall fescue during the third trimester.

Concentrate

When energy demands increase, add a commercial concentrate feed, and follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for each stage of gestation.

Fat

Add fat (vegetable oil, usually) to the diet slowly for extra calories.

Ration balancer

Mares that maintain condition on forage alone might not have sufficient vitamin and mineral intake and can benefit from a fortified ration balancer. If BCS is a concern, look for low-intake balancers with fewer calories.

Salt Offer a salt block or top-dress feed
Water Provide ad-lib

 

Most broodmares can maintain condition with the basic maintenance recipe for about the first half of pregnancy. It is not until the fifth month that their energy requirements begin to skyrocket as the foal grows rapidly.

“The pregnant mare will gain approximately 12-15% of her initial body weight during pregnancy, and by the final throes she requires approximately 20-22% more calories than what is provided in her maintenance diet,” Crandell says.

Assess a broodmare’s condition about once weekly to make sure she maintains a BCS of 5-6 throughout gestation and ­lactation.

Be aware that micronutrient requirements change markedly during gestation. For example, pregnant broodmares require additional vitamin A and E, as well as increased dietary calcium and phosphorus, at seven months. Copper and zinc needs also increase slightly at nine months.

You can usually meet a mare’s protein requirements, which increase during pregnancy, with either ration balancers or concentrate feeds, following manufacturer recommendations.

“Be careful not to overfeed this population,” says Crandell. “Overweight broodmares have more difficulty conceiving after foaling, and their foals have an increased risk of developing nutritional-associated metabolic conditions later in life.”

Take-Home Message

For maximal health, welfare, and longevity, focus on:

  • Accurately assessing a horse’s body weight and BCS;
  • Ensuring the diet is balanced, in terms of all micro- and macronutrients, based on the horse’s phenotype (observable characteristics, e.g., easy vs. hard keeper), use, age, and underlying disease status; and
  • Offering smaller, more frequent meals spread throughout the day, instead of only morning and evening meals, to avoid gastric issues such as ulcers and colic.

Offering unnecessary concentrates or nutritional supplements is not economical, can double up on certain macro- and micronutrients, and lead to obesity, which is now recognized as a true welfare issue,” Crandell says. 

Understand common reasons for obesity, such as owner preference for overconditioned horses, lack of knowledge of appropriate BCS, improved pasture quality, the overuse of calorie-dense feeds, and pasture overstocking that restricts unstructured exercise. Use the tips and tools in this article to optimize your horse’s nutrition, and seek assistance from a veterinarian or nutritionist if you encounter roadblocks along the way.