Feeding horses, like feeding pets or even humans, can be a very emotionally charged subject. Everyone has opinions on what is best to feed and why, and there isn’t going to be much you can do to change their minds. However, we all want what is best for our animals. So, if you’re on the fence about what to feed your animals, here are some things to think about.
Horses are meant to be grazers. They’re meant to be eating 14 hours a day, and they get all their nutrition, i.e. vitamins, minerals, fat, protein, carbs, etc. from fresh grass. Most of the horses here in Texoma are either idle, or in light work, and can be maintained on pasture alone. These horses DO NOT need to be supplemented with any commercial concentrated feeds. However, there are exceptions.
Good, adequate pasture is not always available for every horse, especially when they are maintained on dry lots or in the winter time, where most of us have limited pasture available. There are several things to keep in mind when feeding these horses. Number one being that while hay can be very nutritious, it cannot provide the daily vitamins needed for maintaining health. A commercial, concentrated feed must therefore be provided. Horses are meant to be eating 20-25% of their body weight each day. So, a 1,000-pound horse should be eating 20-25 pounds of food per day. This includes both hay AND grain. At least 60-70% of these 20 pounds should be forage, or hay. MOST commercial concentrates are meant to feed a 1,000-pound horse if they are given 6 pounds of feed per day. 14 pounds of hay plus 6 pounds of feed equals 20 pounds of feed per day. When feeding this amount of food, smaller, more frequent meals are better than one giant meal at the end of the day to prevent colic. The most common way to feed is to break feedings up into two meals: 3 pounds of feed in the morning with 7 pounds of hay. To increase the amount of time it takes to eat the hay, consider getting a slow feed hay net as it simulates grazing. This contributes to a healthy gut and less chances for colic. Also, avoid adding things like extra oats or corn to the rations, as this throws off the ratio of vitamins, minerals, and sugars, and in horses, it’s all about balance.
For underweight horses, feeding a maintenance diet is not enough. Horses that we need to gain weight should be fed an equine senior feed that has more than 5% fat. Most senior feeds are at 7-8% fat. These horses should be fed at least 25% of their body weight. Since hay doesn’t have a high fat content, that extra 5% should be made up with in senior feed. Feed thin horses 3-5 extra pounds of senior per day as an extra meal at lunchtime. Remember, it takes a month to put on 50 pounds, so you won’t notice weight gain right away. Also, beware of beet pulp. Many feed stores recommend this as a supplement to gain weight. While yes, it’s adding extra calories to the diet, it’s also very easy to choke on. If your horse chokes on beet pulp, it is VERY difficult to get undone as it continues to expand the longer it sits in the throat, and it also gets stickier and harder to break apart. A senior choke might take your vet 20 minutes to undo while a beet pulp choke can take 1-2 hours.
Overweight horses are a different story altogether. The solution many people come up with for feeding overweight horses is to feed less of the standard commercial feed. So instead of feeding a scoop, they feed a half scoop or less. However, commercial feeds are meant to be fed at a certain rate per pound. If your 1,000-pound horse is fed only a half scoop twice a day, they’re only getting HALF of their required vitamins and minerals! This leads to problems with hair coat and foot growth. A better option is to switch to a ration balancer like Enrich Plus or Empower Topline Balance, which provide much more concentrated vitamins and are meant to be fed in smaller amounts (1-2 pounds per day instead of 6). Overweight horses should only be fed 15-18% of their IDEAL body weight. If your horse weighs 1,200 pounds, but should only weigh 1,000 pounds, this means they should only be getting about 15-18 pounds of food per day. If you’re feeding 1 pound of ration balancer in mornings and evenings, you should be feeding 13-16 pounds of hay. If you want your horse to lose weight fast, consider soaking the hay for 15 minutes, as this gets rid of the sugar content without getting rid of the nutrient content.
Of course, you’re asking how you determine how much grain is 6 pounds, and how much hay is equal to 14 pounds? The absolute best way to find out how much grain you should be feeding is to weigh your scoop. A standard, three-quart scoop you get at the feed store weighs APPROXIMATELY 3 pounds, but this can absolutely vary depending on the content. So, you’d be feeding one scoop in the morning and one scoop at night to get the 6 pounds of grain. And small, square Coastal Bermuda bales are notorious for having oddly sized flakes. Consider getting a standard luggage scale and putting your hay in a net. This will allow you to easily weigh your hay. From there, you can determine how much hay to be feeding. If you are unable to do this, 3” of a small square bale weighs approximately 2-5 pounds, depending on how densely packed the bale is and how big the flakes are.
Feeding horses is a constant struggle to keep them at an ideal weight. Much like our own bodies, we have to have constant vigilance to maintain that svelte look without the extra padding. Always be sure to read the feeding instructions on your commercial feed bag and adjust the amount of feed to hay accordingly. Scheduling a wellness exam with your veterinarian can help you determine if your horse needs to maintain, gain, or lose weight. If you have questions about feeding your horses, ask your veterinarian at this time, as they can point you in the correct direction.