"Feeding horses doesn’t have to be complicated
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"Feeding horses doesn’t have to be complicated

Feeding horses is one of those topics where everyone has an opinion, people swear by the success and effectiveness of their own feed regime and almost everyone, without exception, does something different. Feed companies spend a fortune on glossy marketing campaigns so who’s right? Is there only one way to feed a horse or can owners have multiple solutions? Follow our quick easy guide to feeding to work out the best dietary routine for your horse and help you stay on the straight and narrow.

Fibre

  • Start your dietary overview from the fibre end, not the hard feed end of the stick. Horses have a huge hind gut and are designed to almost continually process long fibre so that means hay or grass. They should always have access to a source of fibre
  • Fibre gives horses plenty of energy to work. They can perform to a surprisingly high level purely on fibre
  • Grazing horses need fibre supplementation when the grass is insufficient. Don’t look at the calendar, look at the field. For example, last year during the heatwave, it was necessary sometimes to supplement grazing which had burned off due to the prolonged excessive temperatures and lack of rainfall
  • Fibre should take at least 75% of your horses’ diet. The remaining elements can be filled in by hard feed

Workload and your horse’s current condition

  • Assess accurately the level of work your horse is doing, most people overestimate how much exercise their horse really has so, be honest
  • Is your horse fat? Horses are carrying generally more weight these days like people and companion animals. This has become the accepted norm so you may not realise your horse is overweight
  • Ask an instructor or trusted friend for an honest, independent opinion
  • Many feed companies offer a yard visit service and can weigh horses on a portable weighbridge before discussing a feeding plan. But they will only recommend their own products which may not be right for your horse

Compound feeds

  • Always read the bag! When choosing feed, check the ingredients label carefully. The title – pasture mix, cool mix, quiet ride – may give you the impression that this is feed suitable for horses doing low levels of work but if it contains ingredients like peas, beans or barley then it is calorific and potentially heating. This will have an impact on your horses’ waistline and could also adversely affect his temperament
  • If a feed is marketed as low calorie, check out its credentials. For years, fat was viewed as the villain in the human diet and all the while, food manufacturers were supplementing low-fat products with large quantities of sugar. Don’t trust the branding, always read the label
  • Similarly, some low sugar/carbohydrate feeds which are manufactured for horses with Cushing's disease or laminitis actually contain products or have a calorie level which may be harmful to your horse
  • Chops and chaffs are designed to be mixed into wet or dry feed to encourage chewing or mastication. A traditional chop was literally chopped hay and straw but many modern equivalents contain dried apple, linseed and other tasty, sweeteners. Always read the label

Condition scoring and weight management

  • Condition scoring is an assessment of the horse’s overall weight and condition based on age, type and workload. This is something a feed company will review in addition to weighing your horse. It is also something that welfare organisations are expert at
  • If you are advised to put your horse on a diet, then allow him to lose weight gradually, decrease calories from the hard feed, not fibre and increase work if possible
  • Photograph the horse week by week, this is a great way to review progress
  • As a baseline figure, a horse requires 1.5% of body weight as a daily maintenance level of feed and 2.5% if he is in work
  • Some vets have weighbridges and you can weigh your horse if you are a client of the practice usually without an appointment but let them know you are coming

Feed quality

  • Always feed the best quality hay you can afford
  • Hay can vary hugely in nutritional levels so it is possible to get your hay analysed

Supplementation

  • Most compound horses feed are nutritionally balanced to contain the right level of vitamins and minerals but only if the horse is receiving a minimum amount. If your horse is on a maintenance level or no hard feed then he may not be receiving an adequate spectrum of minerals and vitamins and will need to receive supplementation

Rules of feeding

Don’t forget some of the good old-fashioned principles of feeding horses which have stood the test of time.

  • Ensure that the horse always has access to a supply of clean, untainted water
  • Try and feed at the same time each day, the horse is a creature of habit
  • Do not exercise for an hour after giving a hard feed, equally, allow the horse an hour to rest if he has come off good pasture before exercise
  • Always ensure access to fibre
  • If feeding hard feed, split the ration between two, three or even four feeds a day, feeding the largest one last thing at night
  • Feed something succulent throughout the winter months when the grass is poor

Horses are not greedy, they are designed to graze almost continuously so shutting them in a stable without adequate fibre is moving them far away from what nature intended. Colic is more prevalent in stable kept horses than horses at grass. Horses are designed to search for food and move around. Constantly satisfying their demand for food with the wrong response is not an indication of love and affection. Reward their constant hunger with good, professional horse management and detached and compassionate care.

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