Horse Feeding Guide
This article is written by one of our veterinarians,
Every horse owner knows that getting your horse's nutrition right is essential to keep them looking, feeling and performing well, but this can be easier said than done. When everyone seems to have an opinion on the best feeding regime for your horse, it can be difficult to sift the fact from fiction. Keep things simple and start with the basics to help avoid any potential pitfalls.
When it comes to feeding horses, the most important thing to remember is that fibre needs to be the main component of their diet. As herbivores, horse's bodies are designed to spend at least 12 hours a day grazing on low protein, low calorie feed, such as pasture or hay, rather than eating discrete, energy dense meals like a dog or cat.
Assessing Your Horse's Body Condition
Before you decide on how and what to feed your horse, it is important to get a gauge of their current body condition score, as underweight horses will need to be fed differently to those who are overweight, prone to weight gain or 'good doers.'
When viewed from the side a horse with a good body condition should have:
- A firm neck, without a crest
- The ribs should be covered but easily felt
- From behind the rump should appear nicely rounded, not flattened on top or bulging
- No central gutter along the back when viewed from behind
Think Fibre First
As we've already discussed, low calorie, low protein, fibrous feeds are the most biologically and behaviourally appropriate place to start when it comes to feeding your horse. Well managed, good quality pasture on its own can be enough to maintain many horses, and it can be easily supplemented with hay if needed. When choosing a hay look for lower calorie, lower protein varieties such as oaten and grass hay first.
When Hay Isn't Enough
If your horse isn't maintaining a good body condition score despite free access to ample hay and pasture, or if he is in heavy work, you may need to consider adding a 'hard feed' or concentrate to his diet. In order to avoid problems, it is best to start simple with a premixed balanced feed than to attempt mixing a variety of feed types together. Consider consulting an equine nutritionist or your equine veterinarian for tailored advice specific to your horse's age, breed and level of work.
For the Senior Horse
Loss of teeth is one of the major reasons that an older horse may have difficulty maintaining condition on hay and grass alone. Unlike humans, a horse's teeth continually erupt throughout their lifetime and are worn down by constant chewing. This is why your horse needs to have his teeth checked and filed regularly! One of the consequences of our horses living longer is that eventually they start to run out of teeth, which can make chewing fibrous foods such as hay and grass difficult. For the senior horse, an easy to digest, fibre rich hard feed which can be softened with water such as Barastoc Senior or Mitavite Gumnuts are both great options.
For the Sport and Leisure Horse
Differences in individual metabolism mean that some horses in light to moderate work maintain condition well on pasture and grass alone, while others need a little extra. In order to add condition without 'heating up' your horse look for balanced hard feeds that are rich in fats and fibres like Barastoc Calm Performer, Barastoc Competitor, or Hygain Allrounder.
For the Performance Horse
Horses in heavy work may need a hard feed to help support their increased energy needs and may benefit from additional nutrients such as fats and oils for skin and coat health as well as antioxidants and essential amino acids to help support muscle health and repair. Look for formulas that are lower in starch to support healthy digestion and reduce the risk of 'fizziness' or 'heating up' your horse like Barastoc Competitor and Mitavite Xtra Cool.
Other options include recovery supplements like Neutradex which is designed to reduce muscle stiffness and soreness.
How much to feed?
When it comes to pelleted feeds the energy and nutrient content varies from product to product, so it is always best to consult the feeding guide on the packaging for best results. Your horse's energy requirements will vary greatly depending on their level of work, body condition and stage of life.
To calculate the total amount of feed your horse can consume, use 1.7% of their bodyweight as a rule of thumb, this means a 500kg horse can safely consume up to 8.5kg of dry feed (including pasture hay and chaff) daily. Once you know the maximum quantity of food your horse can consume, you can calculate whether they are able to get all of their nutrient requirements from your feeding plan. This process can be a little complex but it is really important to get nutrition right - so if you're not sure consult your equine veterinarian for more advice.
For more detailed information about your individual horse's feed requirements and the nutritional composition of common feedstuffs take a look at this step by step guide from Agriculture Victoria.