HOW TO FEED YOUR HORSE
Learn about feeding basics, from hydration and forage to feeds and supplements, so you can make the best nutritional choices for your horse
By Beth Rasin
PHOTO: Bianca McCarty Photography
PHOTO: Shelley Paulson
BEGIN WITH THE BODY CONDITION SCORE
Knowing where your horse falls on the Henneke body condition scoring system is essential to selecting the appropriate diet. This spectrum, developed by Don Henneke, PhD, at Texas A&M University, involves visually examining the horse and palpating six areas of the horse’s body, using a scale of 1 (extremely poor condition) to 9 (extremely overweight).
Although the system is subjective, says Rachel Mottet, PhD, an equine nutritionist and owner of Legacy Equine Nutrition, in Williston, Florida, it offers good clues about your horse’s condition.
“Many owners can’t tell if their horse is ideal weight, overweight, or underweight,” Mottet says. “Many times a horse can look healthy but is actually obese, and that situation is a ticking time bomb for laminitis and insulin resistance.”
She focuses on five of the six areas on the Henneke scale—the crest of the neck, behind the shoulder, over the rib cage, along the back, and at the tailhead—giving less importance to the withers. That’s because the withers can score a 1 or 2 for breeds such as Thoroughbreds, even on horses in good weight.
“The ribs are going to be more prominent in the overall score,” says Mottet, who suggests looking up online videos about where to palpate. “If you can see them before palpating, the horse is going to be automatically less than a 5. If you can’t see the ribs, they are usually at least a 5.”
Devan Catalano, PhD, an assistant professor at Colorado State University and equine extension specialist, stresses the importance of palpating and not just visually assessing, especially with horses above a 5, to distinguish the difference between fat vs. muscle.
“Fat is going to generally feel lighter and spongier compared to muscle, which will feel firm to the touch,” she says. “I often suggest feeling this difference on yourself first. Other good systems for horse owners to learn are the cresty neck scoring system and the topline evaluation score. Body condition score directly ties into feed selection, in conjunction with the horse’s workload.”
Rachel Mottet, MS, PhD,
is an equine nutritionist and owner of Legacy Equine Nutrition. She has worked with horse owners all over the world, including FEI and Olympic competitors in numerous disciplines, and has successfully formulated diets for thousands of horses.
Through her equine nutrition consulting business, Mottet teaches equine nutrition courses to veterinarians and equine professionals. She is an active hunter/jumper competitor and owns two horses and two dogs. She lives on a farm in Williston, Florida, and spends her free time watching competitions at the World Equestrian Center.
Devan Catalano, MS, PhD,
is the equine extension specialist for Colorado State University (CSU), in Fort Collins. In addition to her extension efforts, Catalano conducts research on nutrition and forage management and coordinates the CSU Legends of Ranching performance horse sale. She grew up riding hunter/jumpers and dabbled in eventing but now enjoys trail riding with her Appaloosa gelding, Tio. When not in the barn, Catalano enjoys hiking with her husband and two rescue dogs.
PHOTO: Getty Images
FOCUS ON FORAGE
Forage is, without a doubt, the foundation of any good feeding plan. The average horse consumes 17 to 22 pounds of feed per day, most of which should come from hay or pasture, says Catalano.
Don’t, however, assume all horses need free-choice forage, says Mottet.
“It doesn’t mean nonstop hay to every horse on the property,” she says. “Hard keepers and those maintaining good body condition on free choice can benefit from free-choice forage, but those who are overweight should be managed with a limited amount of forage. Going with a slow-feeder haynet in these cases can be a great way to mimic natural, continuous eating without the additional calories of free choice.”
Nutritionists recommend most horses—even those on calorie-restricted diets—consume 1.5 to 2% of their weight in forage daily.
“The lowest I’d go, in an emergency situation with an obese horse that is actively foundering, is 1.2%,” says Mottet. “Even on a diet, they need fiber flowing through their digestive tract, so going lower than this can be problematic.” In these cases you might offer the horse a lower-quality hay.
How do you assess the quality of your forage?
Catalano suggests testing it: “There are many commercial labs that offer forage testing around the U.S. and world. Look for an equine package that includes sugars and starches (nonstructural carbohydrates, NSC; water-soluble carbohydrates, WSC; ethanol-soluble carbohydrates, ESC) and equine digestible energy (DE). Forage testing is more straightforward for hay—pasture testing requires immediate drying or freezing with overnight shipping. If you manage your own farm with pasture, get your soil tested at least every three years and fertilize accordingly. While soil testing doesn’t tell us what is in the grass itself, healthy soil grows healthy plants.”
Mottet says testing is only useful if you have a large batch of hay from one cutting that will last you four or more weeks; if you’re buying it from the feed store a few weeks at a time, that hay will likely be different each time.
Just as important as the analysis, she says, is knowing how much you are feeding by weight. “Take a hand scale and weigh it,” she says. “You’d be shocked in the work I do consulting—sometimes people think they’re giving 40 pounds, and we weigh it and it’s closer to 12 pounds.”
When it comes to the the quality of hay, she says it all depends on hay maturity and when it was cut. “Any cutting, any variety, can be good or bad,” she says. “It’s difficult to assess because the weather can be a wild card.”
Instead, she says, focus on the quality: “I don’t like to see really stemmy, coarse hay, unless (it’s for very easy keepers). As the hay gets more mature, the fraction of indigestible (parts is) going to increase and the protein is going to go down, and other nutrients can decrease.”
Soft and green doesn’t always mean hay is good, Mottet adds; inspect it for debris, dust, dirt, or extra-stemmy, sun-bleached parts.
PHOTO: TheHorse.com/Alexandra Beckstett
CHOOSE THE APPROPRIATE FEED
Now that you know your horse’s body condition score and forage needs, you’re ready to look at supplemental feeding options.
“Is your horse overweight? Ration balancer,” says Catalano. “Is your horse underweight? Look into a performance or senior feed.”
Yes, you heard that right: Even those easy keepers need a ration balancer, or a feed designed to be fed alongside forage. “Every forage—hay or pasture—has some nutritional holes in it,” says Mottet. “Adding a ration balancer or trace vitamin/mineral ensures they are getting 100% of the vitamins and minerals they need, and some have a boost of protein.”
Ration balancers are more concentrated than performance or senior feeds, explains Catalano. “If your horse (is consuming) only a pound or two of a concentrate with their hay, and you are feeding a senior feed, you are most likely underfeeding, and your horse will not consume enough of their required nutrients,” she says. “By replacing the pound of senior with a pound of ration balancer, (base) calorie intake remains the same while nutrition is improved considerably.”
If your horse isn’t such an easy keeper, then you’re looking for an all-around or performance feed, says Mottet. “These are designed to be fed at 4 to 8 pounds per day, and they’re going to get everything the ration balancer has plus fat, carbs, fuel, and calories for ideal body condition and performance needs.”
If your horse is an especially hard keeper or older, he might need the next step up with a complete feed. “Horses get to point where they’re not as efficient at digesting forage, so with a complete feed, the forage is built in,” Mottet says. “Which category of feed your horse needs has a lot to do with body condition. The body is going to tell us if they’re eating too much or not enough and guide you into the correct category of feed.”
Common Feed Types
Concentrate: A feed that provides the nutrients forage lacks, plus extra fat, carbohydrates, and calories.
Complete feed: A feed that contains enough fiber to also replace all the forage in a horse’s diet.
PHOTO: TheHorse.com/Alexandra Beckstett
FOLLOW FEEDING DIRECTIONS
It might seem like common sense, but reading the directions on your feed bag’s label is critical to dialing in the correct program for your horse.
Begin, says Catalano, by looking at the name or directly under the product name to determine which class of horse the feed is formulated for. Then read the feeding directions to understand if that formula is appropriate for your horse’s nutrient and calorie needs.
“For example, not all senior feeds are complete feeds,” which is a common assumption, she says. “Even if a product is labeled as a senior feed, double-check that the tag indicates that it can be fed as the sole ration.”
Then she looks at the guaranteed analysis and ingredient list. “I always check to see if the ingredients are listed individually or as collective terms (i.e., ‘beet pulp, oats, soybean meal’ and not ‘processed grain byproducts, grain products, plant protein products’),” she says. “Listing ingredients individually gives you assurance that the company is not swapping ingredients in and out of a formula for cost or availability issues.”
Owners of horses needing additional calories have plenty of options, says Catalano. “I prefer a high-fat, high-fiber feed, which are commonly labeled as performance feeds and senior feeds,” she says. “No matter what, read the feeding directions, and make sure you are feeding at or above the minimum amounts stated on that tag.”
Mottet doesn’t recommend getting too caught up in the percentages on the label. “Percentages don’t tell you anything about nutrition sources, which can vary widely,” she says. “If you need a high-fat diet, this is a percentage you can look at and aim for 10-13%, while most feeds are closer to 6 or 8%. If you have a hard keeper, go for the higher fat. But those percentages can be made so many different ways.”
More important, she says, is the quality and digestibility of the ingredients, and a better brand at a higher price will likely have better ingredients. “Find a brand you trust,” she says. “Don’t go for the cheapest bag and expect it to perform as well as an expensive bag just because the percentages are the same. Make sure it’s the right fit for your horse based on what he’s currently eating and thriving on.”
If your horse struggles to maintain weight, Mottet suggests adding a fat supplement on top of a balanced ration. She’ll sometimes add an oil, especially for insulin-resistant horses that need weight without the additional carbohydrates.
For most horses, says Catalano, the nutrient needs increase proportionally to the horse’s caloric needs. “As your horse’s workload increases, you can simply increase the amount of performance feed, and all will be balanced,” she says.
Most horses in hard work need a high-quality performance feed, says Mottet.
Some classes of horses—for instance, those nursing, growing, or pregnant—have nutrient and caloric needs that require close attention during these life stages.
“In this case, look for a feed that is formulated specifically for broodmares or growing horses,” Catalano says. “Many times, these will be called ‘growth’ feeds but will work for both the dam and the young horse.”
When, Where, And How
Equine nutritionist Devan Catalano, PhD, says feeding management doesn’t need to be complicated.
“If you are feeding more than 0.5% body weight (about 5 pounds for an average sized horse) of grain per day, split it into two or more meals. Beyond that, feed when it is convenient for you,” she says. “Feeding on the ground is generally preferred; however, I do not lose sleep over my horse eating his grain from a bin or bucket hung in stall. If you have horses on different diets or one horse that eats much slower than others in a herd setting, nose bags are a great way to ensure each horse gets all their intended meal. Nose bags, also called feed bags, should be removed when the horse is done eating so that they can continue to freely consume hay and water. If you live in a sandy area, use haynets or another way to limit the horse eating directly off the ground. Stall mats under a feeder are a great way to provide a buffer between the sand and the horse’s mouth.”
For senior horses, she says, the most important consideration is if they can adequately chew and digest fiber from traditional forage. “If you have a ‘senior’ horse with great teeth that is thriving on hay and a ration balancer, there is no need to make the swap to a senior feed,” she says. “However, if your horse is quidding (spitting out small balls of half-chewed forage), or their dental exam reveals they don’t have adequate chewing surface left on their teeth, a senior feed will help them consume enough fiber to stay healthy.”
PHOTO: TheHorse.com/Alexandra Beckstett
THE SKINNY ON SUPPLEMENTS
You’ve designed your horse’s diet with sufficient forage and added a ration balancer or a concentrate or complete feed. What else might you need to supplement?
“If you’re feeding a ration balancer or feed at an appropriate rate for your horses, in addition to good-quality forage, they should be getting 100% of the vitamins, minerals, protein, and sometimes then some,” says Mottet. “There’s not a lot of evidence to suggest it’s beneficial to add supplements. While there are some I might recommend for specific situations, sometimes too much of certain nutrients can be toxic.”
She does see performance athletes sometimes supplemented with vitamin E for its antioxidant properties. “However, if the vet were to run a serum sample, and it comes back adequate for vitamin E, I’d say the data don’t suggest it’s advantageous to add more,” she says.
She says supplementing specific vitamins and minerals after a forage analysis can be problematic. “That snapshot (of the forage) is not always representative of what’s in there, and in an effort to make things balanced, you can cause conflict because the vitamins and minerals work in harmony with one another, and you can throw off the balance,” she says.
Should you feed more when it’s cold? Or otherwise change your horse’s feeding program in extreme weather?
“Rather than considering changes, focus on consistency,” says Devan Catalano, PhD. “Whether it is very hot, very cold, or changing rapidly between the two, make sure your horse is drinking enough water. In the winter this means double-checking that the water is not frozen over or that the heater isn’t electrifying the water—yes, I’ve seen this happen. In the summer this means checking daily for fresh, clean, and cool water. Extreme weather events are not the time to make any unnecessary dietary changes. Keep calm and keep forage in front of your horse.”
Catalano agrees, saying she rarely recommends supplements, other than a fat source to help weight, skin, or hair issues. “If you are feeding a high-quality commercial product that balances your forage and your horse is healthy, don’t fix what isn’t broken,” she says.
She makes exceptions for horses with health problems you can’t address with typical feed ingredients but don’t require medical intervention or issues you can address by supplementing high levels of a nutrient beyond base requirements.
“For example, a horse in an extremely high-stress environment may benefit from added vitamin E or a hindgut buffer to help protect the hindgut microbiome,” she says. “If you do choose to supplement, look at the ingredients carefully. Has the product been tested? Have the ingredients been individually tested and demonstrated to support the problem you are trying to address? Is the company reputable? The supplement industry is a bit of the Wild West in terms of regulation, so before throwing the kitchen sink at your horse, scrutinize what you are feeding.”
PHOTO: Getty Images
WATER: THE CRITICAL NUTRIENT
An idle 1,100-pound horse should drink 5 to 10 gallons per day when it’s not unusually hot or cold, says Catalano. Horses that are sweating excessively because of work and/or a hot environment might need upward of 20 gallons per day. Lactating mares need 15 to 20 gallons per day to support milk production.
The amount of water each horse drinks daily varies by individual. Knowing how much your horse typically consumes will help you spot potential health concerns before they become emergencies. You don’t need to record exactly how many gallons per day your horses consume (although more power to you if you wish to do so!), Catalano says, but noting how many buckets they go through or how quickly the water line drops on the trough will keep you in the mindset of noticing if they suddenly start drinking less.
Although horses can acclimate to limited water access (minimum two to three times per day), it is better to offer free-choice access to clean, fresh water.
Give particular care and consideration to horses moving to a dramatically different environment. As a horse adjusts to a warmer climate, he might drink more than normal. As a horse adjusts to a colder climate, he might be fussy about drinking very cold water. Our sources note that some horses have shown a preference for tepid water over very cold water. Although it’s not always practical to offer tepid water to every horse on your farm when it’s -10 degrees F, keep an eye on new and picky horses. Safe, well-maintained heated water buckets are game-changers in cold climates. However, if you don’t have access to electricity or the ability to check the water daily, there are a number of ways to insulate water troughs and buckets.
A feeding program based on your horse’s needs shouldn’t be complicated, so stick to the main components: Provide at least 1.5% of the horse’s body weight in quality forage, then select the type of feed labeled as appropriate for your horse’s life stage and work demands at the best price point you can afford. Make any adjustments based on your horse’s body condition and health status, and your horse should be happy, healthy, and ready to perform at his best. If you still have questions about your horse’s diet, however, consult a veterinarian, equine nutritionist, or feed company representative.
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Beth Rasin graduated from Middlebury College, in Vermont, where she studied nonfiction creative writing. She worked as a writer and editor at The Chronicle of the Horse for more than 25 years, including 10 years as the president and executive editor. As a freelancer she’s contributed to publications such as Middleburg Life, Northern Virginia magazine, Blue Ridge Outdoors, the former Loudoun magazine, and now also writes for a variety of equestrian publications. She lives in Virginia, where she and her husband and daughter run a boarding facility for retired horses. She enjoys running, hiking, and her many adopted dogs and cats.
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