Deciding what to feed your horse is a really important decision, it affects their health, their performance and their mindset. We know that fibre is essential for our horse’s diet, and the majority of our horses’s can do well on hay or grass. However to provide a balanced diet we right need to consider supplementary feeding, but where do you start when it comes to choosing a feed for your horse?
As a rider or owner it is a minefield popping into your local tackshop or feed store for a bag of food for your horse. There is so much choice, bright coloured bags and lots of clever promises slapped across the products, making it difficult to decide what to feed your horse. You might have others at your yard suggesting that you feed your horse this or that, and how it’s worked wonders for their dressage horse, eventer or trec superstar. Let’s be honest horsey people generally have strong opinions, and are often not frightened to share their thoughts.
Assessing whether you have the right diet for your horse can be thought of quite simply:
A horse will either be overweight (receiving too many calories), underweight (not enough) or an ideal weight. It is important to note that most owners underestimate fat covering on their own horse. For the good of your horse please take a long hard look at the condition of your horse, and ask a friend, trainer or vet for their assessment as well. There are so many reasons that our horses are getting fatter in the UK, you can read my thoughts here
This is harder as a mineral or vitamin deficiency will take much longer to see, and could present as poor coat or hoof quality. A hay only diet offers lots of fibre for your horse, and probably sufficient energy but it might not provide all the vitamins and minerals that your horse needs. Consider having your forage analysed, or use a balancer or broad spectrum supplement to ensure you are meeting the vitamin and mineral requirements.
We know that a fibre based diet is best for virtually all horses, however there are many ways to provide this from hay and haylage, to fibre nuts and fibre ‘soaked feeds’. Horses are happiest (mentally and physically) when they spend the majority of their time grazing, hence the term trickle feeder. It is is important to consider the chew time of the feedstuffs that we provide, and making attempts to slow our horses down will help with weight loss, and help avoid choke.
Calories going into your horse need to match how many calories they actually need, which is dependent on the factors below. Many horses in the UK are overweight, so before you reach for a new ‘super food’ for your horse, do consider what they actually need
The modern leisure horse does a lot less work than it’s counterpart did twenty or thirty years ago. More and more people have transport so hacking to shows or lessons (as I did) is relatively unheard of. Riders probably go on shorter hacks due to busier roads, less bridleway access and often less time.
A horse’s workload was typically classified as ‘light’ (schooling and hacking most days), ‘medium work’ (competing in dressage and showjumping regularly) or ‘hard work’ (higher level eventing, regular hunting or endurance). If you look on many bags of horse feed they will labelled as appropriate for low or medium (or high) energy requirements but many owners are overestimating the work level of their horse. Twenty minutes of schooling a few times a week, a gentle hack and maybe the odd lunge are not medium work.
The rise of the non ridden equine, and horses being kept as pets also means that many horses do very little work. You can provide physical and mental stimulation to your horse by working them from the ground (and I am a big fan of this), it is important for strength training and your horse’s education but it is not the same as a cross country schooling session or a day out drag hunting in terms of calorie burning.
It is well documented that horses are not only living longer, but that they are aging better, a horse into it’s twenties can still be enjoying an active life with correct management. It has been long thought that an older horse needs more calories and more protein, but that is not necessarily the case and purely depends on the individual animal. Horses age at different rates, just like humans, and you need to consider the weight and condition of an older horse as well as the ‘ageing signs’ that they are displaying. A horse might be classed as ‘old’ at 10 (a former race horse), or 25 for a active pony, while 16 seems to be considered as the start of senior by feed companies. In short age is just a number, and you don’t automatically have to move to a specific ‘veteran’ feed when your horse reaches a set age.
Younger horses (and those lactating) will also need more energy, and a carefully balanced diet to remain healthy.
The horse’s feed ration should be calculated as a percentage of its body weight, and horses should be fed between 1.5-2.5% of their bodyweight., and 2% of bodyweight would probably be a good starting point for most horses.
However there are a few points to consider when deciding what to feed your horse:
Take the example of Bobby
Bobby is a cob type, he is 8 years old, is around 15hh and weighs 600kg with a body condition score of 7 (he is overweight). He is ridden 4 times a week, and puts in as little effort into schooling as he can get away with- he rarely breaks into a sweat.
His owner is trying to get him to 500kg.
If Bobby continues to be turned out on good gazing (his livery yard used to be a dairy farm, so the grass is rather lush) it will be difficult to get him to lose weight. It is really hard to estimate the energy provided by grazing as this is dependent on so many factors like time of year, grass type, pasture management, stock numbers, fertilisation and size of the paddock.
For effective weight loss it might be sensible (if possible and depending on the time of year) to try and use a grass free turnout area, and provide hay instead. I appreciate that this can be challenging in many livery yard settings, but this would certainly make life easier.
For Bobby 2% of his BW = 10kg, and this is a good place to start, metabolic problems can be caused by suddenly dietary restrictions . He will receive 9.5kg hay and 500g of a balancer to meet his nutritional requirements of vitamins and minerals. His hay is split into 4 haynets 1kg at 8am, 2 kg at 12, 1kg at 3pm and 5.5 kg at 9pm
His ration is sensibly made up of forage as he has low energy requirements, weighed to control intake and could be soaked to reduce the calories in the hay. I would very much suggest weighing out hay, and you can purchase a spring loaded balance easily online. This is really helpful if your horse is overweight (you can read about why horses don’t have an off switch here and will just keep eating), but also if your horse is not maintaining condition then you can see how much they are actually eating. Feeding hay by eye, slice or net full is not very accurate, and if other people care for your horse will mean different amounts of different days.
It might sound a bit strange to choose feed for a horse based on the rider but actually this is a very good point.
It is essential to select a food that provides appropriate energy levels and suitable energy sources for the work that your horse is doing, otherwise your horse will gain weight. Selecting the wrong energy sources for your horse can also result in a rather lively four legged partner, and rider’s level of skill, confidence and ability should be considered as well as what the horse really needs.
Horses in the wild experience seasonal weight loss, and weight gain, in accordance with the availability of food and climatic conditions. This keeps them healthy, and reports of laminitis are very rare among ‘managed’ Native ponies living on moors or forests.
Nowadays owners go to great length to avoid ANY weight loss during the winter, and often this is a mistake. If you own a ‘good doer’ it can be tough keeping them slim during the Spring and Summer months, but letting them lose some weight in the colder months will be very beneficial for your horse. They will start the following Spring the correct weight, not 100kg too heavy, and if you encourage this to happen each year it will certainly keep your horse healthier. You can read some tips for weight loss in this article here., but do consider the time of year when making any decisions about what to feed your horse.
The management regime that your horse is on will also impact what you feed your horse. Does your horse live inside all winter, wrapped up in twenty rugs or is he out in all weathers? Naturally this is going to impact on how much energy he requires. If your horse is overweight gets some rugs off, or consider him living out to help you manage his weight, seasonal weight loss can be really helpful. You can read more about why we rug our horses and if your horse needs a rug here.
So if you are wondering what to feed your horse start by thinking about what your horse needs, if he or she is overweight and what feed will promote good digestive health. The vast majority of leisure horses require a fibre diet only, and a balancer is helpful to ensure their vitamin and mineral requirements are met.
It is all too easy to be swayed by marketing claims and clever advertising when choosing a horse feed, so start with the basics. If your horse needs additional energy for work I would suggest sources of fat as the next step, and either oil or ‘encased’ fats such as rice bran can be extremely beneficial to the horse. If your horse is losing weight I would first consider WHY – poor dentition, compromised renal function, PPID or parasite burden can all impact on your horse. Do check in with your vet in cases of weight loss before searching for a higher energy feed.
If you would like to learn more about feeding your horse you can register for information on our new online nutrition course here. I find nutrition such an interesting topic and I can’t wait to launch this course.