With prices of nearly everything on the rise, it’s becoming more important than ever for horse owners to get the most value they possibly can from their horse feed. We all know that keeping horses isn’t cheap, but there are ways to both save money and maximize the amount of nutrients your horse is getting from their diet.
Know Your Horse’s Nutrient Requirements
To begin with, it’s important to know your horse’s nutrient requirements. Though this may feel a bit overwhelming at first, it all comes down to four things: energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals. A horse’s requirements will vary by life stage, the amount of work they’re in, and the individual horse’s needs (hard keepers vs. easy keepers), but the goal is to maintain a body condition score between 4 and 7.
To give you an idea of a good starting point, the digestible energy (DE) requirement for non-working adult horses in good body condition is estimated to be around 0.03 Mcal/kg of bodyweight. For hard keepers, 0.04 Mcal/kg is recommended. When calculating energy intake for overweight or underweight horses, the estimated ideal body weight in kg should be used rather than the current body weight. To convert kilograms to pounds, simply multiply by 2.2.
Of course, energy requirements will increase for growing, pregnant, or lactating horses, as well as those in work. Also keep in mind that cold weather increases a horse’s energy requirement, especially for those that are exposed to the elements.
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Many people tend to think that more is better when it comes to protein; however this simply isn’t true. Growing horses have higher protein needs (usually 14%-16% of total ration) than mature horses (8%-10% of total ration), and older horses may also need more protein to maintain body condition, but, interestingly enough, work does not significantly increase a horse’s protein needs, so long as their DE needs are met.
Of all of the minerals needed by horses, calcium and phosphorus are perhaps of most importance, especially for growing horses and those in the last third of pregnancy or during lactation.
The calcium to phosphorus ratio should be kept at 1:1 at minimum and no higher than 6:1. Other minerals such as the electrolytes potassium, sodium, and magnesium, as well as certain trace minerals are also important to consider. Most feeds will contain some, but usually not all of these. Salt (sodium chloride) should always be provided separately as most feeds don’t contain enough (or any) to meet the horse’s needs.
Horses also require a number of different vitamins to stay healthy. Most of these are provided in fresh grass and good-quality hay, but vitamins do diminish in hay over time.
Vitamins needed in the equine diet include:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
Many other vitamins are synthesized in the horse’s body, provided that their diet adequately meets other nutrient requirements and they are healthy. If your horse has plenty of good-quality hay or grass and a balanced feed, vitamins usually aren’t a concern.
Using the National Research Council’s (NRC) nutrient requirement calculator is a great tool to help you determine the nutrient amounts your horse needs. To begin with, you’ll need to estimate your horse’s weight if you don’t already know it. This can be done with some measurements and this handy weight calculator.
If you are unsure of how to estimate your horse’s nutrient requirements, working with your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist is a good idea.
How to Feed a Horse: Forage First
No matter what feed you choose for your horse, forage should always be considered the most important part of the diet. Forage, after all, is what their digestive system does best with in order to maintain good gut motility.
Horses need a minimum of 1% of their body weight in forage daily, though 2% is most commonly recommended. For a 1,000 lb horse, this would be 10-20 lbs of hay per day. A good rule of thumb is to keep your horse’s forage level at 50% or more of their total diet.
You might be surprised to learn that good-quality forage can meet most of your horse’s nutrient needs as well, decreasing the amount of concentrates needed. In fact, grass hay often contains sufficient protein and major minerals. However, to know the exact nutrient profile of your hay, you’ll need to have it tested. This is a fairly inexpensive process, and working with your local county extension office is helpful.
Make sure to weigh your hay to know exactly how much you are feeding. This can be done with a fish scale and hay net. For horses that need more calories or protein than grass hay can provide, adding in some legume hay is helpful and may still be more affordable than using a high-protein feed.
Find the Right Horse Feed
Once you’ve determined your horse’s nutrient requirements and placed an emphasis on forage first, the next step is finding the right feed to meet your horse’s nutrition needs while not breaking the budget. For easy keepers, this can often be done with a ration balancer which provides all of the vitamins and minerals your horse needs without the added calories.
For horses in hard work, high-fat feeds can be a good source of energy and are usually a better choice than high-protein feeds which can be expensive and may provide more protein than your horse actually needs. Excess protein is excreted in urine and a strong ammonia smell is often a telltale sign that you’re feeding too much protein.
For senior horses who have trouble eating hay, using a good-quality senior feed may be your best option.
You will likely want to compare ingredients and pricing of several different feeds in order to get the best bang for your buck.
Follow Feed Label Instructions
Once you’ve chosen the right feed for your horse, don’t ignore feed label instructions. Remember that the guaranteed analysis on the bag only applies if you are feeding the recommended amount. You will also want to weigh your feed to know exactly how much you’re feeding. A scoop or coffee can cannot accurately measure the amount fed.
How to Maximize Your Horse’s Nutrition
For performance horses, you can maximize nutrient absorption by using a product such as Athletic Formula. This particular product includes probiotics, prebiotics, digestive enzymes, vitamins, and minerals, all of which optimize your horse’s ability to extract the essential nutrients from their hay and feed. It also helps to stabilize the horse’s gut, which is especially important for performance horses.
Choosing the right feed, hay, and supplements that won’t break the bank may take a little work up front, but knowledge truly is power in this case. Knowing your horse’s nutritional needs, placing forage first, finding a feed to fill in any nutritional gaps and feeding it appropriately are all necessary. Finally, don’t forget to add supplements to maximize nutrient absorption, especially for performance horses.