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Fed Up: Is Your Horse’s Feed Doing Its Job?

Fed Up: Is Your Horse’s Feed Doing Its Job?
By Kristen M. Janicki
Signs your horse’s feed isn’t doing its job and how to fix it
That handsome gray gelding greets you enthusiastically with nickers at every mealtime. He licks his feed bin clean daily. Yet, he sports a poor-quality coat. Maybe he lacks energy during lessons. Or, he can’t seem to put on weight. Something with his feed just isn’t working.
Signs like these often alert savvy owners that their feed’s at fault. “Probably the most common reason clients call our clinic is weight loss,” says Dana Reeder, DVM, Dipl. ABVP (equine), clinical assistant professor of equine field services at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, in Blacksburg, Virginia. Second to weight loss, lackluster hair coat or lack of topline muscling can also be why owners seek veterinary advice about their horses’ diets.
Sound familiar? Let’s get to the bottom of why your feeding program might not be working for your horse.
Diet Detective
Although instinct might tell you to blow like a dust devil through the local feed store and flip your entire feed program on its end, take a moment to think things through. After working with your veterinarian to rule out any health issues, consider that there are four nonmedical factors that could be affecting a feeding program’s efficacy: the horse, the human, the forage, or the grain/­concentrate.
The horse factor
Nutritionists sort horses and ponies into four physiological categories to best meet their nutrient needs: maintenance, growth, reproduction, and exercise.
“Nutrient requirements vary throughout each stage of the horse’s life,” says Zoe Davies, MSc, R.Nutr, equine nutritionist consultant and owner of Silverhall Equine Nutrition Ltd, in the U.K. “Sometimes this is not taken into account, and the diet is not altered accordingly.”
Nutritionists can break each class of horse down further, depending on the situation. For example, if an 8-year-old idle Quarter Horse starts a moderate training program, digestible energy (or calories) in the diet must increase by about 6,000 calories per day or he will lose weight. Now, let’s say that horse is currently in a moderate training program, sustains an injury, and is put on pasture rest for six months. Without adjusting the diet accordingly to remove those calories you added, the horse’s weight and body condition most certainly will change. But calories are just one example of how nutrient needs vary among different types of horses and ponies. The same is true for protein, vitamins, and minerals, although the outward implications of excess or deficiency might not be very noticeable, if at all, particularly in the early stages of nutrient imbalance.
The human factor
The National Research Council in its (NRC) Nutrient Requirements of Horses (2007) calculates daily nutrient requirements based on the horse or pony’s weight and, therefore, serves as the basis for most feeding guidelines. According to this guide, the amount of forage in a horse’s diet should be around 2% of body weight per day for proper digestive health. Very few of us, however, have the luxury of using a horse-sized scale to determine weight. So we rely on the best estimate we can, or we roll the dice and make an educated guess. We can get a better idea of weight by using either a weight tape or measuring the horse’s body length and heart girth (both in inches) and calculating weight using this equation: heart girth x heart girth x body length, divided by 330.
It’s a good idea to determine your horse’s weight a few times a year, such as at the beginning of every season. If math isn’t your strong suit, you can always rely on an online tool such as
Could you be over- or underestimating how much your horse or pony is being fed daily? Feed by weight, not by volume. We’ve all heard this over and over. Yet many of us still feed based on volume in scoops or coffee cans. This is perfectly acceptable if you know the weight of one scoop or coffee can full of feed, but don’t assume all feeds weigh the same. For example, a pelleted concentrate does not weigh the same as a textured sweet feed; pellets or cubes are denser and heavier. The same can be said for hay versus other types of fiber sources, be they cubes, pellets, haylage, or chopped hay.
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