A Horse Nutrition Primer for Beginners

Published by Jim Fiorini on

Welcome to the exciting world of horse ownership where you will have a lot to learn and will never know it all.

The greatest words of wisdom I have ever heard from a member of the horse world was from a wonderful older gentleman who I happened to bump into while hiking in the deep woods of the Shenandoah Valley.  He was in his 80s and was leading the cutest little Shetland mare on the trail.

It turned out that this little mare was for his great granddaughter and he was desensitizing the mare for the trail.

I broke out the trail mix and water and we spent two hours sitting on a rock chatting about horses.  At the time I was a beginner and had a handful of a sorrel filly walking all over me.  This fella had some great tricks and advice for me but as we parted I thanked him for helping a struggling beginner and he shared those wise words…

“Son, I been training horses for a living for more than 60 years, from Hollywood to San Antonio and I still consider myself a beginner.  You run into anybody who thinks otherwise and you steer well clear.”

The only name I ever got from him was “Bud” so I never knew his resume and still don’t.

Beware of “Experts”

Bud’s advice spans the spectrum of  every component of horse management from training to tack to blankets to shoes and of course, nutrition.

I learned the hard way that feeding advice from “lifelong” horse people including a newly minted vet was usually wrong and dangerous.

The only true nutrition “experts” in the horse world are the select group of equine PhDs and there aren’t many of them.

The other people qualified to offer nutrition advice for your horse are people like me, people who have been trained by the equine PhDs and have spent many hundreds of hours learning from them.

I am NOT an expert in equine nutrition.  I am not qualified to design feeds to be used for horses.  What I am an expert in are the feeds and supplements designed by the experts to put those tools into my hands in order to help people feed their horses.

When people refer to me as an “equine nutritionist” I am quick to correct them.

My advice is that before you take any advice on feeding programs for your horse either from the local barn crowd or the plethora of internet feed gurus proliferating these days, take some time to ask them about or look up their background.

I see their credentials every day.  “Lifelong horse woman”.  “Breeder and trainer”.  I’ve even seen a few out there with PhD after their names.  Did you know you can look them up?

One of the most popular spreaders of antiinflammatory misinformation is indeed a PhD.  When you look her up, the doctorate was awarded by an obscure university in “Metaphysical studies”.  K.

I’m just a feed guy.

Everyone is Trying to Take Your Money

Feed companies, supplement companies, fad diets you name it somebody is usually pushing some kind of gimmick.  What follows are some bullet points to consider when making nutrition choices for your horses.

Horses are NOT Humans

I take statins and beta blockers so that I can eat pizza and drink pots of black coffee daily so I am NOT a holistic health food hippy.  About the only thing I would try kale for is to ferment it into an adult beverage.

For all you “if it’s good for people it must be good for horses” folks try this for me.  In May when you first mow your lawn gather up all those luscious clippings that your horses would fight over and eat them for a week.

Yep, seven days of nothing but grass clippings and water.  In Army pilot training we were told to avoid eating grass if we were shot down because it would eventually kill us.

Your digestive system has absolutely zero in common with your horse’s.  So get over it.

“Natural Diet”

I can’t be any more blunt, anyone selling you a natural diet for horses is full of that which you shovel daily from the stall.

Sixty million years of evolution has resulted in an animal that processes grass for energy.  Horses are grazers and one of only two non ruminant herbivores on the planet. So if you want your horse on an “all natural” diet put it on two acres of grass along with a clean water source and you will have provided the natural diet evolution meant for them to have.

Now, if your horse happens to be a Quarter Horse or a Shetland Pony or a Morgan chances are that they will be dead by the end of their first spring grass because their distal phalanx will have rotated through the soles of their hooves.  So breeding is a factor in “natural diet”.

On the other hand if your horse is a less thrifty breed like a thoroughbred or a mustang they will probably live to be about 20 with a decline in condition beginning around age 15.  If there were natural predators in your field or other hazards like drought and terrain Paint the Wonder Horse will be lucky to see seven or eight years.

The horse’s natural role in the food chain is as a hot meal for predators.  Nature designed horses to be fragile in order to feed the predators and scavengers of the plains.  Yep, fast and healthy for five years or so in order to produce three to four healthy offspring and then horse is on the menu at Golden Corral.

A horse’s natural activity level is eat, sleep, make babies, look for more food, break, die and feed something else, including humans.  Horses were our dinner long before they were our pals.

Breeding, work, and geriatrics have shot so many holes in the notion of a “natural diet” for equines that it just doesn’t hold water.

Forage First

The previous section in no way diminishes the importance of quality forage for horses.  Nature designed horses to eat grass and so grass, either pasture or hay, should comprise the bulk of a horse’s diet.

When I am asked to do a feed review the first thing I evaluate is the quality and quantity of the forage being offered.  To be clear, before I recommend any type of supplemental feed the horse must have all the forage it requires to maintain weight.

Some horses because of breeding or workload or condition can’t maintain weight on forage alone.  When a performance horse is training or showing it isn’t eating forage and to make it worse it is burning huge volumes of calories.

A 1,000 pound horse just being a horse requires 16,000 kcalories per day.  Boost the workload to an hour a day and the calorie requirement nearly doubles.  High quality grass hay is around 800 kcals per pound so do the math.  A hard working horse requires nearly 40 pounds of hay daily to meet caloric burden.

Even if our horses are maintaining weight on forage alone they still require supplemental nutrition to fill the gaps in grass and hay which are short in essential nutrients like lysine, vitamin E, selenium and others.

“Grain Free Diets”

Kill me now.  Nothing makes me crazier than the term “grain” as it relates to horse feed.

For more than 4,000 years humans turned to handy grain sources for concentrated energy for their working horses.  Corn, oats, barley and wheat being the most popular throughout history.  Because these grains are actually part of the grass family horses are able to readily process them for energy.

Unfortunately, as with anything concentrated it is easy to offer too much and the problems begin.

Research in the past 10 years has shown the debilitating effects of high starch on horses resulting in some really solid low starch feeds being developed.  So it really sends me around the bend when a quality, high tech, low starch feed is referred to as “grain”.  Comparing Ultium competition to a bucket of oats is like comparing a Mercedes to a Yugo.

While it is true that grains are a component of these feeds they have been processed and formulated along with forage components like hay and beet pulp to meet calorie and nutrient requirements while maintaining a low starch profile.

Our “easy keepers” present their own feeding challenges being much more difficult to manage than “hard keepers”.  For our “thrifty” ponies we have ration balancers which are like protein bars for people, all the nutrients with limited calories.

Home Brews versus Commercial Feeds

Let me begin by stating clearly that there are some pretty awful commercial feeds out there for horses.  Most of them are cheaper economy feeds but in the past few years there have been some very expensive “boutique” feeds that will debilitate a horse just as fast as $15 sweet feed.

By learning what to look for in a commercial feed and seeing through the marketing chatter it becomes easy to choose a good feed to meet almost any situation.

There are a countless number of “home brewed” diets out there being spread by horse trainers, holistic vets, fitness experts and some gal with a tik tok account.

The story is the same.  Instead of using a feed from an evil, poison peddling commercial feed company just make your own!

Great idea!  Mix alfalfa pellets, timothy pellets, beet pulp pellets, soybean meal, some oats for taste and energy and a bag of chelated minerals along with a couple of pumps of oil for a little fat and voila! Your own hippy health food for horses!

Couple a things…

Unless you have grown the forage products in those pellets yourself you have no real idea what’s in them so you’re fooling yourself if you think that feeding commercially bagged pellets is any “healthier” than a premium feed that has had every one of it’s ingredients tested for quality and nutrition before being included in the feed.

How about those balancer powders you are dropping in to add missing nutrients?  Who designed them?  What are their credentials?  What form are they in?  Not all minerals are created equally.

Just because they are expensive and come in a shiny bag doesn’t mean that they are doing any good.

The Ingredients on Feed Tags Look Like a Lab Experiment

Well that’s because the companies are required to list the micronutrients by their scientific names.

Would you feed your horse d-alpha tocopherol acetate?  I do, every day.  It is natural Vitamin E.  When you see “Vitamin E” listed on a feed tag it is synthetic and much less available to the horse.

Commercial Feeds are Full of Junk Fillers

As I mentioned, there are many bad commercial horse feeds that 

Use corn as the bulk of the ingredients.  Corn is cheap and high in calories.  Corn is also high in carbohydrates which are known to cause all kinds of problems for horses.  Does this mean corn should be avoided as an ingredient?  Not at all but it shouldn’t be most of what is in a feed.

People often confuse fillers with quality ingredients because what is good for horses is sometimes bad for us and our dogs.  Wheat middlings is a junk filler for human and dog food but is an exceptional source of protein for horses.

All Natural Feeds

The boutique horse feed industry is exploding offering very pricey feeds with lots of green things, seeds, berries and freeze dried veggies.

Not one of these feeds has been designed by an equine nutritionist with legitimate credentials.  When we drill down into their nutritional analysis it turns out that they really aren’t doing much more than your hay.

Low Starch

If a feed claims to be low starch but does not include sugar and starch values on their feed tag they are not low starch so don’t feed it.  Full stop.

Most Supplements Don’t Work

The equine supplement industry is huge and is completely unregulated allowing suppliers to make outrageous and sometimes illegal claims of efficacy.

“Show me the research” is a phrase you should learn and use.

Testimonials are not research.  Five thousand people claiming how miraculous the changes were from using a supplement are totally meaningless.  If the stuff is so great why don’t they conduct a study and publish the research.

Finally, if it works on humans it doesn’t work on horses.  See paragraph three.  Mars and Venus.

These are not my opinions, these are factual arguments because I don’t have the credentials to have an opinion on equine nutrition as do most “experts”.

Many people disagree with me but they are never able to provide any science based evidence to support their position.  Never.  Ever.  Not once in three years.

Feed your horse good quality forage, find the appropriate feed to meet energy requirements, keep their teeth up to date and ensure a plentiful clean water supply and your horse will live a long, healthy life.

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