It doesn’t matter it you have been a horseman for 50 years or you are just beginning your interest in our equine friends, everyone one can benefit from a bit of horse nutrition information, specially our horses. Today I’m going to speak a little about the basic nutritional care of horses.
We all want what is best for our horses, and sometimes without realizing it, we are feeding a diet to our horses that 1) may be meant for another horse, 2) may be unhealthy for our horses, 3) may just need a little bit more or a little bit less of something.
Assessing your horse
I’m sure most of you have heard, although some of you may not have heard, about the Henneke horse body condition scoring system. This is a numerical scale used to evaluate the amount of fat on a horse’s body. It is a system that can be used on all breeds and without specific equipment. This assessment is made visually and by palpation, and it is done by assessing 6 major points of the horse.
- Behind the shoulders
- Along the backbone
- Along the withers
- Along the neck
When assessing this 6 points, you will be able to rate your horse from 0 to 5, zero being very poor and five being very fat.
Here is what you should be looking for.
0 – Very poor
- Very sunken in rump
- Deep cavity under his tail
- Horse’s skin is tight over his bones
- He will have a very prominent backbone and pelvis
- Neck bends upward instead of down in the normal arch
1 – Poor
- Somewhat sunken rump
- recognizable cavity under his tail
- Ribs are easily visible
- Somewhat prominent backbone and pelvis
- He will have a narrow and slack neck
2 – Moderate
- Flat rump on both sides of the backbone
- Ribs are slightly visible
- Narrow but firm neck
- His backbone and pelvis bone will be well covered
3 – Good
- Rounded rump
- His ribs are covered but easily felt
- He will have a firm neck
4 – Fat
- Rump is well-rounded
- Noticeable gutter along his back
- Ribs and pelvis are hard to feel
- Slight crest to his neck
5- Very Fat
- Very rounded rump
- Deep gutter along his back
- Ribs are buried
- Well marked crest to his nick
- Folds and lumps of fat (fat bubbles)
Forage and Pasture Management
A horse’s nutritional need varies depending on age, weight and his level of activity. A mature horse doing minimal or no work can be maintained on high quality forage without the need of extra supplement like grain or concentrates, while a growing horse, a breeding horse or a working horse may need supplements such as grain and/or concentrates to meet their nutritional requirements.
Horses use forage as a primary component of their diet, which ensures the normal function of their digestive system. Rule of thumb, horses should consume 1% of their body weight in forage per day.
A well managed, high quality and properly fenced pasture is one of the best source of feed for a horse, as well as the most natural and healthy way for a horse to exercise and/or rest. It is also the most low cost way to feed your horse.
A good pasture can also be sufficient to meet most classes of horse’s nutritional requirements.
It is recommended to have a sacrifice paddock, where you keep your horse during wet season or drought conditions. Sacrifice paddock do not have sufficient pasture growth to support horses, so it is important to feed hay. Sacrifice paddock prevents overgrazing and/or pasture from being destroyed by mud.
When managing your pastures, it is best to rotate your horses from one pasture to another, or to your sacrifice paddock when the horses have grazed to about 3 inches. If you only have 1 big pasture, I suggest dividing it into smaller pastures to better asses grazing and prevent over-grazing. This gives each pastures a rest/re-grow period.
When managing your pastures, try cutting your pasture’s weeds before the weed head are produced, this will prevent them from spreading and filling your pastures with weeds. You should also drag your fields when they are at rest to spread manure evenly to deposit nutrients evenly across pasture.
Concentrates are any mixture of grain, cereals, and minerals’ used to supplement a horses’s diet to help enhance the horse’s condition (I.e weight gain, growth, energy for work or overall health) While some contain only one ingredient, some may be a combination of ingredients mixed together.
Here is an overview of the most popular concentrates.
Oats are a naturally grown grain that is one of the most easily digested types of starch. There are several forms of oats.
- Whole ( they still have the outer casting)
- Crimped ( they are partially flattened)
- Rolled ( they are completely flattened ) These are the easiest to digest for horses
- Hulled ( the outer casting has been removed, also the purest for of oats)
- Crushed ( they have been smashed into particles)
Barley should be mixed with a bulkier feed such as beet pulp, chopped hay, or wheat bran, even rolled oats making sure that the bulkier feed makes up of 25% of the mix. Some horses dislike the taste of barley. Mixing them with molasses helps this and makes it easier to eat.
Processed corn will increase digestibility, but fine ground corn can cause colic and founder. They are usually fed to horses cracked or rolled. We have to be very cautious while feeding our horses maize because of it’s high weight and high starch content. It is easy to overfeed our horses.
Linseed (flax seed)
Linseed is rich in omega 3, 6 and 9. It is very high in energy while having low starch levels. Linseed have significant health benefits to all horses, including senior horses, draft horses and horses prone to laminitis. Grinding linseed will maximize digestion of the nutrients. Once grinded, linseed should be fed immediately because the fatty acids degrade quickly and they can quickly become rancid if exposed to heat, light and moisture. It is best to grind enough for only 1 to 2 days at a time, and keep it in a well sealed container in the fridge.
Chaff (chopped straw)
Chaff is mostly fed to horses to bulk out their concentrate to prevent the horse from eating them too quickly. They are dried forage cut into small pieces.
Bran mash is wheat or rice mixed with water and allowed to steep for 15 minutes. Most mix it with carrots, apples or oats to make it more appetizing for horses. Bran should not be given more than once a week because horses need a higher calcium than phosphorus ration and bran has 10 times more phosphorus than calcium. It is also believed that the high fiber content in bran, mixed with grain, supplements and warm water will increase the horses water intake in the colder weather and prevent colic.
Sugarbeet can be fed soaked in water, but is also available unmolassed, molassed as pellets, shreds and flakes. It is a great way to add a highly digestible fiber to your horse’s diet that is low in starch and low in sugar (when un-mollased)
Hay cubes is bite size cubes of regular hay that has been chopped in small pieced and compressed into small cubes. Can be straight alfalfa, or a blend of alfalfa and grass or even oats. Hay cubes can be fed dry or soaked but when introducing to your horse’s diet, I recommend soaking the cubes.
Anything that has added sugar is considered sweet feed, including textured feed as well as pelleted feed. Sugar is usually added to the feed in the form of molasses. Although molasses in small amounts can be a great source of copper for your horse, too much molasses is too much sugar.
Supplements – Vitamins and Minerals
Anything that is fed to your horse in addition to its natural diet of forage is considered supplements, but in the horse world, the term supplement has come to be known as additional nutrients such as minerals’ and vitamins. Most commercial feed already have minerals’ and vitamins added to their mix.
It is important to remember that supplements only compliment a horse’s diet, good general maintenance and veterinary advice. They are not feeding alternative.
Supplements may be used for multiple reasons such as but not limited to
- Improving digestion
- when poor quality forage is fed
- when feeding growing horses, broodmares in gestation or lactation
- to correct nutritional deficiencies
It is also believed that minerals’ and vitamins may help in bone or soft tissue injuries
Vitamin B or C is rarely needed as vitamin B is produced by the hind gut and vitamin C by the liver.
Macrominerals such as calcium, phosphorus, sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium and sulfur are usually fed for their structural role in the metabolism such as bone formation. Macrominerals such as iron, zinc, copper, manganese, selenium, colbat, silicon, chromium etc… are only needed in very small amounts. There are no vitamin or minerals’ that are safe to free-feed other than salt.
Some areas of your country may also be short on certain minerals’ as well. Examples are iodine, selenium and copper. These trace minerals’ are very important in fetal development, and you should know your region deficiencies. Remember, supplements when used properly can benefit your horse immensely, but if given in improper dosages can cause illness or death. Always talk to your vet or a nutritionist about your horse’s specific dietary needs.
This is what most people panic about. The infinite number of calculations needed to find the perfect concentration of ever single micro-nutrient required. Truth is, it really doesn’t have to be complicated. My best advice to you is, watch and examine your horse. He will tell you if his nutrition is up to par by his shiny coat, good appetite and weight, by his good altitude and behavior and his appropriate energy level.
If you feed an average to excellent quality forage and grain, you can be reasonably sure that your horse gets his daily requirements in nutrients. It is almost always the case when you feed a commercial ration without supplement. Horses are likely to only need extra nutrients during growth, during lactation and during the last 3 months of a pregnancy. Supplements may also be needed if you are feeding poor quality forage. (Let’s face it, it happens sometime)
In reality, horses are not what I call “smart eater” They will not instinctively choose the plants and nutrients they need for good health. They eat according to appetite and taste preference, with the exception of water and salt of course.
The horse’s daily requirement include about 40 different nutrient.
- The proper amount of energy and protein
- 15 different minerals’
- 14 different vitamins
- beta carotene
- and at least 4 amino acid (lysine, methionine, typtophane and threonine)
Fortunately, most of these are known to be provided in adequate amounts by any common equine diet.
Because of this, we should focus on elements where deficiencies or excess might occur, such as protein, calcium, phosphorus, digestible energy, and selenium. For growing horses, we will add zinc and copper to this list, but for adult horses, these two minerals’ are generally adequate in any diet.
Before you go trying to formulate any sort of diet for your horse, there are a few basic things you need to know.
- What is your horse’s stage of life (is he a growing foal, a lactating broodmare, a pleasure horse, an endurance horse etc…
- What is your horse’s work level? (idle, light work, medium work, high levels of work) and does his work load increase or decrease from time to time?
- what is your horse’s condition and are you satisfied with his condition?
- what feed is available to you and which are reasonably priced?
Then you need to know your horse’s body weight. For best results, stand him on a scale designed for horse’s
You can also use a heart girth measuring tape, but there are not always the most accurate. They can be often off of 100+ pounds. And never use a girth heart tape to measure a pregnant mare.
Another more accurate way to get your horse’s body weight is by following these simple formula’s.
Bodyweight in pounds=[(heath girth in inches) squared times length in inches] divided by 330
* the length of your horse should be measured from the front point of his shoulder blades to the point of his rump
Bodyweight in kgs=[(heart girth in cm) squared times length in cm] divided by 11 880
For light horse foals one to 6 weeks old, use the following
Bodyweight in pounds=[heart girth in inches – 25.1] divided by 0.07
Bodyweight in kgs=[hearth girth in cm – 63.7] divided by .38
Once you have your horse’s body weight, the calculation of how much feed your horse should intake per day is quite simple. It should be between 1.5% to 3.0% of your horse’s body weight. That leaves a bit of a gab in between to adjust accordingly.
Meaning if your horse is light work, you would lean more towards the 1.5% but if your horse is in high energy level competition, you would lean more towards the 3.0%.
This works for almost all types of horses, except for nursing foals (.5% to .75%), weanlings (3.5%)
Intake will also be affected by temperament and climate. Laid back and easy keepers will be at the lower end of the scale while nervous and high-strung horses (hard keepers) will need more nutrients. It also takes more energy for the horse to maintain his internal body temperature in below freezing temperatures.
A horses’s diet should be at least 50% forage by weight. Yearlings and weanlings are an exception, where their grain intake make up of 70% and 60% of their total diet. Also, a 2 yr old in intense training might get up to 65% grain.
To make sure your horse gets enough calcium and protein in his diet, I suggest talking with your equine nutritionist or your local vet about the requirements.
One thing I suggest you do is get a hay analysis done. It is the best way to know the nutrients contained in your hay. And if you are feeding a commercial sweet feed, pellet or extruded ration, the feed tag on the bag will give you most, if not all the information you need.
Here is an example that might help make sense of all of this.
Gene, a 3 yr old mare, is training for barrels. Her ratio is 60% grass hay, with a calcium level of 0.4% and a 40% sweet feed, with a calcium level of 0.75%. You would multiply 0.4 by 0.6 and 0.75 by 0.4, and add the two results for a total calcium concentration of .54%
It is important to remember that the ratio between calcium and phosphorus is as important as their individual levels. You should have at least as much calcium as you have phosphorus. Ideally, Calcium should be a bit higher at 25% and phosphorus at 20%.
As for protein, adult horses need only about 8% to 10% crude protein, while young, growing stock and breeding stock will need considerably more crude protein.
Calculating Digestible Energy
The amount of energy your horse needs depends on his level of work. Either being idle, light, medium or intense. Here is how you calculate DE at idle. For which, after you will multiply by your horse’s level of work, light 1.25, medium 1,5 and intense 2.0.
For horses less than 600 kg (1320 pnds)
DE/day (in megacalories) = 1.4 +0.03 times (body weight in kg)
DE/day (in Mcal) = 1.4 + 0.03 times (body weight in pounds divided by 2.2)
for horses more than 600kg
DE/day (Mcal) = 1.82 +(0.0383 times body weight in kg) -[0.000015 times body weight in kgs squared]
Let’s calculate Gene’s DE, who weights 500kg and is considered doing intense work.
1.4 +(0.03 times 500) = 16.4 Mcal/day (at idle)
16.4 times 2 = 32.8 Mcal /day at intense work.
Although I felt it would important to share this calculation with you, chances are, you will never have to use it because your horse will tell you if his energy supply is sufficient. He will always consume enough energy to supply his needs if given the chance. And if he’s “BOUNCING OFF THE WALLS”, maybe try reducing the amount of grain and compensating it with increasing the amount of forage.
To Sum It All Up
Horse nutrition consists of mostly paying attention to your horse and letting them tell us what they need. From assessing our horse’s condition and coming with a well-balanced diet to making a few easy calculation to improve their diet. A lot of us think that it’s more complicated than what it actually is and with the guidance of your vet and a nutritionist, and a little bit of knowledge, we’re well on our way to ensure that our equine friend stays healthy.
Let us know what your feeding your horses these days. we’d love to hear from you !!