There is a strong chance that your horse is probably not getting a balanced diet, I know annoying right. Now you might be reading this and think what but I buy x feed, y product, or a million supplements how can I be getting it wrong?
Feeding horses is a vast (and often confusing) subject. We are bombarded with messages online, in magazines at show trade stands and we can be left feeling pretty unsure what to actually feed our horses. We buy the feed and supplements recommended to use by friends, feed companies, trainers and vets but I think sometimes we are still not getting it right (despite the best intentions). This article is designed to highlight areas where I have made errors over the years as a horse owner (and I see people doing all the time), it’s not meant as a criticism, and I’ve included my thoughts and solutions below.
So here is why your horse might not being getting a balanced diet.…
This can be a surprise to owners as we all know that fibre and more fibre is best for our horses. Yes they need fibre, and yes fibre is a great choice but what is the fibre and what is in it? Hay quality and nutritional value is influenced by so many factors, but quite often we simply assess forage by eye, or feed whatever is easiest to get hold of.
You might like to consider forage analysis to see what vitamins and minerals are missing and if relevant for your horse check the ‘sugar’ levels. Of course you can’t analysis very single bale of hay that you feed your horse, but if you get to chance to buy three months of more worth of hay it would be sensible to take a representative sample and get this analysed. It might be possible to split the cost with others on your yard, and forage analysis is generally around £75. It will give very valuable information if your horse is overweight, or at risk of laminitis, and will help you decide whether you need to soak your hay.
I am a big fan of feeding a balancer, I think this is a very practical option for lots of horses and owners. I’m very much in favour of all the vitamins and minerals in an easy to use form, low starch and sugar. However (I have definitely done this) not all owners read the recommended amount (assuming that a ‘mug’ full is enough) or think that the recommended amount is too great, and feed less. Either way you are undoing all the hard work that has gone into creating a ‘balanced balancer’
Stick to the recommended amount of balancer, and weight it out. Yes it might be a ‘mug-full’ but mugs do differ from a tiny cup to one you could fit a days worth of tea into, so do check. If you think that the recommended amount of balancer is too much, then perhaps you have the wrong product. Perhaps consider changing to a balancer formulated for your horse (i.e. a lower cal one if your horse is overweight), or move to a general vitamin and mineral supplement
Owners generally do this because they think that their horse would become overweight on the full amount of nuts or mix recommended. In this case you probably have chosen the wrong product.
I suppose some owners give less of a complete nut/ feed to make the bag last longer. Whilst I can sympathise, as it does feel like horses literally eat money at times, work out what the best use of your money is.
Switch to a balancer, or use a general vitamin and mineral supplement and a chaff designed for your horse’s needs.
There is limited evidence for the idea that horses have ‘nutritional wisdom’, and will pick feedstuffs that they ‘need’, although there is plenty of anecdotal evidence. Whilst horses might have the ability to pick the nutrients they need the environment we keep them in probably means that they don’t have a suitable range of roughages/ herbs etc to choose from.
We know that not all horses have the ‘off switch’ that we think they do, as hormonal changes occur in the overweight horse meaning that they don’t know when to stop. You can read more about leptin and the ‘off switch’ here.
Do your homework and make sure they do have a balanced diet. There are lots of independent nutritionalists available to help your horse, either in person or online, as well as feed companies with nutritional helplines. You could also speak to your vet, or take part in our Equine Nutrition course as well. Yes there is plenty of information online do check out the source of the information, just because someone has strong view in a Facebook group it doesn’t mean that they are qualified.
Many horses do need more energy (although a lot of horses in this country don’t!), whether that is for work, lactation and maintaining condition. Owners often opt of a bag of ‘conditioning’ feed, which is generally high in starch, and often full of molasses as well. Starch is difficult for the horse to break down (their gastrointestinal tract is so interesting), and too much starch can cause so many problems further along their GIT. However there’s so many feeds to choose from that I think we often overlook fat as an energy source, despite numerous empirical studies highlighting the benefits of fat over starch sources.
Try feeding fat either as an encased form, or as oil. It is an excellent option for horses who need more energy for work and struggle to keep condition. Using fat as an energy source means that owners can stick to a largely fibre based diet (many benefits of that), as fat is energy dense so a large meal volume isn’t necessary.
It is important to note that horses may find large quantities of oil unpalatable, so build up the amount of oil you feed slowly. If you are opting for fat as an energy source for your horse’s work then do remember that the horse needs time to recognise that the fat is the energy source not starch, as this has a different digestive pathway.
So many horse owners worry about protein levels in their horse’s diet. Either they are concerned that their horse is receiving ‘too much’, and worry that their horse’s legs will fill . Although there doesn’t appear to be a clear link between high protein and filled legs in research, it’s probably more likely to do with horses being stabled for long periods. Or owners worry that their horse doesn’t have enough protein in their diet.
Don’t worry – horses (other than those growing, lactating and in the latter stages of pregnancy) don’t need that much protein. It’s better to focus on the quality of the protein source rather than the quantity. Protein isn’t useful as an energy source, and providing too much will just put more stress on your horse’s system as the excess needs to be broken down and excreted.
All owners love supplements I know, and for a long time one of my horses pretty much rattled with so many supplements. Whatever the problem (coat, hoof, ridden work, grumpiness) there is a supplement (or three) to ‘fix it’. However mixing several products up is probably resulting in an unbalanced diet.
Be brave just because Jo, Becky and Kerry all feed ‘Winning Pony Potion” (all people and supplements are fictitious) doesn’t mean that you have to as well. Why are you reaching for a particular supplement? What’s the research behind the claims? Is it just a ‘band aid’ and should you be searching for the root of the problem? Supplements have a place, and can be super helpful, but do your homework, and don’t fold to peer pressure
it’s easy to think well New Forest ponies do ok on grass my horse probably doesn’t need anything else. So true to an extent, grass can be a fantastic feed source, but is it the right grass and is your horse in the right condition/weight?
Find out more about your grass, and when was it last fertilised, or is it fertilised at all. What type of grass is it, was a ‘horse friendly’ mix sown, or is it former dairy land?
The more I have learnt about feeding horses (I was so interested when I completed my MSc that I went on to write my dissertation about feeding different fat sources) the less I have fed. I have kept feeding much simpler, and I’m sure that this has been better for the horses as well.
More knowledge has given me more confidence to select the best diets for the horses I have had. Understanding what they need, how they utilize this and how their digestive system works has helped me enormously. This is why (together with independent Nutritionist Briony Witherall from Practical Equine Nutrition, and two of our lovely vets) I have put together our new Equine Nutrition Course. It’s my turn to help, so please do get in touch if you’d like more details on our forthcoming Equine Nutrition course, you’ll be amazed at how much you learn.