Written by: Donna Marie West

Part 1: The Basics

Thumbnail for NUTRITION 101

Pam Mackenzie photo

You probably know that good nutrition is an important part of keeping your horse healthy. But how do you know your horse is eating what he should? Generally, a horse needs to consume 1.5 – 3% of his body weight daily. That means an average-sized horse (450 kilograms) will eat between 6.75 and 13.5 kgs of food each day. Individual needs are also based on the following additional factors:

– age

– breed

– health and body condition (fat, thin or normal)

– level of activity

– climate

All feed should be good quality and free from contaminants such as mould, dust, or mouse droppings. Feed your horse several (2 or 3) small meals each day, rather than one large one. Measure feed by weight, not volume; instead of guessing, actually weigh a scoop of grain and a flake of hay. Give hay first and grain 15-30 minutes later. Keep the same feeding hours each day, and make all changes gradually. Finally, make sure your horse has access to fresh, clean water at all times (sorry, snow and icky green swamp water don’t count!)  See the chart below for an idea of how much your horse should be eating:

Hay

Pasture grass and hay are the staples in a horse’s diet. There are two types of hay: grass hay includes meadow, timothy, brome and oat hay. They are perfectly adequate for most horses. Legumes include alfalfa and clover; they are generally higher than grasses in protein, minerals and other nutrients. They are recommended for high-performance horses and broodmares. Hay is often a mix of the two types; for example, 70% timothy and 30% clover.

Hay should be green, sweet-smelling, and not more than one year old. If you can’t find high-quality hay, or if your horse has a problem such as allergies or a cough, try cubed hay, available at most feed stores. If you give your horse cubed hay, dampen it a bit to make it easier to digest.

Grain

An adult horse that is not working can get by on good quality pasture or hay alone, but a horse that is working regularly, a lactating mare, or a growing foal usually needs additional protein and energy. The most common grains given to horses are oats, corn and barley; rice bran feeds are also starting to get popular. They may be fed whole, but are easier to digest if they are crimped, rolled or crushed. Most complete feeds (sweet feed, pellets or chunks) contain a combination of grains, molasses, and a supplement of vitamins and minerals. Extruded feeds have been cooked under pressure, making them easier to digest and reducing the chance of allergic reactions.

There is a mind-boggling choice of feed on the market these days, including products specially made for performance horses, foals, yearlings, broodmares, and older horses. Most companies mcan provide you with ingredient and nutritional details of all their products. You can replace your horse’s ration of grain with a bran mash after a hard work out or any time he needs an easily digested meal. Here is one simple recipe:

– 3 parts hot water

– 2 parts wheat bran

– 1-2 handfuls of oats or sweet feed

Mix everything together, cover with a towel and leave until it is cool enough to eat.

Treats

If you want to give your horse a treat go with apples, carrots (cut lengthwise or not at all), or a commercial product such as Purina’s Apple Chunks. They may be more expensive than a good old sugar cube, but they’re much better for your horse’s health!

Supplements

Put a salt/mineral block in your horse’s stall or pasture to stimulate his appetite and help his body retain its water, especially in hot weather. Add 250 ml (1 cup) corn oil or vegetable oil to your horse’s feed each day to aid digestion and give him a healthy, shiny coat. Add sugar beet pulp soaked in water for at least an hour (5-6 parts water for 1 part beet pulp) to your horse’s feed to help him gain or maintain weight. A performance horse, a lactating mare or a growing foal may benefit from a vitamin/mineral supplement. There are many, many products on the market; speak to your vet or an equine nutrition specialist for advice on this subject, or for answers to any other questions you may have.