Is Your Horse Getting A Balanced Diet?


Where would we be without food?  Dead!  Every being on this beautiful blue planet needs food.  Humans have a wide variety from which to obtain their nutrients.  Horses on the other hand have evolved to mainly live off grasses along with the odd herb encountered along the way.


However, domestication has vastly restricted horses’ grazing, limiting access to nature’s larder.  Furthermore, a horse in work cannot live by grass alone.  They require greater amounts of energy whilst maintaining the correct balance of nutrients, vitamins and minerals.


Back in the day you had to create your own mixes and feeding your horse was somewhat of a dark art.  Since then there has been a lot of scientific analysis and nowadays your horse’s balanced diet comes in a bag.  Whatever your horse’s age, breed, type and workload there seems to be a bag of food designed especially for them.  All compound feeds that offer a balanced diet come with feeding guidelines based on the basic feeding principles.  By feeding you horse according to these guidelines you can be sure your horse is getting all the nutrients they require to live a healthy and happy life.  Or not.  Forage Plus state that even the most highly fortified feeds only provide 50% or less of the minimum daily requirements when they are fed at their recommended minimum rate.


What If You Can’t Feed The Recommended Amount?


There will always be those individuals who do not fit into any category.  What happens if there isn’t a bag of food specifically designed for your lamanitic pony or your inveterate good doer, your retired veteran or your injured horse on box rest?  You may want to give them a less calorific diet but in a ready mixed feed giving less means you are also cutting out the Good Stuff that they will still need.


It’s not just stabled horses who may be at risk.  The vitamin and mineral content of forage will also depend on location, soil content, plant type and weather conditions and the age and quality of the forage.


The signs that your horse is not getting enough of the Good Stuff may be subtle.  A lame horse or a horse who doesn’t seem as sharp as he was a few months ago may be suffering from a deficiency or imbalance of vitamins and minerals.  The horse’s body will try to keep the same level of constituents in the bloodstream.  If necessary where there are deficiencies, elements will be released from the stores in the body.  Even if the horse is lacking in certain vitamins and minerals a blood test may well appear normal.  Blood tests are not the answer.


What Should You Do?


To calculate whether your horse is getting the properly balanced and correct amount of vitamins and minerals, you need to start off with some basic information.


1.  Feed According To Weight


The most accurate way to weigh your horse is on a weigh bridge, alternatively you can estimate their weight using a weigh tape or calculate it using the formula: the girth of your horse squared multiplied by its length (in inches) divided by 300 equals your horse’s weight (in pounds)  (or Weight in kgs =(girth measurement in cm) x (girth measurement in cm) x (length measurement in cm) ÷ 1188).  Up to eighty percent of this weight of food should be fed as forage.


2.  Know What You Are Feeding


First of all, you need to know what your horse is eating and how much.  This includes concentrates, forage and grazing.


  • Concentrates


Most bagged feed comes with feeding guidelines which are all measured in units of weight.


  • Grazing


Hopefully your horse will get some kind of turnout, preferably everyday, so they will be eating the grass in the field.  Do you know what type of grass that is?  The amount of grass being eaten whilst turned out is hard to quantify.  Horses are selective trickle eaters and will spend roughly 70% of their time turned out grazing depending on


Frilly grazing


– The weather. Grazing decreases with severe weather (cold or hot);


– The better the quality of the pasture, the less time the horse needs to spend grazing;


– A horse turned out alone might have more opportunity to graze undisturbed by field companions. By the same token, they may be stressed from being on their own and not get much grazing done at all, preferring to march up and down the fence line.


– A horse will eat less when it is bothered by flies.


You might think there should be a calculation: a horse’s mouthful of grass = so much in weight multiplied by number of mouthfuls per hour  multiplied by number of hours grazing divided by 70%!  However, there are too many variables to consider; the length of the grass, its palatability etc.


  • Forage


We normally think of forage as hay or haylage (well I do anyway!) but you can also include alfalfa and other types of grasses.  Do you buy your hay directly  from the same farmer all the time?  How can you guarantee the same type and quality of hay every time you buy?  Forage should be up to eighty percent of the horse’s daily food intake.  As with all types of food it must be measured by weight (by weighing the filled haynet).


SKŪPs on a bale of hayIf your horse leaves some of his feed (of any variety), this needs to be subtracted from the amount he was fed in order to calculate the amount he has actually eaten.


The best way to determine if your  horse’s current feeding programme requires supplementation is to have your forage and feed analysed.  This allows you to determine the quantity of vitamins and minerals consumed each day, versus your horse’s  recommended daily intake (RDI).


There is some argument as to whether it is better to feed a multi-vitamin and mineral supplement which in itself will be balanced or whether it would be better to target a particular deficiency or imbalance.  Your friendly nutritionist will be able to advise you best based on your individual circumstances.


And Finally…


If you are at all worried about your horses health, you should always consult your vet.