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Equine Nutrition 101

Tremendous strides have been made in equine nutrition in the last 25 years, resulting in new and improved feeding regimes. For some horse owners, particularly the incorporation of non-traditional feedstuffs, these improvements have caused confusion when faced with the decision of what to feed, when and how much. When confronted with so many choices, all being touted as the “answer,” reviewing the basics of equine nutrition will help owners comprehend potential innovative solutions available for their horse.

horses eating hay

Horses are “grazers,” meaning that they would naturally feed on growing grass as the primary feedstuff. They are also known as “nibblers,” that is they eat small portions at a time. In nature, a horse will spend up to 85% of the daylight hours grazing/eating. Domestication and the use of today’s horses often require significant changes to how the horse would be fed in nature. Understanding, or at least having an appreciation of, the diet changes in today’s horses will help to minimize digestive upsets and optimize our horses’ performance.

The digestive system of the horse is designed to utilize forages, so it makes sense that they would comprise the major portion of the feed allotment for today’s horses. Forages may be offered as pasture, hay, cubes or pellets and should be fed at 1–2% of body weight per day. They are generally divided into two categories, legumes or grasses.

Examples of legumes that are fed to horses include, clovers, some peanut hays and alfalfa, which is the primary legume grown as hay in the US.

In general, legumes are:

  • Higher in energy, protein and calcium than grasses.
  • Most of the nutrients are in the leaf so proper harvesting and storage is very important to prevent leaf shatter and loss of nutritional value.
  • Large stems or a high stem to leaf ratio are indicative of more mature plants and lower nutritional value.
  • Often dustier than grass hays. If this is a concern, simply soak the flakes before feeding.

Forages should comprise the majority of the feed intake for most horses.

Often dictated by geography, a variety of grasses are used as pasture or hay. The more common grasses include timothy, orchard grass, Bermuda grass, fescue and gramma.

Grasses generally are:

  • Less dusty.
  • Less prone to leaf loss (shattering).
  • Lower in nutritive value as they mature.

Grains in some form or another are an important part of the diet of many horses to supply specific nutrients in greater abundance. Most often they are added to the diets of working, growing or lactating horses. They may be fed whole or processed (cracked, flaked or rolled), depending on the grain, and may be fed singularly or in combination with other grains or other feedstuffs.

Compared to forages, grains generally:

  • Contain more energy and protein per pound.
  • Fed at much lower levels per day.
  • Lower in calcium, fiber and most vitamins.
  • Higher in starch content, which can cause problems in some situations.

Take home: Forages should comprise the majority of the feed intake for most horses. Young growing horses and hard working horses are exceptions. Keeping forage first will help minimize digestive issues and often result in a cost saving to you.

By Richard G. Godbee, Ph.D., PAS, Dipl. ACAS-Nutrition


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