How do you properly feed a horse? With so many feed, supplement and hay choices available, many people find themselves wondering exactly what their horse needs for good health and nutrition.
When it comes to knowledge on this topic Dr. Joyce Harman of Flint Hill, VA, may be one of the most rounded experts in the country. She graduated from Virginia Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in 1984 and became a member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in 1985. She has been certified in veterinary acupuncture for 14 years and veterinary chiropractic for a decade. She has since completed advanced training in homeopathy and herbal medicine and is currently working on a master’s degree in Chinese medicine. Harman has owned and operated Harmany Equine Clinic since 1990 as a holistic equine practice where she brings holistic healing to horses in all walks of life.
Dr. Harman held a clinic during the Equine Affaire at the Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield, MA where she spoke on the topic of feeding your horse naturally. The goal of the clinic was to look at nutrition from a whole foods and natural perspective in order to sort through the misinformation.
It is helpful to learn a bit about a horse’s natural behavior and physical anatomy before you understand what foods are best to feed. In nature horses are a grazing animal that live where there are a variety of plants and not just grasses. In society horses are kept in boarding stables where there is a challenge in feeding them from a natural perspective mainly due to the lack of organic grains.
In horses the digestion process starts at the mouth, which is packed with rough teeth and lots of saliva. The food then travels to the stomach, which is very acidic making it especially useful for breaking down proteins and ionizing calcium. Fat and carbohydrate digestion begins in the horse’s small intestine. Horses rely heavily on good bacteria along their digestive tract for most of their digestion. The cecum and large intestine are a big part of this, housing billions of bacteria and protozoa that enable the digestion of cellulose and other fibrous roughage such as hay. There are many factors that upset good bacteria in the horse’s digestive tract including confinement, stress, illness and antibiotics.
Now that we have a background on the horse’s anatomy and behaviors we can get into foods and nutrition. When feeding horses, it is important to recognize that there are six basic nutrient categories that must be met: carbohydrate, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals and water. Every horse will have different energy requirements depending on their body mass, age, workload, metabolic efficiency and ambient temperature.
As a rule foods that are closest to the horse’s natural diet are the best choices. One bit of advice right off the bat is eliminating cooked foods from a horse’s diet. Horses are made to eat raw foods and cooked foods can cause inflammation due to their high omega-6 content. Whenever possible it is best to use natural organic foods.
Nothing has greater influence on the overall wellbeing of the horse than water intake. Horses drink two-to-three times as much water by weight as they do solid food. Depending on where you live, water can be high in some minerals and toxins so it beneficial to test the water in order to know what is in it.
Carbohydrates will most likely be the largest part of the horse’s diet. They can be divided into two groups, structural (fiber) and non-structural (sugars and starches). Structural carbohydrates are found in the largest amounts in the roughage that the horse eats such as hay or grass. It is best to limit non-structural carbohydrates to 10-12 percent of the diet otherwise these foods are converted into sugar and quickly stored as fat. According to Dr. Harman most domesticated horses are too fat as it is. A horse can be considered overweight if the owner is unable to visibly see the outline of a few ribs on the horse’s side and can’t feel them.
Proteins are necessary for body growth and maintenance but they are the most difficult energy source for the horse to digest and convert to usable energy. Most horses are healthier on low protein feeds. In general, growing horses need a higher percentage of protein than mature horses. Owners should shoot for 7.5 percent protein for adult horses and 12 percent protein for young horses. Grains have about 10-16 percent protein while the protein content of hay ranges from 5-22 percent. Alfalfa hay has the highest percent of protein while poor grass hay has the lowest.
Feeding a horse fats and oils is a relatively new trend in the horse industry but it has been shown that horses do well with this nutrient in their diet. Fat is an excellent and easily digestible source of energy. Many commercial feeds are now supplemented with fat in the form of some type of stabilized oil. Horse owners still need to be wary and read their feed labels since most oils are chemically extracted and preserved if BHA and BHT which can lead to skin disease.
Vitamins are part of a delicate biochemical balance in a horse. A high level of stress in a horse increases vitamin requirements. Horse owners, however, should not rely on vitamins that are added to the feed. Instead they should add vitamin supplements as the individual horse requires. When a horse owner finds that they must increase vitamin levels in their horse they must remember to balance rather than overload the body with vitamins. This standard of balance includes using minerals and herbs during vitamin use. It should also be a horse owner’s goal to improve the health of the gut, which is instrumental in manufacturing vitamins as well as absorbing them.
It is critical for horses to have the right balance of minerals. The slight excess of one can prevent the absorption of another. Major minerals such as calcium and magnesium are needed in larger amounts while trace minerals such as copper and zinc are needed in smaller amounts. Horses get most of their minerals from what grows in the soil including common weeds which people constantly try to eliminate.
The environment has a big effect on the amount of minerals found in the soil. Severe flooding can change the soil chemistry while droughts can concentrate minerals or create deficiencies. Dr. Harman recommends using loose free choice minerals in addition to the horse’s regular feed. Some horse owners like to use salt blocks as a way to get minerals into the horse diet. According to Harman salt blocks are not the way to go since most trace mineralized salt blocks contain 96 percent or more salt and contain only a “trace” of minerals. Salt may also restrict the absorption of some minerals.
Look for part 2 of Dr. Joyce Harman’s clinic in an upcoming issue of Country Folks. For more information visit www.harmanyequine.com