There was a time in the not-too-distant past when hay and oats or sweet feed were the basis of most working horses’ diets.
In recent years, sweet feed has fallen out of fashion as horse owners have realized that it is often loaded with sugar and starch. Oats are a good source of energy, but they aren't balanced in calcium and phosphorus; they are also very low in minerals and vitamins.
“If a horse is receiving a diet consisting of forage (hay and/or pasture) and a plain cereal grain, such as oats or corn, chances are good that some vitamins and/or minerals will be deficient or marginal, even for idle, adult horses. If that type of diet is used for a horse with high (nutritional) requirements, such as a lactating mare or a weanling, then the possibility of deficiency is higher,” notes Laurie Lawrence, PhD, a professor of equine nutrition in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences at the University of Kentucky.
Fortunately, commercial feed companies now create a range of balanced rations formulated by equine nutritionists. Different rations are made for specific ages, weights and uses, such as broodmares, young horses, hard-working performance horses, seniors, etc. These feeds are designed to cover deficiencies in forage, including vitamin, mineral, calorie and energy deficiencies.
Forage should always be the foundation of your feeding program. Much of what a horse requires to develop properly and maintain condition is available in good-quality roughage, although it’s not always present in sufficient quantities.
If your horse is receiving adequate amounts of quality forage and a feed ration that complements that forage and your horse’s particular stage in life, does he need a nutritional supplement? Good question, but there’s not just one answer.
Before you start adding vitamins, minerals and other supplements to your horse’s feed, do your homework. In many cases, supplementation is unnecessary. If you're feeding your horse the proper amount of forage and using a good-quality, mixed feed containing added nutrients and fed according to directions, supplementation may be needed depending on the individual horse.
“The only way to determine if a supplement is needed in addition to the regular diet is to calculate the amount of each nutrient provided by each feed, sum the parts and compare the sum to the requirements of the horse in question,” Lawrence points out.
Let’s say you have an “easy keeper” who doesn’t require much, if any, grain. The potential issue here is that forage alone may supply the calories and protein he needs, but not all the vitamins and minerals.
This horse could benefit from a supplement or a ration balancer, sometimes referred to as a “balancer pellet.” This is a concentrated feed with a lower recommended feeding rate. It supplies necessary protein, vitamins and minerals, without adding unnecessary calories. You may only need to feed a cup or two per day, depending on your horse’s specific needs.
Forage should always be the foundation of your feeding program.
When you read the directions, you’ll see that most balanced commercial equine feeds are formulated so that the horse needs to eat a specific amount daily to get the required vitamins and minerals on the label.
If you do feed a grain ration, but your horse only gets a small amount per day, you might consider switching to a ration balancer instead. By feeding a ration balancer, you’re sure the horse is getting all the required nutrients without having to feed unnecessary calories from extra grain.
Always remember: feeding according to directions is critical in order to get the most benefit out of your feed.
So your horse is getting good forage and either a commercial diet or a ration balancer. Is that enough? This is when you need to take a hard look at your horse’s overall health.
Is his hair coat soft and shiny, even in winter? Does he have good hooves or are they brittle, soft and easily broken? Does he have enough energy for his work? Is he hauled for competition or work regularly? Is he under stress from travel or heavy training? Does he spend most of his time in a stall? Has he recently had health problems? Does he frequently have digestive issues? Is your mare in late-stage gestation or nursing a foal? Is the horse in question young and growing?
If you answered “yes” to one or more of these questions, your horse is likely a candidate for supplementation. You can ask your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist for recommendations and do your own research on products that may be helpful.
If your horse has poor quality hooves, for example, choose a supplement designed to support normal hoof health. You’ll need to be patient. Hoof growth is very slow, it can take six to nine months for the entire hoof wall to be replaced. You’ll want to continue using the supplement to maintain the benefits.
Horses who spend most of the day in a stall may need supplemental vitamin D, since this vitamin is usually provided through exposure to direct sunlight.
In cases where a horse is under stress, his immune and digestive systems may need specific supplementation.
An iron supplement may help in specific cases when a horse needs additional support, but it is not typically recommended for permanent use. “It would be good for an owner to discuss the need for an iron supplement with their veterinarian before supplementing,” notes Lawrence.
Hardworking horses or those living in hot, humid regions usually need more salts than what is provided in a commercial concentrate. In these situations, electrolytes should be supplemented. Electrolytes can also benefit horses year-round by encouraging adequate water consumption, which is vital for proper digestive function and overall health.
Horses under stress, competition or heavy workloads may benefit from supplementation of B-complex vitamins, which are helpful for energy metabolism.
The time it takes to see results from supplementation will vary, sometimes significantly.
“It depends entirely on the nutrient and the response you are looking for,” says Lawrence. “Changing hoof quality will take a long time because the hoof grows slowly. If you are trying to change antioxidant status by supplementing with vitamin E, that could occur in a few weeks or days.”
Quality can vary dramatically between supplements marketed for the same issue, so you can’t go by price alone. Compare product ingredients and percentages carefully.
When choosing a supplement, look for the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC) quality seal on the label or check with the manufacturer directly. This guarantees the product is made by a member of the NASC, which has undergone a scrupulous independent quality audit and adheres to stringent guidelines for manufacturing, labeling and adverse event reporting.
Don’t Overdo It!
When it comes to supplements, there is such a thing as “too much,” and it’s not good. For example, some minerals can cause more harm than benefit when used incorrectly. Certain fat-soluble vitamins, such as A and D, can build to toxic levels if severely overfed.
If you are feeding two supplements, read both labels carefully and check to see if any ingredients are duplicated. You don’t want to over-supplement or use supplements haphazardly.
“There are two main problems associated with over-supplementation. The first is that it can result in an unbalanced diet. The second is that it wastes money,” explains Lawrence. “There is a third problem that is often ignored and that is the excretion of excess nutrients into the environment.”
The bottom line is that if your horse is fed a balanced diet, one that fully meets his nutritional requirements for his age and the job he’s doing, adding supplements won’t help and can even unbalance the diet. But if his ration is in some way deficient for his needs, there are a number of excellent supplements on the market that can fill the nutritional gap.