Smart Feeding Tips

Equine nutrition is a daunting topic. Here, an expert provides answers to some of your most pressing questions about how to feed. From Horse and Rider magazine
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Equine nutrition is a daunting topic. Here, an expert provides answers to some of your most pressing questions about how to feed. From Horse and Rider magazine

As with so many areas of life today, the wide variety of options available in horse feed is almost too much of a good thing. Yes, there are many fine products out there?and more coming on the market all the time?but how do you know what might work for your particular horse, given his unique needs and characteristics?

Horse feeding

To answer that question and others, we?ve enlisted the help of Dr. Judy Reynolds, the lead equine nutritionist for Illinois-based ADM Alliance Nutrition (grostrong.com). Her credentials include an MS in animal science and a PhD in equine nutrition, both from Texas A&M University. Dr. Judy, as she's known from her popular speaking engagements, has also been a college professor, trainer, exhibitor, breeder, judge, coach, and 4-H and FFA leader at various times in her past.

Here, she answers some reader questions in light of the most recent science on how best to feed.

l. There are so many different types of commercial feeds available nowadays. How can I ever decide what's best for my horse?

Dr. Judy: To simplify the decision-making process, consider a few major concepts. First, horses are grazing animals. Most of the protein, energy, and fiber they need should come from the forage portion of the ration?hay and/or grazing. That means whatever feeds and supplements you buy should be chosen to fill in any nutritional gaps left by the forage.

Some mature, nonworking, overweight, or ?easy keeper? horses will need only a salt/vitamin/mineral supplement in addition to their forage. You can feed these in granular form (typically about 2 to 4 ounces per day) or pelleted form (about 1 to 2 pounds per day).

On the other extreme, growing horses, broodmares, older horses, and hard-working athletes could need substantial amounts of additional protein and energy along with their salt, vitamins, and minerals?in the form of a concentrated feed.

Then, too, you need to make sure the feed you buy is recommended for your horse's age, breed, workload, and reproductive status. These guidelines should be specified on the bag.

Another important selection criterion is the daily feeding rate of a feed?in other words, the approximate amount the manufacturer recommends you feed to your horse each day, depending on his weight. Always choose a feed that you can give at the recommended amount, or else your horse will not be getting the correct vitamin/mineral fortification.

For example, if the manufacturer says you should feed your 1,000-pound horse 6 pounds a day of a particular feed, but you give him just 2 or 3 pounds, then your horse is getting only half or less of the vitamins and minerals he needs.

2. But what if feeding him the full recommended amount makes him too fat or too frisky?

Dr. Judy: There are now specialty feeds, commonly referred to as ?ration balancers,? which are formulated to provide the correct amount of vitamins and minerals in a smaller amount of high-quality feed, and they work extremely well for some horses. Usually they?re fed at a rate of about only 1 to 2 pounds per day. They typically come in two different formulations; you choose which to use depending on how much protein is being supplied by your hay.

3. Speaking of protein, how do you know how much to provide? When I'm choosing between different feeds within a company?s product line, I note that protein levels vary among all the offerings. What's the effect of boosting protein in a horse's diet, and in what circumstances might a horse need or benefit from it?

Dr. Judy: Feeding protein tends to be extremely confusing to horse owners. The main thing to remember is that most of your horse's protein is (or should be) provided by his hay or other forage portion of the ration.

Because of feed-manufacturing regulations, the crude protein content of a product must be listed first on the feed tag, which makes it seem of utmost importance. But think of protein as the part of the ration that makes up the structure of the cells and tissues of the body, while energy is the fuel used by the body to perform its functions. Young horses and broodmares thus need extra protein, for actual growth. Working adult horses need less protein than young horses, but more fuel or energy.

It's also important to know that what horses actually need are the amino acids?the building blocks in protein?not the actual protein itself. So, with protein, there are two aspects to consider: the quantity (or amount) and the quality (or amino-acid profile).

A good analogy is that protein is like words and amino acids are like letters. When you want to make a certain word, you need the correct letters. When your horse's body is trying to make a protein, if the correct amino acid isn?t available, that protein cannot be made. This can lead to stunted growth or less-efficient functioning of organs or the immune system.

But the good news is that most forage fed to horses provides the majority of their protein/amino acid requirement most of the time. Any additional required amino acids, though, need to come from the concentrate.

4. So how do I decide how much protein my horse needs?

Dr. Judy: In the past, the traditional system has been to feed 10- to 12-percent protein feeds to mature horses fed good-quality hay; 14-percent protein to 2-year-olds, broodmares, and horses on lower-quality hay; and 16-percent-or-higher protein feeds or supplements to suckling foals, weanlings, and yearlings.

But here's the thing: These percentages represent only the protein from the concentrate portion of the horse's ration, and the concentrate typically makes up just one-quarter or less of a horse's total ration (the forage makes up the other three-quarters or more). That means the practical difference in actual protein provided by concentrates is relatively small.

In other words, the protein content of the forage will have a much greater impact on the total protein content of the horse's ration than will the protein content of the concentrate.

For example, if you're feeding 18 pounds of 11-percent-protein hay a day, and you add 6 pounds of a 12-percent concentrate, your horse will be getting 11.25 percent protein overall (based on 24 total pounds of feed).

Change the concentrate to 16-percent protein, keeping the hay the same, and you'll boost your horse's total protein to just 12.25 percent overall.

But change the hay to 14-percent protein, keeping the concentrate at the original 12 percent, and you'll boost your horse's total protein up to 13.50 percent overall.

The hay, clearly, has much more impact than the concentrate. And this is why it's so important to start with the correct hay, or forage, for your horse.

One additional note about protein, however: Feeds with 16-percent or more protein tend to be made from higher-quality proteins (they?re needed to get the higher-percentage values), so you get increased protein quantity and quality at the same time when you use them. This would be especially important for suckling foals, which can't digest forage very well. They need easy-to-digest, high-quality amino acids in their concentrate, which they do get in the higher-percentage formulations.

5. Is beet pulp particularly good for an older horse, or any hard keeper? If so, what's the best way to feed it? Does it need to be soaked in advance of feeding or not? I?ve heard it recommended both ways.

Dr. Judy: Beet pulp and soybean hulls are considered to be ?super fibers,? or highly digestible fibers. For comparison, grass hays contain from 0.6 to 0.9 Mcal digestible energy (DE) per pound. Alfalfa contains 0.8 to 1.1 Mcal DE per pound. Beet pulp and soybean hulls contain about 1.3 Mcal DE per pound. That means each pound of beet pulp or soybean hulls can replace 1.18 to 2.17 pounds of hay (or more, as some hay is usually wasted by horses during eating).

Now, bear in mind that most horses can eat hay efficiently, and thus get all or most of their required energy from it, so they don't really need additional digestible fibers such as beet pulp or soybean hulls, which are more expensive. The exception is horses without normal chewing ability, which really benefit from processed forages.

A few caveats: Beet pulp is grown in only a few locations around the country and is more expensive than soybean hulls. You also should soak beet pulp?even pelleted forms of it?before feeding it to reduce the incidence of choke. (Beet pulp pellets are OK to feed dry when mixed with other feeds but, like alfalfa pellets, they expand so much when moistened that when fed straight, you need that expansion to occur before they?re in your horse's digestive system.)

Soybean hulls can be fed without soaking in pelleted form, but are usually included in commercial feeds as a base, replacing corn. They?re economical; highly digestible; and, as I?ve indicated, very low in starch and sugar. N

What's an ?Mcal??

One Mcal is the equivalent of 1,000 of the calories we're most familiar with, Kcals. Just as an average person needs about 2,000 calories or Kcals daily, an average 1,100-pound horse needs about 16 Mcals per day for maintenance and up to 32 Mcals per day for extreme