How to Read the Labels on Horse Food


This article is written by Pet Circle veterinarian, Dr Maree Monaghan, BVSc (Hons)

If you are overwhelmed by the vast array of bagged horse feed available and don't know which to choose for your horse, don't panic - help is at hand! Learning how to read the ingredients lists and nutritional information on the bags is the first step in formulating an appropriate, well balanced and economical diet for your horse.

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Ingredients List vs Nutritional Analysis

Essential Nutrients

Choosing a Prepared Feed or Supplement

Further Reading

Ingredients List vs Nutritional Analysis

You will find both lists on bags of good quality horse food but what do they actually mean? A nutritional analysis will tell you the specific amounts of basic nutrients included in the feed such as energy, protein, fat, fibre, vitamins and minerals. The catch is that this list doesn't tell you where these nutrients come from, and this is why you also need to read the ingredients list.

Using Barastoc Workhorse Performance Feed as an example, you can see the different information offered by the ingredients list and the nutritional analysis:

Steam Flaked Barley and Corn, Oats, Sunflower Seeds, Barastoc NutriBit Pellet Containing KER Vitamin & Mineral Premix, Omega Enriched Vegetable Oil, Molasses, Barastoc GastrolizeTM - Equine Antacid, Mono-Di Calcium Phosphate, Salt, Magnesium Oxide, Potassium Chloride, Vitamin E, Diamond V XPC

Essential Nutrients

Horses require six main classes of nutrients to survive - protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins, minerals and water. The first five nutrients are provided by feed, and it is important to know how to choose the right source and amounts of these nutrients to meet your horse's particular needs.

1. Protein

It is common knowledge that horses need protein in their diet, however, the quality of the protein is as important as the actual amount of protein for building good quality hoof, hair, skin and muscles. Proteins are made up of smaller molecules called amino acids and there are nine amino acids that the horse cannot make in its body. These are called essential amino acids and must be supplied in the horse's diet. The quality of a protein in a feed is determined by the types of amino acids that it contains, particularly the nine essential amino acids.

Legumes like lucerne, soybeans and lupins contain high quality protein, whereas cereal grains such as oats, corn and barley have lower quality protein.

2. Carbohydrate

As grazing animals, horses' digestive systems have evolved to process small amounts of roughage over a long period of time. This adaptation has led to horses using mainly carbohydrates for energy. Carbohydrates occur in two different forms - structural (fibre) and non-structural (sugar and starch).

The horse's large hindgut (caecum and colon) contains microorganisms that are capable of breaking structural carbohydrates down into an energy source that the horse can absorb. To remain healthy, it is recommended that horses need to eat at least 1.5 to 2% of their body weight in roughage such as pasture, hay and chaff per day. This means that a 500k g horse needs a minimum of 7.5 to 10 kg of roughage in dry matter per day.

Non-structural carbohydrates are mainly found in grains (oats, corn, barley etc) and provide a concentrated source of energy. Starch and sugars from grains pass quickly through the small intestine and are fermented rapidly in the hindgut which is why sudden ingestion of large amounts of grain can cause colic and laminitis.

Non-structural carbohydrates are added to horses' diets to increase the energy content to the level required for hard work, gestation, growth or lactation.

3. Fat

Another source of concentrated energy is fats and vegetable oils such as canola oil. Horses don't have a gallbladder to store the bile which is essential for digesting fat and oil making high crude fat diets are hard to digest. Most horse rations only contain 3 to 4% crude fat; however, horses can adjust to diets where 20% of their energy is provided by crude fat. This must be done by slowly increasing the amount of crude fat in the diet over 3 to 4 weeks.

Because fat contains 2.25 times more energy than carbohydrates and proteins, the addition of crude fat to diets can be appropriate in the following situations:
  • Weight gain for horses that can't tolerate high levels of starch in their diet
  • Weight gain for horses where adding extra volume is not desirable
  • To improve body and coat condition in horses being prepared for sales and shows
  • Horses who can't tolerate grain due to any of the "Tying Up Syndromes" (e.g. PSSM)
  • High performance horses such as racehorses

4. Vitamins

Vitamins are critically important for horses' health and wellbeing; however, most horses don't need to have them added to their diet. This is because their body can synthesise most of the vitamins they need.

Vitamins are divided into two groups:

The addition of vitamins to diets can be necessary when:
  • Horses are fed a large quantity of grain or low quality forage
  • Horses are not eating enough due to illness or post-surgery
  • Horses are under stress from racing, showing or travelling
  • Horses are on medication

5. Minerals

Minerals can also be divided into two groups:

Individual minerals each have important roles to play in keeping your horse happy and healthy, however, it is not just the amount of minerals in a horse's diet that is important. The availability of various minerals in the horse's body depends on the ratio of one mineral to another mineral e.g., Calcium to Phosphorus and Copper to Zinc. The most striking example of this in Australia is the problems that occur in horses grazing sub-tropical grasses such as Setaria. These grasses contain high levels of oxalate - an organic compound that binds to calcium to create calcium oxalate making the calcium unable to be absorbed.

Choosing a prepared feed or supplement

horses eating hay in paddock

The number one factor to consider before adding a prepared feed or a supplement is the quality and amount of forage, hay and chaff that your horse is eating.

The second thing to consider is your horse's lifestyle, work load, age and any diseases such as gastrointestinal ulcers, Cushing's Disease and "tying up" syndromes like PSSM.

The levels of essential nutrients required will vary dependent on the two factors listed above, so if you are having difficulty working out the best diet for your horse, the good news is that many of the larger feed companies have free diet formulation services that can be accessed via their websites, or you can consult with your local veterinarian.

Further Reading

Want to read more? Check out our other articles:

Horse Feeding Guide

How to keep your horse's hooves healthy

And take a look at the following article from Hygain Feeds:

Body Condition Scoring Chart

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