Dr. Mickelson, DVM
Feeding Your Horse
Feeding Your Horse:
What’s in your horse’s diet? This may seem like an easy question; grass hay, pasture, sweet feed, ect.
Why are you feeding your horse these things? That is often an area where many horse owners fall short of words. Commonly, owners choose feeds based off old traditions or new fads. These rationales are not wrong, however, we should strive for higher standards to fully understand what and why we are, or aren’t, feeding our horses.
Feeding a diet that is balanced will lay the foundation for a healthy life and limit waste from unnecessary additives. Concentrates such as corn or pelleted feeds (purina products) contain important vitamins and minerals that are often not in hay. However, the concentration of such vitamins may or may not be appropriate for your horse and the additional calories can contribute to obesity which is very unhealthy for horses.
The Equine Diet
In order to understand the rationale surrounding the equine diet, a basic understanding of their gastrointestinal track is necessary. Horses are non-ruminant herbivores and are designed to utilize forages as the primary component of their diet. The incisors are intended for nipping and tearing plant parts while the molar are intended for grinding and increasing the surface area and digestibility of feeds. If the teeth have abnormalities, the forages may not be physically broken down enough to allow for adequate digestion in the intestines.
Very little digestion occurs in the stomach of horses. The equine stomach is relatively small compared to their body size and has been designed to hold small, frequent meals. Digestion mostly begins in the small intestine while the majority occurs in the large intestine. The large intestine is much larger than other species in order to house a microbial population that’s responsible for the breakdown and utilization of forages; for this reason, horses may also be referred to as “hindgut fermenters”.
Hey, What’s with this Hay?!
Hay generally falls into one of two categories: grasses or legumes. Grass hays are commonly fed to horses and consist of grasses such as timothy or orchard grass; legume hays consist of forages such as alfalfa or clover. Legume hay is higher in protein, energy, calcium and vitamin A than grass hays. The type of hay a horse should be eating depends on the specific needs of that horse, which is determined through balancing their ration.
A physical inspection of hay is an appropriate start to determine quality; make sure the hay is free from molds, dust or excessive weeds or moisture. Good hay should be dry, clean and soft to the touch. For optimal nutrient value, legume hay should be harvested when the plants are in early bloom and grass hay should be harvested prior to seed head development.
The next step to determine the nutrient content is to send a sample of your hay in for analysis; dairyland laboratories or equi-analytical laboratories are two companies that analyze forages for nutrient content. Analyzing forages will show the exact calories and nutrients you horse is (or is not) eating which will determine if your horse needs any additional supplementation.
Calculating the Equine Ration:
When balancing a ration, a few basic pieces of information is necessary to start; age, weight and lifestyle/activity level. From this, the requirements are attainable. A few websites are available to determine the complete requirements of an individual horse: nrc88.nas.edu/nrh/ or equishine.com.
Knowledge of the nutritional content of the forage is the next step toward balancing the equine ration. The energy content (megacalories) of the forage is used to determine what the horse is consuming. The nutritional content of a particular forage may be determined based off national averages and can be found at: nrc88.nas.edu/nrh/ or through a specific forage analysis performed through dairyland laboratories or equi-analytical laboratories.
Due to the anatomy of equine gastrointestinal track, their diet should be composed of primarily forages.
The amount of forage, per day, an average horse voluntarily consumes is roughly 1.5-2.5% of their body weight.
So the average 1,000 pound horse will eat 15-25 pounds of forage per day.