When someone begs the question, “Why do you feed your horse grain?” what would be your answer? Pre-nutrition nerd takeover, my answer was the obvious- to keep weight on him. Now, with a better understanding of supplying sufficient levels of quality nutrients to my horses, I want to speak up for all horses. Particularly, I am excited to shout out for the often nutritionally overlooked easy keepers!
As we feed ponies, idle horses, and our easy keeping athletes, we have to ensure essential nutrients that build the feed program. The key to getting these nutrients to hefty horses rests in balancing dense nutrition, adequate fiber, and limited calories.
Hay Then Grain
Forage should always make up the bulk of a horse’s daily consumption. Long stem forage is the basis for a healthy hind gut, keeping microbes active and pH levels balanced. More simply, keeping hay or grass running though the horse’s system as much as possible will reduce the 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, and because horses live and think in the present moment, chewing gives them a sense of safety and fulfillment, as they know that they will not starve if they are eating.
Concentrate on Top
Although I feed a pelleted formula, I often refer to my 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 feed our horses a formulated mixture with fixed nutrient values. Often times cereal grains like oats, corn, and barley are integrated in these formulas, but they also include fortified vitamins and minerals, and crude fat, fiber, and protein percentages. These nutrient values are key, as they help us to balance out our horses’ daily nutrient requirements from what is missing from their forage consumption.
In answer to the hypothetical at the top of this post, I feed my horses concentrate to supplement essential nutrients in their diet!
Healthy Horse= Meeting Nutrient Needs
Horses need sufficient amounts of Energy, Protein, Vitamins, and Minerals in their diets everyday. Under the right circumstances, forage can meet most of these requirements. The problem is that we want to feed consistently nutritious diets systematically, and forage quality varies. Butter Ball’s willingness to eat said forage also varies. Moreover, individual metabolisms override our calculated efforts to feed by the herd.
Being the wonderfully generous and responsible horse owners we are, we supplement our horses’ energy, protein, vitamin, and mineral needs with a scoop from the feed bag to ensure they get enough.
Easy Keepers Yet Nutrient Needers
For many horses, this works well! Our 2-3 scoops (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 (1.5 lbs) a day, or no concentrate at all. While sometimes the easy keepers’ nutrient needs are met with just forage, for our older horses, athletes, and mineral deficient individuals, this can be problematic, because while they certainly don’t need more starch or fat, they may need supplemental Protein, Vitamins, and Minerals.
When I have the opportunity to revamp a horse’s nutrition program without increasing energy in the diet, I break my process down to three steps.
1) Look for Deficiencies
Before getting wrapped up in rations, I like to look at my horse in order to rein in my ‘need to feed’. How does Butter Ball look and act? Is he running prelim cross country, or is he a pleasure horse? Is he muscle deficient and weak over his topline? Is his coat dull? How is his hoof and skin quality?
Wrapping my mind around the big picture of a horse’s body condition and athletic orientation helps me to focus where he may be nutrient deficient.
2) Read the Feeding Directions
When I choose Butter Ball’s source of supplemental nutrients, I always like to read the feeding directions. For instance, Butter Ball (dressage horse) currently gets a half scoop (1.5 lb) of 10/10/10 concentrate per day, and the concentrate is recommended at 8 lbs for Butter Ball’s size. This means he is only getting a quarter of nutritional value promoted by the product. Of course, if Butter Ball eats 8 lbs of this concentrate everyday, he might not fit in the arena!
Maybe time for a switch in feed so this horse can get all the Protein, Vitamins, and Minerals he needs, without the added fat and starch!
3) Balance the Ration
My favorite part! Let’s say Butter Ball is a 1200 lb Hanoverian (ha! and you thought he was a Shetland pony!). If I am looking to supplement Protein, Vitamins, and Minerals, I will reach for the ration balancer. Ration balancers are low fat formulas with around 30% crude protein and highly concentrated with vitamins and minerals, so they can be fed at a low volume. At 2 or 3 lbs a day with quality hay, Butter Ball could make his Grand Prix debut in style!
We could also take to the other extreme, where Butter Ball is a pasture ornament of a Shetland, and it’s all I can do to keep him from ballooning! This pony probably could do a ration balancer at a relative feeding rate, but he doesn’t really need that protein. Instead, I would probably soak a Vitamin/Mineral supplement in some timothy cubes and bring Butter Ball in for his daily snack.
Feeding a horse to meet his individual nutritional requirements will help to keep him in optimum condition. Focusing on forage first and supplementing appropriate nutrients via quality ingredients is principle in keeping him well!