One of the most important things to remember in feeding your horse is that each one is an individual. Just because one horse needs several pounds of feed to maintain his weight and performance, doesn’t mean your own horse needs the same. Balanced feeding is important when it comes to equine nutrition, so get to know your horse’s specific needs.
Horses were designed by nature to be foraging animals. This means they were made to graze on whatever scrub, grass and weeds were available for the greater part of the day. They also moved constantly, except for relatively short periods spent sleeping. If they became ill, a wide selection of weeds (herbs) were available to help solve their health problems.
Today, commercialized nutrition and cultivated pastures have changed equine nutrition habits from rough forage to processed feeds and rich grass. The competition horse is often fed most of his calories in the form of concentrates or grain, with proportionally less forage and hay. The optimum way to feed horses is to use organically grown products. These are rare, but becoming increasingly available. Many roughages (hay) are grown with chemicals (fertilizers and herbicides), and the purchaser often has no knowledge of which farm a certain shipment came from, and what chemicals have been used.
FYI: Avoid hays on which the herbicide Grazon® has been used. It will persist in a manure pile for five years after the horse has eaten it.
When carbohydrates are fed in large quantities, they pass through the small intestine too quickly, and land in the large intestine where the bacteria are not prepared to handle the digestion. Fermentation or improper digestion occurs, resulting in ulcers and poor absorption of vitamins and minerals. The horse then becomes nutrient deficient and has an inflamed digestive tract. Feeding antacids to change the pH in the stomach does nothing to help the large intestine. If the gut needs support, it is best to use an herbal product that helps heal the gut wall, and probiotics to keep the bacteria healthy.
Vitamins and minerals
Mineral balance is perhaps even more critical than vitamin balance in a horse’s diet. A complex interaction takes place between many minerals, and even a slight excess of one can mean another may not be absorbed. Trace minerals are a catalyst to help break major minerals down into a form that can be utilized. Horses will naturally select from free-choice minerals if the mixture does not have salt added (feed the salt as a separate item). Most horses with plenty of minerals available do not need electrolytes added to their food, except for long distance types of competition such as endurance riding or upper level eventing. In this case, start feeding electrolytes about 24 to 48 hours beforehand to hydrate the intestinal tract and give the horse a reserve of electrolytes.
According to the National Research Council (NRC) nutrition tables, horses require only 7.5% to 12% protein as an adult. The lowest percentage of protein found in commercial feed is 10%; in fact, it’s common to see protein levels of 14% to 16% in feed. Since horses are made to live primarily on roughage, there is no physiological reason to have protein levels so high. High performance horses usually eat more grain, so if they need slightly more protein they will usually get it from the increase in grain volume. Feeding excess protein is toxic, since it has to be converted to energy. The by-product of that is nitrogen, which is excreted by the kidney. Young animals can digest protein better and can use it to grow muscle, especially when working and growing at the same time. Except for some Thoroughbreds, however, most young performance horses have little need for high protein diets. Certain individual horses have a greater requirement for protein and can benefit from the addition of protein to their diet. If your horse is losing weight despite a good feeding program and you are sure no ulcers are present, consider raising the protein level.
Horses eating good quality pasture or hay can take in all the nutrient energy they need from the forage. Concentrates (grain) should only be fed to make up the extra energy required by the horse to perform his job or maintain weight, if he has a high metabolic rate. A horse of healthy weight should just have his ribs showing; most show horses are more than 100 pounds overweight. Excess weight puts more strain on the joints and leads to long term health problems such as insulin resistance.
Fats are an excellent addition to the performance horse’s diet because they increase calories without adding excess carbohydrates, which can make some horses jittery. However, fats in commercial feeds are routinely preserved with chemicals and are extracted using solvent processes. Holistically minded owners with a few extra dollars to spend will do well by buying cold pressed oils and mixing them into the feed. Once a horse needs more calories than can be obtained from three to six pounds of grain per day, oils can be added up to about one cup per day. Corn oil may be the cheapest, but rice bran, flax and hemp are much better because they contain desirable Omega 3 fatty acids. Never feed animal fats to your horse.
Horse feeds are becoming more and more processed, to the point where there are now extruded feeds that look just like dog food, and probably have little “life force” or healthy energy. Sugar is just as bad for horses as it is for any other species, and horses become just as jittery and hyperactive when they eat too much of it. Molasses is also preserved with propylene glycol and other chemicals not on the labels.
The best and most natural way to feed horses concentrates is to use whole feeds. Some feed companies are producing whole grain mixes, while in other cases you will need to mix your own. Organic grains are ideal, if available. Oats, barley and large cracked corn are the basic grains. Use what is available in your area, and what is horse-safe. Beet pulp with no added molasses can also be used. Beets are grown using chemicals and organic beet pulp is virtually impossible to find. However, beet pulp does make a good feed, especially as an addition to increase the bulk in a diet. A mixture that works well for me is 25% large cracked or rolled corn, 30% steamed, rolled barley (the only way it is available in bulk), and 45% oats (either large race horse oats, or crimped). Any combination can be used in a given area of the country. Do not read the labels on the bag when deciding how to feed. Look at your horse, buy a weight tape, find his ideal weight and adjust the grain ration to maintain that.
Water is the number one food consumed by a horse, and balanced feeding relies on it. However, water quality across the nation is suspect. Water may contain toxins, high levels of minerals, or other undesirable compounds such as lead. Herbicides and pesticides are present in the water sources of pastured horses through streams and run-off from neighboring farms. Many horses live in urban areas, with questionable urban water supplies. Some stables give horses water they will not allow people to drink. Competition horses must like the water they are supplied with so they will drink well. If they do not, dehydration can result, causing tying up, colic and poor immune system function. You can use water filters of many sorts, from simple charcoal filters attached to the hose to complex systems attached to the main water intake for the farm. For the traveling horse, take along a simple charcoal filter to put on the hose when you water your horse. Bentonite clay or milk thistle can be incorporated into feeding programs to help detoxify the horse if necessary.
Do not expect your grain to supply vitamins and minerals no matter what the label says. Provide a free choice mineral supplement, then decide what else your horse needs and add that specific product. Many of the conditions we see in equine medicine are just a reflection of the feeds the horses eat. A simple, balanced feeding program gives your horse the building blocks he needs to perform at his maximum potential.
Horses use acid digestion in the stomach and fermentation digestion in the cecum. The stomach acid digests protein, while the small intestine digests fat and carbohydrates. The cecum is perhaps the most important part of the digestive tract — it is designed to digest long stem fiber through fermentation. When a horse is fed mostly concentrates in the form of grain and very little long stem fiber (hay), the cecum is only partially filled, and this can predispose the horse to colic. It’s better to feed your horse frequently rather than just twice a day, both for the gut and the mind – horses are made to eat and are mentally stressed by not eating.
Your horse’s intestinal tract contains bacteria and protozoa designed to digest food, manufacture vitamins, and make minerals available. The normal pH of his intestinal tract changes from acidic in the stomach and upper small intestine to neutral in the large intestine, with the mineral balance keeping the pH in the correct range. The bacteria in the intestinal tract have their normal places, determined by pH, because bacteria are pH specific in their requirements for multiplication. Feeding excessive amounts of concentrates alters the pH, so bacteria may not stay in their appropriate places.