Admit it, you know eating that salad is healthier than that burger and fries you’re ordering right now. We all do this when we’re busy, busy, busy and running form one place to the next.
And we all do our best to feed our horses a well-rounded diet that contains everything they need. Generally, we’re successful at this, but sometimes that same rush that pushes us to eat an unhealthy meal can make us rush through the feeding routines with our horses.
Sitting down and calculating the exact nutritional needs of your horse is dependent on knowing how much she weighs. If you haven’t recently checked her weight, you might be portioning her feed wrong.
It isn’t always straightforward to decide what to feed your horse
There’s a lot of information out there and every brand is advertising themselves as the Best Choice For Your Horse. Contradicting information certainly doesn’t make it any easier to decide what’s going to work for you and your horse.
Sometimes you can even pick the best one out there, and it just doesn’t agree with your animal for some reason; texture, flavour or an upset stomach!
Usually, the consequences of a less-than-optimal feeding routine are relatively minor and can cost us some extra money but won’t do any permanent harm.
However, the worst feeding mistakes can be fatal to a horse. Some deficiencies or excesses pose a real health threat while others may subtly and slowly rob your horse of her energy.
To avoid the most common pitfalls of feeding your horse, it’s a good idea to be aware of the mistakes that can easily happen. If you notice a simple mistake, fixing it is usually readily done as well. The sooner you catch mistakes the better it is.
If you think your horse needs a major adjustment in her diet, you should consult your vet or nutritionist to figure out what it is that your horse needs.
Mistake #1: Not providing enough forage
Don’t mistakenly think that hay is just busywork for your horse or a way to pass the time.
Hay is a major calorie source for your horse that provides her with the basic fuel she needs to keep her body running and her energy up.
Ideally, your horse will eat primarily hay and pasture grass, with modest amounts of grain, pelleted or sweet feed.
Too often the quality of the forage on offer is overlooked. All hay is certainly not made equal and the type and quality of hay and grass that you decide to feed your horse will have a direct impact on her health and weight.
If you’ve got a skinny horse and you’ve been trying to get her to put on some weight, but all you’re feeding her is old, stemmy timothy hay, you’re not going to succeed.
Switching her to a better quality hay of a leafy grass that’s not too mature is a safe way to get more calories into her diet.
Besides being more nutritious for your horse, better-quality hay is more economical because your horse will be more likely to want to eat every last leaf and stem of it.
Poor quality or old hay is quite unpalatable to your horse and she’ll be picking through it and leaving most of it uneaten or strewn around the ground. Bad hay contains less digestible fibre so your horse will need to eat a lot more of it to get the same nutritional value as from better quality hay.
Mistake #2: Feeding poor quality hay
Buying hay can be a bit tricky, especially when you don’t have a lot of experience doing it.
Learning how to buy good quality hay is worth the effort because poor quality hay will cause all sorts of problems.
Hay can be nutritionally deficient and dusty or mouldy hay will be bad for your horse’s lungs. Some hay isn’t suitable for horses and can cause your horse to colic.
Hay can be made from different types of grasses and the species will vary a little in appearance but there are some distinguishing characteristics that define all good-quality hay:
About 90% of the plant’s protein is in the leaves, so ideally you’d get hay bales that have fewer stems and large seed-heads.
Good hay is generally some shade of light to medium green for a grass hay, and a darker green for alfalfa hay.
Some yellowing is to be expected if the hay has been sun-bleached, but too yellow means that the grass was already too mature when it was cut and contains less digestible fibre.
Good hay has a nice, fresh hay smell that’s slightly sweet. Acrid, musty or pungent smells are a sign that the hay contains mould or has other quality issues.
And you can be sure that if you can smell it, so will your horse since your horse’s sense of smell is much better than yours.
I used to do this thing where I’d pick an apple that I wasn’t sure was too good anymore (maybe it had sat in the fridge too long) and I’d offer it to my horse to see if it was any good to eat.
If the apple was bad the horse wouldn’t eat it either and I’d chuck it on the compost heap. If the apple was still okay, being a little soft or a little wrinkly on the outside never bothered the horses, so long as the inside was good.
To check if hay is of good quality, you can squeeze a handful of it to see if it feels soft and pliable.
Poor quality hay has a lot of stems and is much more coarse and will stab your palm. Imagine what it would feel like to eat stuff like that!
Good-quality hay bales are lightweight and springy. You can drop one on its end the ground to test if it has a bounce to it.
If it’s a solid thud without any bounce, pass on that hay.
Good hay has no foreign materials in it – no sticks, no wires, no glass, no dead insects and no dead animals.
There should also be practically no weeds in it. If you want to know more about the nutritional value of a batch you can send a sample off to be analysed.
Making sure that every single batch of hay you buy and every bale of that batch that you feed to your horse is of the highest quality will save you a lot of money in the long run.
Whenever putting out new hay for your horse, keep your eyes and nose open, and trust your horse if she tells you it’s no good.
Mistake #3: Overfeeding your horse
If you find that you’re turning into a master gourmet chef for your horse that doesn’t have any special dietary requirements, you should stop and check that you’re not overfeeding your horse.
A healthy horse has dietary needs that are fairly straightforward, since the physiology of a horse hasn’t drastically changed in the last 10,000 years.
Overfeeding will quickly make your horse fat and start causing problems such as equine metabolic syndrome and laminitis.
All most horses need, is a simple diet of good hay and pasture grass and only really need supplements or concentrates if there’s a deficiency of some kind or your horse does heavy work.
There’s no need to be mixing and cooking bran mashes, slicing carrots and fanning out apple slices in concentric circles. Grain and sweet feeds are potent sources of energy and contain many more soluble carbohydrates than most pleasure horses require.
For most horses, the less concentrated feed given the better. That said, if your horse undergoes an hour or more of strenuous daily training in sports, such as reining or jumping, or you compete with your horse in races, she’ll need extra rations to maintain her weight.
When you do give additional feed, it’s best to break the daily portion up into several small meals.
Normally, the grain is fed twice daily – once in the morning and once in the evening – but when possible, break it up into as many servings as you can: four or more mini-meals a day is ideal.
Having your hay tested is a good idea as that will tell you if you need to add supplements to your horse’s diet.
Overfeeding is particularly an issue with young horses. It may be tempting to keep your weanling or yearling plump and teddy-like, but too intense growth can cause problems with bones and the malformation of joints.
Your youngster will benefit most from slow and steady growth, regular parasite control and suitable exercise to keep her lean and fit.
Keep in mind that your horse will go through phases and can at times seem like a gangly teenager when she’s in the middle or at the end of a growth spurt – that doesn’t mean that you need to immediately start feeding her more.
Give her body time to adjust and fill out – if she starts getting too skinny you’ll be able to tell and can adjust her diet accordingly.
Mistake #4: Underfeeding your horse
Underfeeding can especially be a problem with horses that are in hard work. While a hard-working horse is expected to look lean, no horse should look gaunt.
If good quality hay and pasture isn’t providing your horse with enough calories, look to concentrates to help add more to her diet.
Keep in mind, that the bulk of your horse’s diet needs to still consist of hay and grass even when you’re feeding concentrates.
Underfeeding hay and grass and overfeeding on grains and concentrates leads to colic.
As your horse gets older, she’ll also lose the ability to digest food efficiently and may need extra help in the form of supplements, concentrates and mashes. Feeds for senior horses are a good choice for an ageing horse.
Mistake #5: Poor pasture grass
It’s easy to look at a pasture from afar and think that it’s lush and green. Just because it’s bursting to the brim with greenery, does’t mean it’s a suitable salad bar for your horse.
On closer inspection you may notice that the pasture is overrun with weeds or plants unsuitable for your horse to eat.
This means that your horse has to work harder to find a suitable meal and will end up eating less nutritional grass or even toxic plants.
Look after your pastures and make sure that they are free of weeds and toxic plants and grow grass that makes for great grazing for your horse.
Also remember that grass is full of sugar and turning your horse out on a green field for too long or too often can cause her to gain weight from all the sugar she’s eating.
If you’ve got especially rich grass in your paddocks, make sure to turn your horse out in a dirt paddock often with lots of hay.
Mistake #6: Calculating feed amounts by volume rather than weight
It’s important that you calculate the amount of hay, concentrates and supplements by their weight, not volume.
Throwing your horse a few flakes of hay may by easy math be 3 equal sized flakes, but in reality the weight of each flake may be drastically different.
Pelleted and sweet feeds can vary in density and volume. Two different manufacturers can make feeds that seem very similar, when you check the fat, protein and fibre content, but can be very different in density.
Even when they’re equal in volume, they can be worlds apart in density – meaning that a cup of brand A may way almost 30% more than brand B.
Weighing concentrates is important, though many people tend to calculate scoops rather than weight. When you’re eyeballing how much feed you may be inadvertently over- or underfeeding your horse.
Feed companies recommend feeding by weight and calculate their recommended portions by body weight.
Whenever you change or adjust your feed, be sure to read the bag for nutritional content per pound or kilo, and then use a kitchen scale to determine how much a pound really is.
If you want to use a scoop for easy feeding, weigh the correct portion and mark it in your scoop so you’ll know how much to fill it. That way you’ll get the right amount every time. Remember to redo this procedure when you change or adjust feeds.
When your horse is eating hay freely from a round bale, it may be difficult to know exactly how much each horse is eating.
With small bales you can weigh the entire bale to know how much your horse is eating over a defined period of time.
Regularly keeping tabs on your horse’s body condition will let you know if you need to become more precise in your feeding routine.
Mistake #7: Giving too many supplements
Over-supplementing is literally throwing money down the drain. At worst, it can cause mineral and vitamin imbalances in your horse.
Just as for humans, some vitamins and minerals are toxic when consumed in large quantities.
Have your hay tested and check the ingredients in your concentrated feeds before adding vitamin or mineral supplements. Ideally, get your vet to do blood-work to see what the situation really is and to work out what the underlying cause of the deficiency is.
Mistake #8: Ignoring parasite control
Some internal parasites will compete with your horse for the food she consumes.
A regular deworming program will clear out harmful parasites that steal nutrition from your horse and can cause damage to her internal organs.
A high amount of flies and external parasites can also cause your horse to lose condition and any explosions in their populations should quickly be taken under control.
Mistake #9: Disregarding dental issues
Problems with your horse’s teeth will directly impact how well she can derive nutrition form her food.
If she has problems with her teeth, she won’t be able to chew her food properly.
This can be a particular problem with senior horses that may have loose or missing teeth.
Mature horses can also develop sharp edges and hooks that can make chewing painful and cause ulcers. Regular floating and dental checkups are necessary for any horse.
Mistake #10: Not providing enough fresh water
Making sure that your horse has plenty of clean fresh water to drink from clean troughs is critical for her health.
Impaction colic can occur if your horse doesn’t stay well hydrated – this is especially true if she only has free access to hay.
Your horse may not like to drink very cold water in winter and that’s when impaction colic is most common.
Using a heater or mixing in half a bucket of hot water is a good way to heat up the water and make it more palatable.
Even when you do provide fresh, clean water, you may still catch your horse drinking out of a puddle. That’s just nature and no reason for concern, some horses may even dig holes in their paddocks that will fill with water when it rains and then drinks out of those.
Mistake #11: Not providing a saltlick
Salts are key in order to maintain your horse’s electrolyte balance. Most horses can regulate easily with a mineral block in the stall or pasture.
Some people choose to put loose salt in the feed – if you do this you must be very precise in how much you use and not over-salt.
Sodium and chloride – the components of plain old table salt – are both electrolytes and essential to many bodily functions in both humans and horses.
Both of these are lost when we sweat and need to be replenished from our diet. These are the only two essential nutrients that are not naturally present in grasses and grains.
You horse has a natural appetite for salt and consumes it as she needs it when she has free access to it. Placing a salt lick in the pasture is the easiest way of providing access to this vital nutrient.
Depending on how many horses you have, you may need to put out several blocks so that all horses get the salts hey need. Alternatively, you can put a salt block in each individual stall so that all horses have easy access to it.
However, if your horse is kept in her stall a lot during the day, she may get bored and start overeating the salt block just to entertain herself. This will make her drink and pee a lot more.
If you have a horse like this, offering just a daily portion of salt can be the solution. If your horse’s diet is otherwise balanced, white table salt should be fine – just remember to adjust the dose if your horse has been sweating a lot.
If you choose to offer loose salt it’s best to feed it from it’s own bucket rather than sprinkle it over the feed. Your horses need for salt will vary daily and by offering the salt on the side, your horse can choose how much of the portion to eat every day.
If you think your horse isn’t getting enough salts, consult your vet or nutritionist on how to provide the right amount.
Mistake #12: Giving the wrong feed to the wrong horse
When you go to the feed store, you’ll find feed that’s specifically designed for all types of horses.
There’s feed for young and growing horses, broodmares, horses in hard work, senior horses etc. All these feeds have been specifically formulated to suit that type fo horse and giving the wrong kind of feed to the wrong horse can create harmful imbalances.
The biggest difference is that adult feed doesn’t have the mineral balance required by a growing horse and the result can be deformities int he bens and muscles or abnormal growth.
You also can’t calculate the amount of concentrated feed for one horse and directly use that for another. If the recommended serving size is 2 kilos (5 pounds), the horse getting only 500 grams (1 pound) is only getting a fifth of the added vitamins and minerals.
If the minimum serving size is too much for your horse, you need to change feeds because it’s not right for your horse.
Mistake #13: Giving too many supplemental nutrients
Don’t add supplements to your horse’s diet without first checking to see if she really needs them. If her portions are already heavy with a specific nutrient, you’ll be adding to that.
First, check the amount of nutrients your horse receives from her basic feed ration before adding mineral of vitamin supplements.
Products that are formulated to support and encourage specific body functions, such as hoof growth or joint repair, are less likely to cause a nutritional overload but you should always read the label carefully to see if it’s what you need.
Some supplements can also be enhanced with vitamins and minerals so you should check with a nutritionist that you’re not giving overlapping similar ingredients.
Especially, if you’re already feeding your horse a good vitamin supplement, it’s unlikely that you need additional vitamins in other supplements.
Horses that may benefit from extra supplements:
- Horses that eat hay grown in selenium-poor soil may need extra selenium. Have your hay analysed to determine this.
- Horses that eat hay but get little access to pasture may need supplements with vitamins A and E as the levels of these nutrients begin to deteriorate once the grass is cut.
- Broodmares, growing youngsters and senior horses have special nutritional needs and may need supplements.
- Vitamin E is commonly given to elite athlete horses to aid them in recovery.
How to know what to feed your horse
Always start with hay and pasture grass.
If you’re building your horse up to compete or for other strenuous work, consult a nutritionist who can design a proper diet for your specific horse.
If you feel like your horse is suffering from poor nutrition, consult your veterinarian and have some blood work done to see what’s going on in your horse’s body.
If at any time you feel out of depth with feeding your horse, ask your vet or nutritionist to help you out.
Getting the balance of your horse’s diet right means the difference between a lethargic horse who’s uninterested in life and an energetic horse eager to work with you.
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