Learn How to Feed Only What Your Horse Needs | Equine Clinical Research

Reprinted with permission of author

by Linda Todor-Newcomb

"Kelly" - 28 years old and at her new home, the Humane Connection.
"Kelly" - 4 months later and remarkably improved.

When it comes to feeding horses, everyone has an opinion, and I am no different! But my formula for successful horse feeding is simple...feed what you need.

I know that this theory sounds oversimplified, but it's the only one that will save you money and still do the best job of feeding each of your individual horses. By the way, that's the key word, "individual." A broodmare has different needs than an older gerding, and a pony's requirements are much different that those of a 6-month-old foal.

When you think of feeding a horse or pony, the first things that come to mind might be pasture grass and hay. In fact, those two components are the very basis for your feeding program. For those who are lucky enough to have a reasonable pasture, only supplemental hay may be necessary (as your pasture starts to dwindle, so should your hay supplementation increase).

For some pleasure horses or ponies, that may be all that is required to keep your animal looking in good flesh. On the other hand, what about the performance horse, show horse, endurance horse, trail horse, broodmare, etc? With many of these types, supplemental grain may be in order.

But what kind of grain should you consider feeding? It depends on what is available to you and cost may be a factor, too.

The average pleasure horse and trail horse may require light graining with as little as 8% protein. That is the approximate protein in shelled corn, which is what I, personally, like as a base feed for most horses two years and over. It is usually a less expensive grain, very accessible to most areas, and highly beneficial. (MYTHS: Corn produces heat in horses and should be used only in winter. Corn causes impaction. Corn is a dangerous feed for horses. FACTS: Corn does NOT produce heat in horses, fiber is what will help a horse stay warm (hay). Corn does not cause impaction. Any feed can cause impaction when adequate water is not provided with feed or there is a major problem with chewing of the feed. Corn produces excellent results in horses and if you try it, you'll love it!)

Most pre-mixed feeds sold in 50-lb bags will be between 12% and 14%, with some even running 16%. These mixes would be more suitable for young horses (under 2 years), broodmares in the last trimester, or performance horses that will require a higher energy level (although some older horses may also do better on a higher protein formula).

While there would be nothing wrong with feeding these pre-mixes to horses on a light work schedule, these high-powered feeds may bring more benefit to your own beliefs than to your horse's actual health. Though they will do no harm, they may be more costly than other feeds that will be more suitable to the level of nutrition your horse requires.

What are the needs of young horses? Higher protein levels, and nutrients that will provide for good bones and flesh. How do we obtain such a balance? It could actually be achieved in several ways.

Firstly, you could take a corn base (your 8% protein) and add things to it that would achieve what you are specifically striving toward. For instance, to the basic corn, you could add roasted soybeans or soybean meal to raise the protein level, a balanced calcium/phosphorus compound (often called di-cal) to develop good bones, and a general vitamin A, D, and E supplement. And to top it off (in some areas) it would be a good idea to add small amounts of selenium, which is imperative for healthy muscle tissue. Without it, you could run into problems with tying-up (Azoturia) or periodic muscle problems. Too MUCH selenium can become dangerously toxic in your horse's system. Your feed store will be able to help you in determining just how much selenium (if any) should be in your feed mix.

On the other hand, if you only have one or two young horses, you may be further ahead by simply purchasing the pre-mixed feeds, balanced for general horse consumption...the choice is yours.

The same type of mixes might be very suitable for your pregnant mare in her last trimester. Consult your veterinarian for your horse's specific needs, as every horse may benefit from something more detailed to his or her individual needs.

Should we add molasses to our custom feed mixes? Molasses certainly tends to make feed mixes more palatable, but it does not necessarily add any major nutrient to your formula. In fact, in some horses, the sugar content may produce the same effect in your horse that it does in children that eat too much sugar. Once again, you must be your own judge as to what may or may not be suitable for your own horse.

What about vitamin supplements? Are they necessary? They may only be beneficial when a particular nutrient is lacking in the basic diet you feed. For instance, I mentioned selenium earlier. Selenium is greatly absent from the soil in Wisconsin and there is no real source for it in the things that are grown and fed to horses. In order to correct that deficiency, we supplement it into the feeds we mix for our horses.

When it comes to vitamin supplements, there is a myriad to choose from, but which ones REALLY benefit your horse? Simply go back to the basic theory of "feed what you need." If you are looking for energy in your horse, look for a feed supplement with a strong vitamin B-Complex base. If your horse is seriously lacking energy, you might require something in a blood builder with iron.

Are you looking for a gleaming, shiny coat? Corn fed to horses as a base seems to provide one of the most healthy coats I've ever seen, but if you really want to see something special in your horse's coat, supplement your base feed with roasted soybeans. Not soybean meal, but roasted soybeans. Soybean meal usually contains protein levels from 38% to 44% and should be fed sparingly, but what most people do not realize is that soybean meal is made from the beans AFTER the oil has been stripped out. So if you really want a glow in your horse's coat and prefer not to mess with trying to pour corn oil over your horse's feed every day, try about 1/2 pound of roasted soybeans added to your horse's daily diet.

Due to the high protein levels of this supplement, it would be advisable to work up to 1/2 pound over several days, and, perhaps, split the soybean feeding into two feedings per day. Horses kept in stalls without daily turn out may experience minor leg swelling, "stocking up" when protein levels are raised quickly. We notice this quite often when we start heavy feeding of starvation cases. As soon as we place horses on high-protein grains, especially if they had been given no grain at all, various levels of stocking up are evident. That is why we start immediate exercise programs with all starvation restorations, even if hand-walking is all that can be done. The grain is increased as the level of exercise can be expanded.

If you find a general supplement you feel is doing your horse some sincere benefit, try taking your horse off the supplement for a couple of weeks and see if there is a change. When I am spending my hard-earned money on a supplement, I must be absolutely convinced that it giving me the desired result...not just that it "seems" to be working.

I feel compelled to share with you an experience I had, recently, with a product that demonstrates the "seeing is believing" theory.

As a horse consultant for over 20 years, I am a die-hard skeptic when it comes to horse supplements. New products on the market (and even many of the standard supplements that aren't so new), have to prove themselves to me as being something that can uphold their claims to benefit my horse's health. In many cases, these supplements fall seriously short of their claims and expectations.

Recently I had a chance to talk with a representative at Vita-Flex Nutrition. They produce a full line of horse supplements, each designed with a specific purpose.

As we spoke, I told her of a 35-year-old gelding we had that had all but completely lost his appetite. He would eat small quantities of grain, but not enough to maintain what had always been a very good-looking body for a horse that age.

Our usual corn feeding had lost its appeal for him, so we tried several sweet-feed mixes, oat mixes, and so on. The sweeter the mix got, the more convinced he was that he wasn't going to eat it, so we reverted back to a mix of plain oats and corn. However he was still not consuming the quantities needed to maintain a good body weight (which was now looking a little lean).

The representative spoke of a general feed supplement called "Accel," which had proven to be very palatable, and seemed to produce weight gain through increased appetite. She said the supplement also seemed to generate energy and a generally healthy attitude. It was a familiar speech (as many supplements make such claims), but the gelding was a real sweetheart and was worth a little extra effort.

The day before the supplement arrived in the mail, the horse was still eating only a pound of grain, here and there, while we wanted him to consume about 12-15 lbs a day (divided into several feedings) in order to gain some now-needed weight. Being an older gelding, he was also fussy about WHAT he chose put into his mouth. This wasn't the kind of horse that you could add medications to his food and disguise it with molasses or Jell-O!

The "Accel" arrived and I mixed the prescribed amount (a small spoon-like scoop) into the same grain mix that he had only "tolerated" the day before...and he ate it all!! He also ate every subsequent feeding we gave him that contained small amounts of the Accel! She was right, it was not only very palatable, but the horse was actually increasing his grain consumption by cleaning up everything I put in front of him!

As time progressed, every claim that the representative had made was coming to pass. The horse's energy had increased, his appetite had returned, and he looked like the healthy older horse that I knew he COULD be again. I was a believer, but my support for this supplement was not to end there.

We also received a pony into our shelter that we knew to have a history of founder, but he seemed to be in pretty good physical condition and his feet appeared to be in reasonable shape. I noticed that the Accel had biotin, selenium, and all kinds of good things in it, so we placed the pony on the supplement as soon as he came in (mostly because we had an extra container of it.)

He stayed on the supplement for close to 8 weeks and his energy level was almost more than we needed, but he remained sound of foot. He looked very healthy, however, since he was in pretty good condition when he arrived, I wasn't convinced that the Accel was the primary reason for his good health.

We removed the supplement from the feeding schedule and the pony showed some mild discomfort on his left front leg just three days later. Nothing else had changed in his entire schedule, except the absence of the Accel. Being my typical skeptical self, I still wasn't convinced that his mild bout with soreness could be due to the lack of this interesting nutrient combination, but I decided to do a little testing of the situation.

We placed the pony on very small doses of phenylbutazone ("bute") for 48 hours to remove any inflammation that may have accumulated during his discomfort and placed him back on the Accel. After the 48-hour period, the bute was discontinued and he received nothing but a handful of corn (which is his usual twice-a-day treat) and the prescribed quantity of Accel. A month later, this pony remains sound and rideable.

Coincidence? Maybe, but we have now experienced two individual episodes where this particular multi-vitamin supplement has made a significant difference in an animal's life.

Try the same "tests" with your supplement and see if you really notice a change (give it a few weeks ON the supplement and a few weeks OFF) or if the only difference is in your pocket book!

For more information on supplements or feeding, please call the HUMANE CONNECTION (715) 276-7187.

Till next time.....be kind to animals, and to yourself!

*The HUMANE CONNECTION is a tax-exempt, non-profit organization that specializes in the care and treatment of horses. We are funded solely by public contributions. If you would like to help us save lives, your donation will be gratefully accepted at HUMANE CONNECTION, P.O. Box 333, Townsend, WI, 54175-0333