Straight Answers to Feeding Questions

posted: 05/15/12

Here's some expert advice on horse feeding that combines conventional wisdom with the latest thinking.

Q: I just bought a healthy and energetic 11-year-old gelding I plan to use as a trail horse. So far, he has been on 24-hour turnout; he is on a nice, lush pasture, and I give him a little hay every day. I am worried, however, that he may need a richer diet to compensate for our trail rides-we spend two to three hours on the trails, a couple of times a week. Should I start giving my horse sweet feed to keep up with these energy demands?

A: Chances are, even if you ride often and stay out for hours at a time, your demands on your horse's energy are not as high as you might think. The 1978 National Research Council Nutrient Requirements of Horses published a chart showing how many calories horses burn at various levels of activity. An hour of normal riding—that is, walking, with some moderate trotting and cantering mixed in—burns only a few calories more than a horse's basic requirements. So a mature horse with an average workload—a few 60- to 120-minute riding sessions of moderate intensity each week—usually needs nothing more than good-quality pasture, some supplemental hay, plenty of water and access to a salt lick. Increased appetite will easily cover the extra "cost" of the exercise.

This diet works so well for most horses because it closely matches the way horses evolved to eat and work in the wild. Feral horses prefer mostly grass, mixed with some leafy plants, and at certain times of the year, they may be able to indulge in occasional treats in the form of wild grains.

Dietary requirements get more complicated, however for the few equine athletes, such as polo ponies or endurance horses, who burn more calories than good pasture can provide. A performance horse's appetite naturally increases by 40 percent or more, so the maximum weight of food he will eat per day goes well above the average horse's 2 percent of body weight—up to 30 or more pounds of feed (dry weight) for a 1,000-pound horse. In addition to feeding a performance horse more, it is necessary to replace some dietary forage with higher energy feeds, which pack more nutrition into each mouthful and help power his hardworking muscles.

So the short answer to your question is that adding a little grain to your horse's ration may make him more attentive when you show up at the pasture gate, but he'll get along fine without it. And when evaluating your horse's diet, use old-fashioned common sense. If he looks good—not too fat or too thin—and he is healthy and performs well, then he is getting all the nutrients he needs.

Here's some expert advice on horse feeding that combines conventional wisdom with the latest thinking.

Q: My neighbors raise good-quality alfalfa hay, and my horse loves it, but I've heart it can be bad for him. Should I let him have it or not?

A: Alfalfa is to horses like steak is to people; in moderate amounts it's tasty and nutritious, but it can cause problems if it becomes the majority of the diet.

Likewise, alfalfa is a good supplement for growing equine youngsters and pregnant or lactating mares, who need more protein to fuel their higher energy needs. But giving the average horse too much of this rich forage is asking for trouble. Besides taking in too much protein, which leads to smelly, ammonia-heavy urine, a horse's biochemistry may be adversely affected by alfalfa's high mineral content. In particular, alfalfa contains high levels of calcium, which can lead to metabolic problems like synchronous diaphragmatic flutter ("thumps"), and magnesium, which in excess has been associated with the production of enteroliths (intestinal "stones").

Given all of this, you don't need to pass up a convenient source of quality alfalfa, but you'll want to exercise caution in incorporating this rich forage into your horse's diet. Making alfalfa a limited part of his overall nutritional mix and balancing it with another type of forage will help keep your horse healthy.

Q: My 18-year-old gelding has developed a huge "hay belly." Although he's been getting more turnout time this spring, I still ride him regularly. I've heard that a "hay belly" can be a sign of poor nutrition, but to me it looks like he's eating too much! What is causing his sagging belly?

A: The drooping profile of a true hay belly is not fat, it's a sign of a large amount of food within the digestive tract. A horse's gut can hold up to 50 gallons of chewed grass, and constant, slow-paced eating, coupled with the churning caused by hours of wandering through the pasture, keeps all that "wet salad" flowing through the pipeline just as it should. It can also cause a horse to develop a sagging, pendulous belly, especially as he ages and loses some of his muscle tone.

In some cases, however, a hay belly is not a good sign. If a horse is also extremely thin or listless, a sagging belly may indicate the presence of parasites or liver disease or, particularly in old horses, it may signal dental problems, heart disease, cancer or another progressive illness. In addition, horses who receive only poor-quality forage try to compensate by eating more, which causes their bellies to become greatly distended with indigestible fiber.

However, as long as your horse shows good body condition—plenty of muscle with a little fat—and has ample access to high-quality forage, then a "hay belly" is actually a sign of good health.

Here's some expert advice on horse feeding that combines conventional wisdom with the latest thinking.

Q: Last month I switched from pellets to sweet feed. My horse is getting the same amount of feed—two coffee cans full in the morning and evening. But in the last few weeks he's been getting so energetic he's been difficult to ride. Is the sweet feed making him hyper, even though he's getting the same amount he always got?

A: All feeds are not created equal. Although certain grains have a reputation for making a horse "hot" and hard to handle, in reality, it's the amount of calories, rather than the type of feed, that counts. Corn, for example, a common ingredient in sweet feeds, is very heavy and high in calories compared to oats or most pelleted foods. When horses get too many calories, they either gain weight or find ways of burning off their excess energy.

When switching from one type of feed to another, use a kitchen scale, as well as the feed label, to adjust the volume so that the calorie counts come out about the same.

Q: I have been thinking of adding corn oil to my horse's grain to make his coat shinier. I've also been told dietary fats are good for horses so I'm wondering what other positive effects adding oil to feed might have. How much oil can I safely give my horse?

A: To add shine and luster to your horse's coat, add two to four tablespoons of vegetable oil to his feed each day. For horses who need additional calories because they are too thin, are working hard or are convalescing from illness, anywhere from a quarter cup to two cups of corn oil added to feed daily can be beneficial. The limit is two cups of oil because that's the maximum amount a horse will efficiently digest; give him any more and his stools will become soft and greasy.

Many people feed corn oil because it is relatively inexpensive, easy to digest, and can be stored for a relatively long time without getting rancid. But other types of vegetable oil are also worth considering. In fact, cold-pressed oils such as virgin olive oil are higher in nutrients than refined oils, such as corn oil. Keep in mind, however, that olive oil is more expensive, and it must be purchased in smaller quantities because it spoils more quickly.

Excerpted with permission from an article in EQUUS Magazine, October 2000. For more on horse nutrition, visit

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