Recently, the New York State Horse Council presented the second of its four equine nutrition webinars. Presenter Meghan Crout works as an equine sales specialist for Land O’Lakes. She graduated from SUNY Cobleskill with a degree in agribusiness and is a horse owner herself.
Meghan began her presentation with guidelines to feeding your horse, emphasizing that forage is the most important component in a horse’s diet, and that it’s best if hay or grass can be the majority of the diet. A minimum of 1% of the horse’s body weight of hay or pasture equivalent is necessary for proper gut health and function.
Hay is comprised of 87% dry matter (DM); fresh green grass contains only 20% – 30% DM. Meghan stated a horse will consume 2% – 3% of its body weight in DM. For a 1,000-pound horse that translates to 20 – 30 pounds/day. For comparison, 11.5 pounds of hay = 10 pounds of DM; it takes 35 – 50 pounds of pasture to equal that same 10 pounds of DM. For an average 1,000-pound horse you’d need to double or triple that amount.
It’s important to know if your pasture is adequate for grazing, especially in areas that suffer from drought. Always provide a second source of roughage, such as hay, to be sure your horse is being adequately fed.
Hay should have a high leaf to stem ratio. Look for more flat leaves and fewer round stems, which indicate the hay was less mature when cut. More leaves indicates higher digestibility, and smaller stems are also indicators of higher quality hay that was less mature when cut. Hay should be typically soft and pliable, with few seed heads or blooms. It should have a fresh smell and appearance. Avoid any musty, moldy or off-smelling hay that will reduce palatability. Hay should be clean with little or no dust and be free of dirt, mold, trash, etc. The color should be bright green with little fading. Hay that is bleached yellow, brown or black is older or has not been stored property. Storage conditions are very important, as both age and the way it’s stored has a significant effect on the amount of vitamin A present. The nutrients in the hay will be depleted faster if it is exposed to heat, sunlight or rain; it should be kept in a dark, dry place. It’s helpful to have a hay analysis to know exactly what you’re feeding, as long as you’re not constantly changing your hay source.
Feed according to your horse’s lifestyle – used for pleasure/maintenance, working/performance, is young and growing, a broodmare or a senior horse – as different horses require different amounts.
Meghan stated that hay and pasture alone won’t contain all the necessary nutrients and sometimes won’t meet the calorie requirements for your horse, but feeding a handful or small amounts of a commercially fortified feed just to “keep your horse happy” won’t provide adequate nutrients. Most commercial feeds are fortified with vitamins and minerals and are formulated for different lifestyles. To be sure you are feeding the correct feed for your horse, don’t base your choice on the name alone – check the Purpose Statement on the feed tag.
Once you’ve chosen the proper feed, pay attention to the feeding directions; you would not give a “pasture pony” the same amount of feed that is required for a racing or heavily working horse.
The best way to know how much feed your horse should receive is by determining body weight. This can be done using a livestock scale, a weight tape or a tape measure that measures in inches. A weight tape is easier for one person to use, as it involves just one measurement around the horse’s heart girth from the base of the withers to just behind the front legs. Using a tape measure is more easily done with two people, measuring the horse’s heart girth and body length and doing a simple multiplication and division. To measure a horse’s heart girth, measure (in inches) from the base of the withers down to a couple of inches behind the horse’s front legs, under the belly, then up the opposite side from where you started. This will cause your tape measure to run at an angle. To measure a horse’s length, measure (in inches) from the point of the shoulder to the point of the rump. This may also cause your tape measure to run at an angle. To find an estimate of the horse’s body weight, multiply the heart girth by the heart girth by the body length, then divide that figure by 300 (girth x girth x body length ÷ 300 = horse’s weight).
In checking the guidelines on the feedbag, use the feeding calculator (chart) provided to determine your horse’s age, lifestyle (exercise) and weight. You will be able to better calculate the amount of feed appropriate for your horse. Also take into consideration what type and how many pounds of hay is being fed.
Meghan stressed that you should not overfeed your horse. The ideal amount is 0.5% of the body weight per meal (no more than five pounds per 1,000-pound horse). She suggested also knowing the horse’s body condition score, which rates horses on a scale of 1 – 9 (1 is poor; 4 is moderately thin; 7 is fleshy; 9 is extremely fat). She stated that a body condition score of 5 – 6 is ideal (in broodmares, 5 – 7), and explained that the feeding rate is based not on the horse’s actual weight but on their ideal weight.
Feed by weight, not by volume (think of a coffee can vs. a scale). Some cans hold one pound, but larger cans hold a lot more. A can of crimped oats will have a different weight than a can of whole oats. Many well-meaning horse keepers will say they feed “just a scoop” per feeding – but feed scoops vary in size from small to extra-large, and feeding this way you don’t really know how much feed you’re giving your horse. Meghan suggested using a kitchen scale to be most accurate (and added that a luggage scale is great for weighing hay).
Whether to feed textured or pelleted feed is a personal preference. There are great options on the market for both. Some horses prefer one to the other or may not like specific ingredients. Some types of feed contain whole ingredients while others are ground up and pelleted; both will have the same nutrients. If you see whole grains or corn coming through the manure, you might want to switch to a pelleted feed. Senior feeds are always pelleted – they are further processed so they are easier to digest.