How Can You Identify Your Horse’s Nutritional Needs?

Your horse’s nutrition is not something you can leave to chance. You have to be deliberate and intentional about it. Horse feeding can be a great way to bond with your equines. Although, it is not without its own set of unique challenges. In fact, it can be confusing. There are different breeds of horses with different nutrition needs. The age, weight, and health of each horse, plus their level activity go a long way in determining a horse’s ideal diet. If you do it the wrong way, the cost can be enormous.

Horses Nutritional Needs

The starting point is to understand your horse’s nutritional needs. What does a horse actually need? You need to make sure that your horse is eating exactly what they need. If you’re inexperienced at this, you may need the help of an equine nutritionist or a veterinarian. In general, horses need the following in varying measures.

1. Water

Horses need plenty of water much like their owners for good health. An average horse will drink between 5-15 gallons of water daily. Your horse should have unrestricted access to water. If that’s not possible, make sure they are not too thirsty before offering them water.

Horses need to drink water at least twice a day. Give each horse enough time to drink to satisfaction if you water them in a group. If you have a trough, make sure the water is clean and fresh. It should not be warm or frozen. It’s preferable if the water is lukewarm and potable. Ensure you clean the trough every day.

This will prevent diseases like colic and kidney failure. It will also prevent brain damage and vital organs from shutting down. Experts claim that if a horse consumes a pound of hay, it’ll need a gallon of water. Otherwise, they’ll get dehydrated.

Some factors like temperature, humidity, and exercise, may affect their water needs. A pregnant and lactating mare may need a lot more water. A horse that binges on hay may need more water as well. These horses may need up to three or four times the quantity of water needed under normal circumstances.

2. Structural carbohydrates

Horses need plenty of this in their diet because they’re strong and energetic animals. Hay and grass are the richest sources of structural carbohydrates. The good thing is that horses consume a large amount of hay and graze for long times. Hay, pasture, or roughage give a horse the needed calories. If your horses are not grazing, hay needs to be in front of them for most of the day. They must learn how to nibble at it, take a break, and then return to it. But you can cut back on hay if they graze on good pasture.

3. Nonstructural carbohydrates

Many horses need nonstructural carbohydrates, but in moderate quantities. Barley, corn, and oats are good for your horses. They also are essential to their nutrition. Each horse needs about 0.5 pounds of grain per 100 pounds of weight. You need to have an accurate measurement to avoid any mistakes. Experts also caution against feeding a horse with grain during the hot weather. Give them nonstructural carbohydrates early in the morning or later in the evening.

4. Salt

According to the basic rule of feeding horses, your horse also needs sodium chloride. It’s important to a horse’s balance of electrolyte. The recommended ratio of salt is 1.6-1.8 per kg of dry feed matter. If necessary, you may supply your horse with more salt. Trace mineral or common salt on feed and phosphate can fill this need. By providing this, the horse can get the required quantity of calcium and phosphorous.

5. Proteins, vitamins, and minerals

Horses get about 10 percent of their energy from protein. Most of the forages in pastures contain little protein. They will also get the vitamins and essential minerals only by grazing. So, you must allow your horses to graze, don’t limit them to hay. Consider feeding them with fortified feed in a small quantity. This will go a long way in filling any possible nutrition gaps in protein and vitamins.

6. Supplements

If your horse is not grazing or you feel that they don’t have enough minerals, look to food supplements. There are special vitamins you can get for your horse that will fill this need. You only need to be careful to avoid overloading your horse with too much of these. Too many vitamins can be as dangerous as the opposite extreme of their deficiency. Mineral and vitamin imbalances can happen when consumed in large quantities. It is best to have the concentrates tested before deciding the needed supplements.

7. Special treats

This may not be needed, but it’s not bad if you do so once in a while. Again, you have to do it in moderation. So when you want to reward your horse for a great outing, give it treats. This is another great way to bond with them. But, you need to be aware that horses know what tastes sweet. So, if you overdo it, your horse may be expecting treats each time it feels it has impressed you. Examples of treats you can give them are: carrots, fresh apples, green beans, watermelon rinds, and celery.

How Much Does Your Horse Need to Eat?

This is another puzzling one. Even if you know the kind of food horses feed on, what about your own horse’s diet. You should be able to determine how much of each food item your horse needs, and when. The following steps will point you in the right direction:

1. Determine the actual weight of your horse

As stated above, an equine’s feeding should commensurate with the body weight. You need to weigh your horse with a weight tape or the equine scale, also called weighbridge. You may take the horse to a veterinary clinic or another facility that has a large scale. Otherwise, you need to understand the formula for calculating a horse weight.

Carey Williams from the State University of New Jersey, in New Brunswick is an associate professor. She’s also an associate extension specialist. Williams makes a recommendation about the use of a weight tape. She says: “A weight tape placed moderately tight (you should still be able to fit a few fingers under the tape) around the highest point of the withers around the girth area will give you a weight estimate plus or minus 50 pounds.” It’s good to weigh your horse every two weeks to notice any changes in weight.

2. Calculate the daily dietary requirement

The body weight is the main index of daily forage and concentrates requirement. Your horse’s diet should be between 1.5% to 3% of their body weight. Work with 2.5% in calculating the daily average. You can use a kitchen scale. You can also use a postal scale at a feed store. The general rule of feeding is that horses need as much hay as 15-20 pounds or 1.5% of their body weight daily, if they’re 1000 pounds. You’ll need a bathroom scale to do the measurement.

Certain factors determine an equine’s dietary needs. For instance, gestation and lactation increase the quantity and frequency feeding. A mare may need to compensate for the body’s support for fetal growth or milk production for the foal. She must take in more nutritious and voluminous horse feed.

Age and exercise are an important consideration in feeding horses. Growing horses need a higher amount of calories, vitamins, and amino acids. You also need to feed horses that exercise a lot more than rested horses.

3. Know how much weight your horse needs to gain or lose

Do you want your horse to gain weight or shed some? Do you want them to maintain their current weight? Your answers to these questions will determine how to plan your horse’s diet. There are equine maintenance diets and equine reduction diets. A horse may also be recovering from an illness or somehow appear underweight. You should feed them above the normal range.

It’s best to plan with your horse’s desired weight in mind rather than the present weight. Assuming, for instance, that your horse’s desired weight is 400kg. But it currently weighs 300kg. The daily ration should be 2.5% of 400kg. But, if your horse is overweight, you can reduce it’s diet with the same ration.

Henneke Body Condition scoring system comes in handy here. It can help in determining the ‘idealness’ or otherwise of your animals’ weight. The system ranges from 1 to 9. While 1 indicates total emaciation, a horse that scores 9 is obese. The best body condition score should be between 4 and 6. Williams, mentioned earlier, corroborates this as a professional. She says: “Five is ideal, and (these horses) should have a moderate fat cover over the crest of the neck, behind the shoulders, over the ribs, and over the loin and tail head. Ribs should be easily felt but not seen. This will help the horse owner determine if the horse needs to gain or lose weight.”

4. Control the forage energy level

Your horse feed should include different types of forages. Change and mix the types from time to time according to the season. You need to understand the different amounts of digestible energy in different forages. Understand the content of each type of forage (grass, hay, haylage, and oat straw). Do the same with the type of grass (cocksfoot, orchard, rye, and timothy).

Grass has a higher level of digestible energy during spring. Grazing can be very poor during winter. Moment of cut also affects the digestible energy level. Early cut grass is higher than late cut grass. It’s better to carry out a professional analysis of the nutrients in your pasture.

5. Select the energy type that suits your horse

Remember that different horses have different energy or nutrition needs. Owners of horses that are prone to heating up need to feed them with slow-release energy. Fiber and oil can help reduce excitement. These are a safe form of energy without much health challenges. But, lazy horses that lack the sparkle need to feed on fast-release energy. Cereals and grains like oats and barley contain starch that can ignite them. Be cautious as feeding horses with excess starch can cause some health problems.

6. Consult a professional

Above all, you need to check with professionals whenever you’re not sure how much food your horse needs. Veterinarians and nutritionists have specialized training. They can help you make the right decision. They have unbiased consideration of your horse-feed in the light of their health. Feed manufacturers can also give useful advice to horse owners.

How to Adjust Your Horse Feeding Routine

After understanding your horse’s actual nutritional needs, you may need to adjust the feeding routine.

1. Adjust the quantity of food intake

You need to be very observant here. Check the amount of fresh grass your horse has consumed while they are free to pasture. Put this beside their level of activity per day. All this will help you see where and when an addition or reduction is in order. If your horse has been free to pasture all day long, they don’t need much hay that day. Your horse may have worked hard with lots of riding. They may have been through other energy-sapping equestrian activity. In that case, give them more calories to replenish their energy storage.

2. Feed your horse an hour or more before or after riding

It’s not safe or healthy to feed horses right after strenuous activity. The blood flow at that time is not straight into the organs. This can hinder digestion and cause related problems. So, you must plan your horse feeding around their scheduled activity. As a rule, schedule your horse’s feeding for three hours before a scheduled activity.

3. Make the change gradual

If you see the need to change the horse-feed, let it be gradual. Horses need time to adjust to a new type of food or feeding routine. A drastic change in your horse feeding routine may cause equine colic or founder. Begin by reducing the old feed by 25% and fill the ration shortage with the new. After about two days, you can make the ratio 50:50 of old and new feeds. After about another two days, the ratio can increase to 75% new to 25% old. Within a week or two, your horse’s intestines and emotions are ready for the new feed 100%.

It’s also good to have a regular feeding time. Stick with that while introducing the new feed. Don’t change the feed and mealtime at the same time. If you have to adjust the mealtime, make the changes in 30 minutes increments. Doing this should not be while the horse is changing to a new diet.

Horse Feeding FAQs

Below are answers to questions asked by many horse owners.

1. How do I get my horse to lose some weight?

Provide your horse with extra exercise, but avoid overworking them. Gradually reduce the amount of feed. If it’s during the winter and the increase in weight is not significant, don’t worry too much. Your horse will use the extra weight to keep warm.

2. How do I get my horse put on more weight if it’s too skinny?

Increase the ration with the correct amount of food. Add more carbohydrates. If that doesn’t do it, you can pick up extra nutrients at some stores to boost your horse’s weight.

3. How do I feed a horse with grain?

The ideal way is to put the grain in a bucket. It’s better if the bucket can hook to a rail. It will be convenient for the horse to feed on it right away. But don’t leave the bucket there. Remove it when the horse is done. The horse might damage the bucket while playing with it. You can add a little water, salt, or salty water to the grain, depending on what you’re feeding your horse. Twice a day should be okay. You can also add supplements to the grain.

4. Is my horse okay with just hay?

No. Hay will not provide a balanced diet. Horses need to eat grain at least once a day in addition to grass and hay.

5. Are older horses okay with hay pellets only?

No. You need to provide them with the proper amount of hay to ensure that they get enough nutrients.

6. How many carrots or apples do I give my horse?

Give your horse no more than ten per day. If it’s more than that, the horse can form bad habits like pawing. They can also start to root your clothes for treats each time you appear.

7. Can horses eat wheat only?

Your horses need to get all the nutrients they need. Contact your local vet for advice if you have wheat in surplus before you place a group of horses on the feed.

8. How much does it cost to feed a horse?

It depends on factors like age and health among others. But you should be ready to spend in the range 50-150 dollars a week on a horse feed.