Feed Your Horse Wisely

Here are seven of the most common horse feeding mistakes, and how to avoid them. To help you avoid the most common horse feeding pitfalls, leading equine nutritionists describe the problems they most often see.
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Here are seven of the most common horse feeding mistakes, and how to avoid them. To help you avoid the most common horse feeding pitfalls, leading equine nutritionists describe the problems they most often see.

Here are seven of the most common horse feeding mistakes, and how to avoid them. To help you avoid the most common horse feeding pitfalls, leading equine nutritionists describe the problems they most often see. If you recognize some of your own practices in this list, take heart: A fix is usually readily accomplished. If, however, you believe significant changes are needed in your horse's ration, consult with your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist for advice.

Mistake #1: Paying too little attention to forage Ideally, the average horse's ration is primarily hay and pasture grass, with modest amounts of concentrates, such as grain, pelleted or sweet feed. But frequently, little emphasis is placed on the quality of forage offered, says Kathleen Crandell, PhD, an equine nutritionist with Kentucky Equine Research in Lexington. ?Too many people think that hay is just busywork for the horse and do not realize that it is a major calorie source that can vary greatly with quality. If you?ve tried everything to get a horse's weight up but are still feeding stemmy, old timothy hay, switching to a leafy grass hay that's not overly mature is a very safe way to get more calories.?

Mistake #2: Overloading the grain bucket Grain and sweet feed are potent sources of energy. In fact, they contain many more soluble carbohydrates than most pleasure horses require. And feeding a horse more concentrates than he needs can be harmful to his health: The intake of too many calories leads to obesity, and high-starch grains have been implicated in a variety of health problems, including colic and laminitis. For most horses, the less grain fed, the better.

That said, some horses need more calories than they can get from forage alone. For example, horses who undergo an hour or more of daily training in sports such as reining or jumping and those who compete in the most strenuous sports, such as racing or endurance, require extra rations in the form of grains or other concentrated feeds to maintain weight.

Mistake #3: Feeding by volume rather than weight If you hold a coffee can filled with corn in one hand and one containing oats in the other hand, you will notice a significant difference in weight?corn is heavier, and it's also higher in calories than other feeds.

Of course, we're all used to scooping out a uniform portion of feed at mealtime, but when it comes to calculating nutrition, it is the weight that matters, not the volume?something to keep in mind whenever you change feeds.

So, when you're planning to change or adjust your feeds, be sure to read the bag for the nutritional content per pound, and then use a kitchen scale to determine how much a pound really is.

Mistake #4: Giving the wrong feed to the wrong horse In any catalog or feed store today you'll find a variety of bagged feeds labeled for specific types of horses?growing youngsters, hardworking adults, broodmares, senior citizens, etc. All are formulated to provide the exact amount of calories and nutrition those animals need, and giving the wrong feed to the wrong horse can result in imbalances that can be harmful. ?The biggest consequence is that adult rations don't have the mineral levels young horses need,? says Sarah Ralston, VMD, PhD, Dipl. ACVN, associate professor at Rutgers University. ?The result can be abnormal growth and developmental orthopedic disease.?

Mistake #5: Overloading the nutrients ?One common mistake is adding supplements to the horse's diet without first checking to see if the ration is already overloaded with any specific nutrients,? says Crandell. To avoid creating harmful imbalances, calculate the nutrients a horse is getting from his basic feed ration before adding a vitamin or mineral supplement.

Mistake #6: Failing to offer salt Sodium and chloride?the components of table salt?are electrolytes essential to many bodily functions. Both are lost in sweat and must be replaced from the diet. These are also the only essential nutrients that are not naturally present in grasses and grains. Horses have a natural appetite for salt and consume what they need if given the opportunity. Placing a salt block in your herd?s pasture is the easiest way of providing access to this vital nutrient, but to ensure that all horses get the salt they need, you may decide to put out multiple blocks or even place a small block in each horse's stall.

Mistake #7: Offering too little free-choice fresh water A variety of ?old horsemen?s tales? once advised withholding water from horses under particular circumstances. For example, many people still adhere to the notion that offering cold water to a hot, sweating horse will cause colic. However, researchers now know that offering a cool drink to a hot horse does no harm, and it will help him recover from exertion more quickly. In fact, ensuring that horses have access to a ready supply of fresh, clean water is one of the best ways to reduce the risks of impaction colic, especially in those kept primarily on dried forage.

This information was adapted from an article by Laurie Bonner for EQUUS magazine and is in the Tractor Supply Company's "Trail Riding Essentials."