Equine nutrition 101

Is your horse’s diet up to snuff? Let’s take it back to the basics of equine nutrition, with some diet tips from the pros.

It’s easy for horse caretakers to get confused when it comes to equine nutrition. Deciphering science-based facts, trends, marketing schemes, and the opinions of others is challenging – and Siri only knows so much. But no matter how time-consuming it may be, it’s important to do your research to ensure your horse is receiving all the vital nutrients he needs to thrive. Let’s dive in and take a closer look at those requirements!

The known basics

It goes without saying that inadequate nutrition can lead to a shorter lifespan, as well as a number of health issues including colic, ulcers, hoof problems, and hormone imbalances. Without the proper nutrients, horses are also likely to experience depleted energy, behavioral problems, a weakened immune system – and the list goes on. By ensuring your horse doesn’t have any dietary deficiencies, you can help him live a long, healthy life.

Dr. Juliet Getty, PhD, an independent equine nutritionist and owner of Getty Equine Nutrition in Denton, Texas, gives insight on what exactly horses need in their daily diet:

  • Horses, like humans, need water to stay alive. Clean fresh water is a necessity at all times.
  • Carbohydrates supply energy, help maintain a healthy microbial digestive tract, and assist immune functions with their anti-inflammatory properties. Carbs are primarily found in forage (hay and pasture grass), and in the sugar and starches found in grain. The safest feeds are high in digestive fiber and low in sugars and starches, which usually comprise beet pulp and soybean hulls. Corn should be avoided as it has the highest starch levels.
  • Protein, composed of amino acids, is necessary for body growth, including hair and hooves, and for supporting muscle development. The amount of protein a horse can synthesize is limited; the first protein horses run out of is lysine, so look for a feed with added lysine.
  • Vitamins A, D, E. K, and B complexes like niacin and thiamin are present in fresh green forage and supplements that can be added to a horse’s diet. Vitamin D is obtained through sunshine and skin exposure, so a horse who is on stall rest or lives in a cold climate may need it supplemented into his diet.
  • Minerals are required to maintain good health and provide fluid balance in cells (electrolytes), as well as nerve conduction and muscle contraction in the horse’s body. Calcium, phosphorus, sodium, chloride, magnesium, and sulfur are needed daily but in small amounts. The mineral content in horse feed varies, so be sure to check with your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist to ensure your horse is getting what he needs. Providing access to a salt lick is a good way to meet his needs for sodium chloride, while a trace mineral lick will add cobalt, copper, zinc, selenium, iron, and iodine.

Tips to improve his nutrition

1. Assess the whole horse

Certified equine nutritionist Allison DuFour, owner of Dufour Wellness By the Bay in Northern Michigan, has plenty of experience assessing the nutritional needs of horses. Her top recommendation is to consider the whole horse. “Every horse and caretaker has a different situation,” she says. “Every factor needs to be considered when developing a nutrition plan, such as the horse’s body condition, training regime, environment, and pre-existing health concerns.”

2. Check his hay

Allison also suggests getting a hay analysis, and providing constant access to forage.   “Horses are designed to move forage at all times,” she says. “Their stomachs constantly produce acid with or without food in their systems. Without forage, the acid can produce harmful conditions like ulcers, or provoke colic. When a horse eats, saliva helps neutralize the acid in the stomach to help break down meals. For most horses, providing available forage 24/7 and feeding smaller, more frequent meals is advised over large amounts of feed at one time.”

Dr. Kathleen Crandell, a nutritionist at KC Equine Consulting in Boyce, Virginia, and a formulator of horse feeds, recommends doing a visual assessment to determine the quality of hay.

  • Greener, leafier hay with few and fine stems is more nutritious.
  • Hay should smell clean and fresh, and feel fairly soft. Avoid moldy, dusty, or sour-smelling hay – it should be free of high quantities of weeds, dirt, and insect infestations.

It’s also important to keep in mind that hay alone isn’t likely to provide horses with the vital nutrients they need to thrive. “Many horses’ diets consist entirely of hay, which isn’t very nutritional,” says Dr. Getty. “Hay is dead grass; it no longer contains many of the vitamins, Omega-3s and Omega-6s it once had as living pasture.”

Dr. Getty, Dr. Crandell, and Allison all agree on the importance of having a detailed test done on all your horse’s forages. This is the most efficient and insightful way to find out precisely what you’re feeding him. The information this test will provide includes values of digestibility, calorie content, protein levels, and mineral, sugar and starch concentrations.

3. Don’t cheap out on grain

Allison also advises that horse caretakers opt for a high quality grain, since it’s more likely to have all the vital nutrients in quantities that meet the needs of the type of horse it is designed for (i.e. age, health, performance level, special needs, etc.).

Dr. Crandell knows firsthand how difficult it is to formulate a single feed that will fit all types of horses in all circumstances. “Common errors include feeding the wrong type of feed for the type of horse,” she says. “Young horses in rapid growing stages, adult horses with heavy training schedules and workloads, broodmares in their last trimester, and lactating mares need higher amounts of all the basics for developing tissue and building muscle. Older, semi-retired and senior horses will maintain better on lower protein but need the higher carbohydrates to hold a healthy weight.”

With a little extra effort – and the help of your own team of equine health professionals – you can make sure your horse is receiving all the vital nutrients he needs to live a long, healthy life.