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:
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.