When someone begs the question, “Why do you feed your horse grain?” what is the right answer? While the easy answer is ‘to help the horse maintain weight’, this is not the sole purpose of a balanced formula. We feed horses “grain”, typically a concentrated mixed nutrient formula, to fill them with calories, but also to help them meet daily requirements for specific amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. Where these micro-nutrients play a major role in muscle development and physiological function, I am excited to give a shout out for the often nutritionally overlooked horses— the easy keepers!
As we feed ponies, idle horses, and our chubby tending athletes, we have to ensure essential nutrients as we build their feed programs. The key a successful nutrition program for the hefty horses rest in balancing dense nutrition, adequate fiber, and limited calories.
Forage should almost always make up the bulk of a horse’s daily consumption. Long stem forage is the basis for a healthy hind gut. It keeps microbes active in the hind-gut, pH levels balanced, and intestinal muscles active throughout the GI tract. Keeping hay or grass continually running though the horse will reduce risk of colic, boost his immune system, and help to prevent gastric and colonic ulcers.
Forage also takes comfort food to a new level. Our horses have a strong primal instinct to chew for most of the day. This drive to forage keeps wild horses alive when food is scarce. Because horses live and think in the present moment, chewing gives them a sense of safety and fulfillment— I won’t starve if I’m eating.
The moral of the story here is to feed enough hay to meet daily nutritional requirements, and feed it so that the horse takes most of the day to eat it. 1.5% body weight (15 lbs for the 1000 lb horse) is a pretty standard minimum feeding rate. Spreading hay across a paddock or using nibble nets (sometimes one inside another) can help slow our loving butter balls down enough to appreciate their meals!
Now we can talk ‘grain’. Although most of us feed a pelleted or textured formula, we often refer to bagged feed as grain. Maybe it’s not quite correct, but ‘grain’ sure flows off the tongue smoother than ‘fortified nutrient concentrate’!
It’s notable though, that most of us don’t actually ration out whole oats and corn, but we feed our horses a formulated mixture with fixed nutrient values. Often times cereal grains like oats, corn, and barley are integrated in these formulas for caloric value, but the formulas also feature vitamins, minerals, specific fatty acids, super fibers, and amino acid packages. These pieces of the formula are imperative to consider, as forage alone often leaves a horse nutritionally deficient.
Being the wonderfully generous and responsible horse owners we are, we supplement our horses’ nutritional needs with a scoop from the feed bag to ensure they get enough.
For many horses, this system works well! Our 2-3 scoop (6-9 lbs) a day horses are usually just fine with a formula featuring 10-12% protein and 8-12% fat. The problems arise for the horses who don’t need the supplemental energy. These guys often get cut to half a scoop or less a day. This is a problem, because while the calories are cut with the decreased ration, so are the micro-nutrients. While Butter ball certainly doesn’t need more starch or fat, he needs the full scoop’s worth of protein, vitamins, and minerals.
To overcome this tug-o-war between calories and nutrients, the horse feed industry has gifted us with the ration balancer. This low sugar/starch feed is super-concentrated with protein, vitamins, and minerals so that it can be appropriately fed at 1-2 lbs a day. A good formula will be fully fortified with chelated minerals and balanced amino acids to ensure efficient nutrient uptake and use.
Feeding the easy keeper to meet his individual nutritional requirements will help to keep him in optimum condition. Focusing on forage and supplementing with an appropriate concentrate formula with quality ingredients is principle in keeping him well!