The Basics of the Equine Diet
Good Day! Welcome to my series on “How to Feed Your Horse”. We are going to start by talking about the basics of planning an equine diet, and then delve into some of the finer points including nutrition for different life stages, health conditions, and performance levels. We’ll cover the basics of horse digestion, how to identify quality feeds and supplements, and how to identify unnecessary supplements. This last point is where horse owners usually save money.
Lets get started. Horses are designed to graze fairly regularly, and not to go long periods on an empty stomach. Across the United States, different foraging styles are used. Some horse owners feed free choice hay, others feed flakes of hay, others weigh out set amounts of hay. Which is right? Well, it depends on the horse. High performance horses who are in a regular work program, do well on free choice hay, because they have higher energy and nutritional requirements due to their work load. Horses with a lighter workload, like many pleasure horses, often become overweight on free choice hay, and do best with small frequent meals. Horses can consume between 2% and 3% of their body weight in 24 hours of freechoice foraging. Some owners weigh hay, others use flakes. Flakes typically weigh between 2 and 6lb, but this number could vary. Lets say a horse receives 4 flakes a day. If they flakes weigh 2lb, then the horse is getting 8lb hay. If the flakes weigh 6lb, the horse is getting 24lb. That’s a big difference. The average horse needs 2% of its body weight to maintain a healthy body condition. Working horses that have higher energy and nutritional requirements may consume more than 2% and maintain a good body condition. Pleasure horses without the strenuous work program of say a racehorse, would become overweight on the diet of a race horse.
So we need to start by identifying the body condition of our horse, the work load, and the age and stage of life. The Henneke body condition chart uses numbers 1-9 for body scores, where 1 is emaciated and starving, and 9 is obese. 5 is perfect, but 5 -6.5 are acceptable values. The score refers to the amount of fat deposition on the horse’s body. If a horse scores higher than 6.5, the diet should be restricted. A good starting point would be 1.5% of the horses body weight in hay, along with a ration balancer fed according to the feed rate on the package. (Forage only philosophy would still ensure adequate key minerals, along with 1.5% body weight of hay. If the horse needs to pick up weight, aim for 2% body weight of hay, of the goal weight. If the horse is doing fine on free choice hay and is in a good body condition, no changes need to need to be made to the amount of hay.
Next, you need adequate vitamins and minerals. That could mean a commercially prepared feed or balancer, fed according to the feed rate on the package, or a blend of vitamins and minerals to sustain the forage only philosophy.
And finally… salt and water.
That’s the basics of how to determine a horses diet. If you identify one thing this week, its how to determine if you are feeding too much or too little hay.
Join me next week to talk about commercial feeds, balancers, and hay pellets/cubes.
If you need help with your horses feed plan, give me a call to discuss how I can help you. I offer 90 day guided nutrition programs to help you achieve your goals for your horse, including analyzing your current feed plan, and recommending a science based plan and then working with you for 3 months to ensure we meet your goals.