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Designing Your Horse’s Diet

By Kristen M. Janicki
A step-by-step approach to ration-balancing
To some, listening to fingernails on a chalkboard sounds more pleasing than sitting down to balance a horse’s diet. But it’s an important part of horse ownership. The National Research Council’s (NRC) Committee on Nutrient Requirements for Horses (who authored a document of the same name in 2007), states that the goal of any equine diet is to “provide nutrients that efficiently maintain a horse’s body and well-being and support functions related to growth, production, and work.” The committee advises the government on the nutrients required by all equids.
Whether building a plan for feeding a new horse or troubleshooting a current horse’s diet to see what could be missing, ration evaluation is key to health and performance. With the NRC’s requirements as our guide, we’ll take on ration-­balancing one step at a time. So embrace your inner mathematician, and let’s get started.
Step 1. The Steed Deets
First things first: Gather information about the equid you’re feeding. The NRC publishes tables of data (available here: listing daily requirements for energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals based on a horse’s weight and physiological class (think growing, pregnant, lactating, or performance). But creating a balanced diet depends on more than just science. There’s an art form to feeding horses—the “equine factor” will play an influential role and must be considered on a case-by-case basis, including:
Current or desired body condition score;
Dietary goals, such as gaining or losing weight, increasing muscle, etc.; and
Conditions that might warrant nutritional support, such as pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction or laminitis.
A successfully balanced diet must also take into account factors such as feed palatability (Does the horse prefer sweet feed over pelleted?), mealtime behavior (Does he bolt feed?), and management practices (How many meals does he get per day?).
Keep the appropriate NRC tables of nutrient requirements for your horse on hand as you evaluate his diet.
Step 2. The Feed Deets
We all know our horses need forage to keep their complex digestive systems working properly. Although researchers have yet to establish an official “forage requirement” for horses, we know to use this feedstuff to provide most of the nutrients in the diet to reduce the horse’s risk of developing hindgut acidosis (increased acidity in the large intestine that alters its natural population of microorganisms), colic, and gastric ulcers. Because forage makes up the largest part of the diet, it can have the biggest influence on overall nutrient balance. If you can accurately assess the energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals your horse’s forage provides, you’ll understand what gaps, if any, you need to fill with supplemental feed.
With conserved forage, better known as hay, a quick visual inspection can give you some idea of quality, but this isn’t an accurate way to estimate its ­nutrients.
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