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7 Most Common Horse Feeding Mistakes

Here are seven of the most common horse feeding mistakes, and how to avoid them.

Photo by Celia Strain
When calculating nutrition, it's the weight that matters, not the volume.

We do our best to feed our horses well--and we generally succeed. And yet knowing what's best doesn't always mean that we do what's best. Admit it: You realize a green salad is the more healthful meal, but how often do you grab a burger and fries when you're on the run? Likewise, the way we feed our horses is sometimes influenced more by our need to rush through our busy schedules than by their nutritional needs.

Other factors influence the way we feed horses, too: the blur of sometimes contradictory information as well as our own emotional needs--to feel as good as possible about the precious time we spend with our animals. Usually, the consequences of less-than-optimal feeding regimens are relatively minor, costing us extra money perhaps but doing no real harm. But the worst feeding mistakes can have serious consequences: Some deficiencies or excesses pose an actual health threat; others may subtly rob a horse of vitality.

To help you avoid the most common feeding pitfalls, we asked leading equine nutritionists to 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."

Besides providing more nutrients, better-quality hay is also more economical. For one thing, poor-quality hay contains less digestible fiber so horses have to eat much more to derive the same amount of nutritional value, yet because it is less palatable, horses tend to leave more of it uneaten. In contrast, good-quality hay rarely goes to waste: Horses are likely to devour every last leaf and stem.

Hay made from different grass species varies somewhat in appearance, but in general the good stuff has several distinguishing characteristics:

  • Leafiness: The leaves contain about 90 percent of a plant's protein, so ideally, you want bales with fewer stems and large seedheads.
  • Color: The hue of good hay can vary but is generally some shade of light to medium green for grass hays and darker green for alfalfa. Some yellowing is natural if the hay was sun-bleached, but too much yellow likely indicates that the grass was overmature when cut and contains less digestible fiber.
  • Aroma: Good hay smells fresh and slightly sweet. Pungent, acrid or musty odors are signs of mold or other quality deficits.
  • Texture: If you squeeze a handful, good hay feels soft and pliable while poorer hays have coarser stems that will stab your skin.
  • Weight: Good-quality bales are lightweight and springy; if you drop one on its end it ought to bounce.
  • Purity: Good hays contain few weeds and no foreign material, such as sticks, wire or dead insects or animals.If you want to know more about the nutritional value of a batch of hay, you can send a sample off to be analyzed. Contact your county or state extension agent for advice.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.

  • Posted in Feed, Hay | Leave a comment

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