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Feed Your Horse a Balanced Diet

Determining whether your horse is getting the right nutrients doesn’t need to be complicated.

Weighing horse feed with scale
Get an accurate picture of what your horse is eating every day by weighing his feed.
© Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore

Your horse doesn't seem as sharp as he did a few months ago, and his coat is losing its glow. Does he need a supplement? Should you change his feed?

Before you can answer those questions, you need to answer two others: First, does he have a health problem? Second, is his diet balanced? The first one is easy—just call your veterinarian and schedule a visit for a complete checkup. But determining if your horse's current rations provide the right amounts of the nutrients he needs may seem daunting. You'll find reams of nutritional information in books and online, much of it highly detailed. The numerical data and technical jargon can deep-fry your mind.

The process doesn't need to be complicated, says Sarah Ralston, VMD, associate director of the Rutgers Equine Science Center and a specialist in equine nutrition. You won't even need higher math skills. In this article, you'll find out how to balance your horse's diet using some simple tools. Want instant gratification? See "Cut to the Chase" below for shortcuts.

What Does He Need?
All horses need the same essential nutrients—energy to fuel body functions, protein to build and repair body tissues and produce enzymes and hormones, and certain vitamins and minerals—but the amounts required by individual horses vary. To figure out if your horse is getting what he should from his diet, start with basic information about him:


Weight: Feed recommendations are generally based on amounts per pound or per kilogram of mature body weight, so this is essential information. A livestock scale will tell you your horse's precise current weight, but a careful estimate with a weight tape (easily obtained from feed stores) will be fine.

If your horse is underweight or overweight, base his feeding program on optimum weight rather than current weight, Dr. Ralston says. A body-condition scoring system (such as the Henneke scale, online at and other websites) can help you decide if you should go with his current weight. Check the table of typical weight and height ranges for various breeds at (the website of Equi-Analytical Laboratories, which does hay and feed analyses) for an idea of normal weight for horses of his breed and body type.

Age: Horses have different needs at different stages in life. Young horses need extra energy, protein and the right amounts of minerals, such as calcium and phosphorus for bone and tissue development. Broodmares' nutritional requirements jump during late pregnancy and lactation. Senior horses may develop metabolic problems that call for changes in diet.

Work level: Work increases energy needs. The increase isn't very great for horses in light to moderate work (five hours a week or less), but a horse in very heavy work (upper-level eventing, racing, endurance) may need twice as many calories as a horse who just loafs in the pasture. Sweat losses associated with hard work dramatically increase the need for water and salt, too.

Cut to the Chase

Calculating how much of each nutrient your horse's total diet provides is a time-consuming, mind-numbing chore, you say? You're right—and it's a chore you may not need to do. Here are some shortcuts to the bottom line.

Use software. The National Research Council developed a free computer program that does the work for you; it's online at Enter information about your horse, and it shows you the average nutritional needs for horses of his age, weight and work level. Enter information on the feeds he gets, and it spits back an analysis that shows how closely his diet meets the guidelines.

Want more information? There are several other programs horse owners can use, says Peggy Miller, associate professor and Extension horse specialist at the University of Iowa. They're based on the 2007 guidelines, but some have larger feed "libraries" and can perform additional functions, such as formulating rations on a least-cost basis. However, these programs aren't free, and they may be most useful for breeding farms and other large operations. They include REINS (Relevant Equine Intensive Nutrition Software) from the Iowa State Extension store, Equi-Balance software from Performance Horse Nutrition and Horse Ration Formulation 2007 from Creative Formulation Concepts.

Read feed labels. NRC's program works like a charm for the forages and concentrates it lists, but you won't find commercial mixed-grain feeds on the menu. If you use those feeds, you can still use the program. Just leave out information about the concentrate and turn to the commercial feed label to see if it fills deficits (or provides an excess) of any nutrients.

The guaranteed analysis shows the levels of crude protein and, often, lysine, crude fat, crude fiber and minerals, including calcium, phosphorus and vitamin A. The ingredients list may give more information—you may see that the feed contains vitamins and minerals not listed in the analysis, for example—although quantities aren't shown. You won't find a number for digestible energy, but you can deduce whether it's high or low. Feeds with high levels of fat (say, 8 percent) and grains in the ingredients list likely provide more energy than those with low fat levels (say, 2 percent) and lots of forage-based ingredients.

Choose a brand-name balanced feed. Many brand-name commercial feeds are already balanced for horses at different life stages and work levels, and they're designed to complement grass or legume hays. You'll find this information on the label, too. If your horse is getting one of these feeds in the amounts recommended in the label's feeding directions, along with good-quality forage, put down your pencil and stop worrying. "Resist the urge to buy supplements just because they are there," says Dr. Ralston.

Posted in Feed, Hay, Nutrition, Supplements | | Leave a comment

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