We all know there’s more to feeding your performance horse than plain oats and clean hay, and with dozens of supplements to consider, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Feeding your horse correctly doesn’t have to be complicated, and it doesn’t require dozens of supplements. On the contrary, unless you have a specific problem to fight nutritionally, the simpler the better. Our feeding system gives you a solid basic diet, plus guidelines on where to go from there with any special problems.
While most nutritional articles focus on grain and supplements, the real core of your horse’s diet is hay. Your horse needs hay’s fiber, and hay can provide most of the calories, protein and minerals he needs.
Most horses eat a maximum of about 2% of their body weight per day — 22 pounds (about half a medium-size bale) for an 1,100-pound horse — to meet maintenance (no work) calories. It may even be enough energy/calories for easy keepers in light work. If the work load increases, however, most horses must have grain, too. Supplements are another issue.
Hay Is The Heart
Hay is the horse’s major source of minerals and vitamin A. Mineral content varies with the stage of cutting and type of hay. Vitamin A content drops with age of the hay and bleaching. On the major-mineral front, alfalfa has an overabundance of calcium, meets or exceeds the magnesium requirement (although Ca:Mg ratio is way off) and is low in phosphorus and salt. High-quality grass hays have adequate-to-borderline amounts of calcium when consumed at maximum intake but are generally inadequate in phosphorus and borderline-to-low total magnesium (again, Ca:Mg ratio often off). Potassium, on the other hand, is no worry. A horse eating as little as five pounds of hay a day will get all the potassium he needs.
According to the National Research Council guidelines, high-quality, midbloom timothy hay is the closest thing to a perfect maintenance feed for horses. Remember, however, that the NRC is defining minimal requirements to prevent full-blown deficiency states, not intakes needed for optimal health and performance. Table 1 lists some commonly used hays and the nutrients that would be deficient if an 1,100-pound horse was eating 2% of his body weight in hay per day and performing moderate work without being fed grain.
Generally speaking, high-quality timothy will suffice for a mature, non-geriatric horse that is not being worked, bred, pregnant or lactating, with the possible need for supplemental iodine, selenium and salt. When you get into requirements for performance work and breeding or use other types of hays, mineral and vitamin deficiencies must be dealt with. Adding plain grain, supplemented grains or top-dressed supplements is the solution.
By “plain grains” we mean whole or processed oats or corn without any minerals or vitamins added. Table 2 shows what happens when you substitute oats for part of the hay ration, in amounts commonly fed to performance horses. Nutritional inadequacies persist. Mineral supplementation is necessary.
Supplemented grains are grain mixes (sweet feeds or pellets) that have vitamins, minerals and sometimes amino acids added above the natural levels in the ingredients. There are huge differences in levels of supplementation between grains. Some are balanced only for calcium and phosphorus, some for trace minerals as well. The levels listed in the tag’s guaranteed analysis are your only indication to what is in the feed. Claims like “balanced for horses” on bargain-basement feeds may mean little.
If the feed tag shows only the minimum (protein, fat, fiber, calcium, phosphorus and maybe trace minerals), you will need a mineral supplement. There is no way to know precisely what levels of other minerals are in there except to ask the manufacturer for an average or typical analysis. Even if you can get them to provide one, odds are it will change from batch to batch of feed as these bargain grain mixes are formulated on a least-cost basis. This means they switch amounts of grains and any protein supplements depending on the current market prices for the various ingredients. Mineral supplements should be matched to the type of hay you feed.
However, most supplemented grains go the extra mile and give you a guaranteed level for some additional minerals. How many are guaranteed is usually directly proportional to the price. Some grains only supplement to the point that they make the grain meet NRC minimum requirements. This means you will still have to use a mineral supplement to compensate for deficiencies in your hay. Others have enough additional minerals to compensate for deficiencies in both the hay and the grain.
It isn’t difficult to get a ballpark idea of where you stand. A quick test based on trace minerals can help you determine just how “supplemented” your supplemented grain really is: A copper level of 10 means the grain itself meets minimal NRC levels, but there is no extra to compensate for hay levels.
A copper of 30 will bring your entire diet (hay and grain) into NRC minimal levels, while a level of 50 or above (premium supplemented grains, like our sweet feed favorite, Triple Crown 14), will give you extra cushion for possible increased needs for heavy work or poor-quality hay. This is especially important when you also consider that the assays used to test levels of minerals, especially trace minerals, in the feed can be off by as much as 40%.
When feeding inadequately supplemented grains and hay or hay only, you will surely need a mineral supplement for best nutrition. There are many excellent supplements available, but the easiest way to find one without doing all the math is to go with a supplement that matches your diet, such as Select I or Select II, which are formulated to match either alfalfa-based or grass-hay-based diets. Remember, though, that how much you need to feed to get the major minerals and trace mineral needs will depend greatly on what type of hay you are feeding.
Adequate phosphorus and magnesium, in the correct ratios, is just as important to the formation of strong, healthy bone as is calcium. When feeding even a minimally supplemented grain (calcium level 0.6% or higher), you probably don’t need to supplement major minerals. You can also eliminate the need for supplements containing major minerals by feeding about ?? pound of rice bran or wheat bran for each 20 pounds of timothy hay. This will bring the phosphorus and total magnesium (although not the Ca:Mg ratio) up into the adequate range. In this case, Vita-Key’s Equine Supplement is an excellent choice.
Whether you need a supplement to meet basic ration-balancing needs or for special problems, you can often cover several bases with the same product if you shop carefully. For example, both Vita Key Equine Supplement and Nutra-Lix Plus contain enough vitamin E and selenium per dose to eliminate the need for a separate supplement. There is also enough biotin, zinc and methionine in both to work as a hoof supplement (Nutra-Lix is especially high in biotin) and good B-vitamin packages as well. Vita Key Anti-Oxidant Concentrate provides boosted doses of key antioxidant vitamins C and E, is the only product you need to cover trace minerals, and provides good levels of B vitamins as well (biotin low though; designed to be complementary with Equine Supplement).
Sometimes you will find a supplement, such as these, that meets multiple needs but still leaves you with one or two major minerals you need to supplement. An example would be boosting magnesium or phosphorus to bring their ratios with calcium into the correct range, which is often important in preventing tying-up or problems in growing animals. When this happens, consider supplementing those one or two minerals with a single-ingredient supplement.
Dairy farmers often run into this typ e of problem (mineral balance is a must for heavily lactating cows, and needs change with the base diet available), so your local farm store may be the ideal place to find single-ingredient products to meet your needs. Uckele Heath and Nutrition also has a wide product line of high-quality single-ingredient supplements and will work with customers to provide container sizes/amounts that are more manageable and appropriate than the 50-pound bags you may have to purchase at a farm store.
What About Protein’
Protein is at the heart of the structure of the horse’s body — from strong muscles and heart to strong feet, even the framework of bone is protein. On the other hand, excessive protein is expensive, difficult to use as an energy source, and can adversely affect performance, especially if introduced too quickly. Absolute protein requirements needed just to hold the horse together run from about 10% for mature horses doing no work to 14 to 16% for growing, aged and possibly high-performance horses, at least in the most stressful stages of training. However, the percentage of protein is only part of the picture.
The horse needs the correct array of amino acids, the building blocks of more complex body proteins, not just the correct total amount/percentage of protein. Detailed specific amino acid requirements are known for other domestic animals, but not for the horse. We know the most about the amino acid lysine. Lysine is required in the amount of about 0.35% of the diet. Alfalfa contains plenty of lysine; oats and barley are borderline to adequate (depending on quality); corn and grass hays (unless early cutting) are inadequate. Premium supplemented grain mixes have about 0.7% lysine, while unsupplemented grain mixes are often inadequate, and poorly supplemented grain mixes will not meet the needed lysine in the grain portion of the diet. A horse eating unsupplemented grain and about 15 pounds of timothy per day will have a lysine deficit in the neighborhood of 7 grams.
If you have a diet that is adequate in total protein but lacking in lysine because the grain is not specifically supplemented, you can work with this by adding pure lysine to the diet. Vita Flex has a new product called Pure Lysine that is just that and provides 3 grams per scoop.
To adequately meet the demands of the performance horse, we suggest you use a hay that has a 10 to 12% protein level and a 14% protein grain with a minimum lysine level of 0.6%. Remember the protein level of the horse’s diet is a combination of the protein in his grain and the protein in his hay. Even with high grain feed (half the total calories), the above diet is only 13% protein. Horses on good pasture (once you correct for the high water content of grasses compared to hays) are commonly eating 20% or more of their calories as protein, and we all know how well horses do on quality pastures.
Our choice for the ideal diet begins with a base of either straight timothy hay or timothy with 10 to 25% alfalfa. Adding grain to that diet depends on your horse’s work load and other stresses.
Hay-Only Diets: If you must feed a lot of alfalfa, supplement with Select I or another balanced-for-alfalfa supplement. With a low-to-no alfalfa hay diet — assuming an adequate 10% minimum protein level in the diet — use either a grass-balanced supplement, such as Select II, or a major mineral-free supplement like Vita-Key’s Equine Supplement to meet your total needs. Vita-Key also contains added essential amino acids lysine and methionine, which are deficient in many grass-hay diets even when total protein is adequate.
If the protein level is not adequate, or likely to be inadequate because of late-cutting or borderline-quality hay, a protein-and-mineral supplement, such as Triple Crown 30 or Milk Plus, will meet your needs.
Hay-and-Grain Diets: As above, grain and grain mixes may be unsupplemented, supplemented to low levels or generously supplemented. With all but the latter, you will need to use a mineral supplement and possibly a protein supplement as well. Use the same guidelines as above, matching the supplement to your hay. Vita-Key’s Equine Supplement can be used with diets containing some or all alfalfa and any grain of 0.6% calcium or above (which is just about all of them). TDI 30 is a good choice for hay-and-oats-based diets when hay quality is borderline or when using all grass hays, as it is specifically formulated for that diet. For picky eaters on grass-hay-and-oats diets we suggest the palatable Nutra-Lix Plus.
If you use moderately supplemented grains (these have levels in the neighborhood of copper 30 ppm, selenium 0.3 to 0.5 ppm, iodine 0.3 ppm, manganese 50 ppm, zinc 75 ppm), your diet will meet NRC minimum. However, it may not provide any cushion for variations in hay mineral levels or errors inherent to testing methods used for mineral levels. In these cases, we feel the use of a supplement is wise, especially for active horses. With highly supplemented grain mixes, no additional supplementation is required, so weigh the costs. You may be further ahead financially with the more expensive grain.
To compare costs in the diets on Tables 2 and 3, let’s assume some prices:
$6 for 50 lbs. alfalfa hay.
$4.50 for 50 lbs. timothy hay.
$14 for 50 lbs. a highly supplemented grain mix, Triple Crown 14.
$10 for 50 lbs. of a high-quality oats or a lesser supplemented grain mix.
Based on the above figures, the feeding costs per day for the diets on Tables 2 and 3 are:
$3.66 for Triple Crown 14 and alfalfa (Table 3 [see tables below]) vs. $3.72 for oats and alfalfa (Table 2), or $3.50 for Triple Crown 14 and timothy (Table 3) vs. $3.52 for oats and timothy (Table 2).
Because the Triple Crown 14 also has a high calorie density, you actually feed less grain and less hay, while getting all the major and trace minerals at 50 to 100% above minimal NRC requirements — all by spending less money per day to feed your horse. Remember, too, that these costs do not include the supplements needed with the other diets, which can run about 50?? a day. Using less than top-quality grains increases your costs as you must feed more to maintain weight.
For unbeatable nutrition and the best price option, we recommend a diet of timothy hay (or timothy plus a small amount of alfalfa) with a highly supplemented grain mix such as Triple Crown 14.
Contact Your Local Tack Store Or: National Forage Testing Association 402/333-7485; Buckeye Feed Mills 800/898-9467; Nutra-Lix (Nutra-Lix Plus) 800/568-6952; Richdel/Select The Best (Select I and Select II) 800/648-0950; Uckele Health and Nutrition (Bio-Quench, Hesperidin Bioplex) 800/248-0330; Vita-Key (Equine Supplement, Antioxidant Concentrate) 800/539-8482; Vita-Flex (E-5000, Pure Lysine) 800/848-2359.
Also With This Article
Click here to view “Even Fortified Grains May Not Have Everything.”
Click here to view “Salt Again.”
Click here to view “Fat-Soluble Vitamins: A, D, E and K.”
Click here to view “Hay Varies.”
Click here to view “Supplements For Nutritionally Related Problems.”
Click here to view “Those Misunderstood B Vitamins.”
Click here to view “Antioxidants.”
Click here to view “Table 1, Table 2 and Table 3.”