By: Rachel Mottet, M.S.
Equine Specialist – Purina Animal Nutrition
Choosing a feed for a horse can be tricky business, there are so many options! How do you know if you’re making the right selection? How do you know if you are meeting the minimum volume required to meet all your horse’s vitamin, mineral and amino acid requirements? Is the feed in question the right fit for your horse’s needs? Here are some basics to help you answer those questions…
Before I dive into the different types of feed, I must describe the horse’s nutrient needs – I refer to this as the equine food pyramid. This food pyramid is determined by the Equine NRC (National Research Council). The Equine NRC publishes equine nutrient requirements based on scientific data gained through published equine research. With the information from the Equine NRC, our equine food pyramid is created.
When considering this food pyramid we must first think about hay. Hay is the #1 component of the equine diet and a good quality hay source is the key compliment to any grain. At the absolute minimum, it is recommended that a horse consume 1% of their bodyweight per day in hay. This percentage will go up based on extra energy demand from climate changes, workload, reproductive status, growth stage, etc. I recommend 1.2 – 1.5%+ of bodyweight per day in hay as a general rule of thumb for nutrition programs that I develop with horse owners.
Furthermore on the topic of hay, what we do know is that our hay (especially in the Midwest) does not cover all bases of the equine food pyramid. There are a few gaps that we can fill through feeding some type of concentrate. Here are the 3 main classes of equine feed and how to feed them:
Ration Balancers: This type of feed has become increasingly popular for horses who are easy keepers. For those horses that seem to thrive on hay alone, ration balancers are often the best choice. The best way to describe this feed is that it is similar to a daily vitamin/mineral & protein shake. This product covers all bases of the equine food pyramid in a small feeding rate of 1-2 lbs. total per day. This class of feed does not contain extra calories that contribute to weight gain and is designed to complement the forage source. I recommend Purina Enrich Plus as a ration balancer for your easy keeper.
The most common question I get from horse owners with easy keepers is: “My horse looks great on hay alone, why would I need to feed a ration balancer?” This is a good question! To answer this, I bring up the missing pieces of the equine food pyramid in feeding hay alone. Another important consideration is that many of the benefits from a balanced diet are not always seem. Vitamins, minerals and amino acids contribute to a healthy immune system, strong bone structure and hoof integrity among various other physiological benefits. For the sake of ease, let’s compare this to the human diet. One could eat fast food every day and appear to thrive or appear healthy on this diet. However, the reality is that we are shortchanging our body from key nutrients. Would you be able to tell from looking at a person that they are vitamin, mineral or amino acid deficient? Maybe, maybe not, but the body knows and functions optimally when all food pyramid bases are covered. This is why I suggest a ration balancer for your easy keepers. It fills the missing holes that hay leaves in the equine food pyramid.
Performance Feeds: Our next class of feed is the performance feed. This feed is designed to be fed at a rate of 4-8 lbs per day for a horse to maintain good body condition and perform to their best ability. It should be noted that the rate of feeding will depend on the individual horse and feed recommendation. All grains have a minimum feeding rate to fulfill the equine food pyramid so make sure to read the tag or talk to an equine specialist to determine this minimum for your horse.
Horses in a training program, performance horses and hard keepers generally benefit most from a performance feed. This feed provides all the NRC recommendations in addition to calories to support the energy demands of a higher workload or higher calorie demand. I recommend Strategy or Purina Ultium as a performance feed.
Complete / Senior Feed: Ever notice that our horses are living a lot longer these days? A lot of this has to do with nutrition! Even when a horse has no teeth left in their mouth to chew and eat, they can still survive solely on a complete feed. A complete feed contains the hay and grain component in one product. This feed is designed to be the entire diet of the horse and will usually have a minimum recommended feeding rate of 6-8+ lbs. Why the higher minimum? This is because the hay component is present which, for lack of a better term, “dilutes” the grain and ups the minimum amount required to get 100% of the equine food pyramid covered.
Complete feeds are not only great for seniors but great if you do not have access to a quality forage source. The forage component is fortified with consistent high quality vitamins, minerals & proteins. These feeds are generally very low in starch and gentle on the gut of the horse. They have many functions and are helping our older horses live well into their 30’s! I recommend Purina Equine Senior, the #1 veterinarian recommended brand for your horse that is a senior or a horse that needs a complete feed.
While we have only scratched the surface here on equine feed classes, hopefully this helps answer a few basic questions. Feel free to contact me for an equine nutrition consult in the greater Twin Cities, I am always happy to help answer your equine nutrition questions! RSMottet@landolakes.com.
Rachel Mottet holds a B.S. & M.S. degree in Animal Science with an equine emphasis. She is an Equine Specialist with Purina and does 3-day eventing with her horse Titan.