Confused by all the options when it comes to feeding your horse? Follow these basic guidelines to ensure that your horses gets the nutrition they need.
Ever heard the saying "as hungry as a horse"? It's true: Given the chance, our equine friends would chow down 'til the cows come home (horses in a “natural” setting would graze up to 18 hours a day).
So it goes without saying that responsible owners should regulate their horses' rations (while allowing free access to water and a high-quality free-choice equine mineral). More is not necessarily better! But exactly what should your adult horse get and when?
First, get out that weight tape: How heavy is your horse? Then consider life stage, activity level and health. Also, start measuring feed by weight, not volume. (A scoop of corn has a different caloric value and weight than a scoop of oats, for example. The same is true with different types of hay.)
Good-quality forage (hay and grass, etc.) should form the foundation of your horse's diet. Equines need at least 1-2 percent of body weight in forage per day, and forage should make up at least 50 percent of the daily ration. Concentrates (commercial feeds) should be added only as needed and in amounts based on activity and body condition.
Good commercial feeds are usually designed to complement forage intake and provide added energy without a lot of starches (which can lead to colic and laminitis). To make life easier, these ready-to-use concentrates come in different formulas for different life stages and activity levels. Choose one that is appropriate.
When adding concentrates to your horse's ration, use the guidelines on the label as a starting point, and note the type/amount of forage that the concentrate is meant to accompany. Divide your horse's daily ration into small portions spread out between multiple daily feedings at consistent times. (This mimics natural grazing patterns and facilitates digestive health.) Also, remember if you are feeding at lower than label recommended levels, vitamin and mineral needs may not be met so offering a free-choice mineral can fill this void.
Maintenance-level horses or those in light work (one to three hours per week) may thrive on forage alone (grass or timothy hay are good choices). Small amounts of concentrates, a ration balancer, or just free choice mineral (remember a trace mineral salt block is not the same as a mineral block or mix designed for horses).
Horses in moderate work (three to five hours per week) need 2.25-3.5% body weight in total dietary intake, which for 1,000 lb horse is 22.5-35 lb. Of this amount, up to 25% (5.6-8.75 lb) should be fed as concentrate feed. Concentrates with 8-12% protein, digestible fiber, and 6-8% fat are generally suitable for horses in moderate work. You might also want to change to mixed grass/legume hays as activity level increases.
If you are feeding a performance horse in heavy work (four to five hours per week, including more intense activity) or very heavy work (racing, endurance or upper-level eventing, for example) consider increasing calories by feeding an energy-dense concentrate. Energy-dense concentrates with 10-14% protein, increased digestible fiber and 10-12% fat are most appropriate for these athletes. Increasing the overall calories in the ration by adding a concentrated fat supplement is also an option, as are higher quality hays.
Special needs may merit targeted feeds. Talk to a nutritionist about feeding pregnant mares, mares nursing foals, and growing youngsters. Geriatrics often do better on senior feeds, which facilitate chewing and digestion. Horses with weight issues or conditions like insulin resistance will need tailored diets for which professional guidance is essential.
For a feed calculator based on the National Research Council's Nutritional Requirements for Horses, visit: https://equimed.com/health-centers/equine-feed-calculator