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By: Dr. Lydia Gray
Every horse owner wants to make the best decisions when it comes to caring for their horse, and that includes feeding the “best” diet. We all know that forage (like hay and pasture) is the foundation of equine nutrition, but somehow the horse industry developed the mindset that horses “need” grain. Actually, what horses need is a diet based on high-quality forage; then their calorie or energy needs met; followed by nutrients such as protein, vitamins, and minerals; and finally additional ingredients to address any specific issues that individual horses might be facing. Let’s look at each of these areas a little bit closer.
Focus on Forage
Horses get most of their nutrition from the forage or roughage they eat. Considering that horses are designed to take in 1-2% of their body weight each day in hay or pasture, it should be no surprise that 10 to 20 pounds (for a 1,000 pound horse) of long-stem plant matter supplies most of the calories, protein, vitamins, and minerals required by the average horse, along with fibrous bulk for a healthy gastro-intestinal tract. To get a better idea of exactly how much of each nutrient is being provided by the roughage you’re providing for your horse, hay analysis or forage testing can be performed. Armed with these “nutrition facts,” the rest of the horse’s diet can be adjusted to ensure he is getting the right amounts and the right ratios of nutrients. Analysis or testing can also be used to select more appropriate hay for a horse on a low non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) diet, a low potassium diet, or other special need.
As forage makes its way through the intestinal tract to the cecum and colon, its fiber component begins to be digested or fermented by the microscopic organisms that live in the hindgut. When these bacteria or “good bugs” break down the structural carbohydrates that the horse himself cannot, some of the end products are volatile fatty acids (energy), amino acids, and vitamins. Thus, forage is a major source of energy or calories for the horse and additional roughage should not be overlooked as a weight-gain strategy. Because the horse can only eat so much hay or grass in a day though, horses that require more calories to maintain their body condition score, such as hard-working athletes or pregnant and lactating mares, may need a more calorie-dense feedstuff, and that’s where grain comes in.
Complete Feed: a manufactured feed that combines grain and roughage; designed to partially or completely replace a horse’s forage, usually due to dental problems or because quality hay is not available (aka “senior” feed, serving size 15-20 lbs daily).
Fortified Grain: a manufactured feed that includes added guaranteed levels of protein, vitamins, and minerals; common types include pelleted and sweet feeds (aka “concentrate,” serving size 5-9 lbs daily).
Whole Grain: a cereal grain that has not been fortified with additional nutrients; may be processed by cracking, crimpling, rolling, or heating (examples: oats, corn, barley; serving size 1-5 lbs, or quarts daily).
Ration Balancer: a concentrated feedstuff, usually a pellet, designed to complete and balance a forage-only diet by providing protein, vitamins, and minerals; not a significant source of calories or sugars/starches so ideal for easy-keepers and others who don’t need or can’t have additional sugars and/or calories (serving size 1-2 lbs daily).
Multi-Vitamin/Mineral Supplement: a powder or pellet designed to fill in some of the
gaps between the vitamins and minerals provided by forage containing a sufficient
level of high-quality protein; not a significant source of calories or sugar/starches so also
ideal for easy-keepers and others who don’t need or can’t have additional sugars and/or calories (serving size 1-2 ounces daily).