Horse Feed Strategies for Bigger Herds

Published by Jim Fiorini on

Feeding one horse can be a fairly easy proposition since all the variables to consider are based on a single horse. When we add a variety of horses to the mix things can become very interesting.  The more horses we add the more interesting it becomes.

Treating each horse as an individual sounds great in theory but what about herd management, barn management and feed management?  How do we juggle all the variables involved in making feeding decisions?

The Variables

The first place to start is obviously the individual horses.  There are a whole list of questions to answer just for the individual horse.  Age, weight, workload, special needs are just a few variables affecting how we feed an individual horse.

That horse is probably a member of a barn herd so we must take into account the variables associated with keeping a herd of horses in a common facility.  How can we feed twenty horses without the feed room turning into a chemistry lab or looking like a branch location of your favorite feed store?

What about your barn help?  If it is a large facility you may have multiple part time “helpers” that come and go through a revolving door.

How easy is it for you to go on an overnight getaway if the feeding instructions are eight pages long?  Forget about taking that two week anniversary cruise in the Mediterranean.

For the most part you can get any herd fed with three types of feed.

The Holy Trinity of Horse Feeds

I always like to have a concentrated senior feed in a multi horse, multi discipline barn.  Most barns will have older horses that are still working but don’t need the energy of a performance concentrated feed.

Concentrated Senior Feeds

Concentrated senior feeds are extremely flexible and many barns will use a concentrated senior feed as their core feed.  This isn’t my favorite strategy but while it may not be the best choice it is certainly a very good one to simplify a feed program.

The appeal of concentrated senior feeds is calorie density.  Most of these feeds will be greater than 1,500 calories per pound and some are as high as 1,900.  More calories equals less volume required to get the job done.  Lower feed rate equals less overall cost.

Concentrated senior feeds are also handy for new arrivals or horses who may need some weight building.

The reason concentrated senior feeds are not my first choice for a core feed is that they lack in energy so if you have some horses in heavy work for competition this feed may let you down and require supplements.

Concentrated Maintenance Feed

This feed is designed to be fed to mature horses from age four and up that are in low to average work.  A concentrated maintenance feed will fit the bill for most horses that need some extra calories to support some work.

Lesson barns, trail riders and casual riding herds do well on a concentrated maintenance feed because these horses generally don’t require a whole lot of energy.  In fact, most of these facilities would prefer a low energy feed.

If there are some exceptions in the work level of a horse then we can usually make up the energy deficit with some ration balancer, which just happens to be our next feed.

Ration Balancer

Every feed room in every barn should have a ration balancer on the menu.

RB gives us the ability to feed all the nutrients a horse needs without extra calories making it the perfect feed for “easy” keepers.

Too many times I’ve called on barns who are feeding “just a handful” of the barn feed to their “fatties” and these horses are being short changed on nutrition and the RB fits the bill.

But a ration balancer can also be used to fill in the gaps for horses that are in more than average work and would benefit from some extra protein and amino acids.  These are the times when a ration balancer can fortify an average feed for the horse or two that needs a little extra something.

Special Cases

Of course in every herd there will be special cases.

An older horse with poor teeth will need a complete senior feed.  The warmblood working six days a week may need a performance feed.

These horses require a specialized feed and trying to “jazz up” the general barn feed will lead to poor results and more expense.  It is so much easier to bite the bullet and bring in the feed that is most appropriate for the horse.

If you are a boarding facility you may want to work something out with the owner.

Price Versus Value

There is a saying in the livestock industry; “There is nothing more expensive than a bag of cheap feed.”

If this is true for cows and chickens it is the absolute gospel for horses.

After conducting dozens of competitive feed trials and switching over a thousand horses from economy feeds to premium feeds this is absolutely true.  Dollar for dollar and pound for pound a quality horse feed will always be the better bargain.

It’s not necessary to buy the most expensive feed in the store (unless you need it to meet the performance level of your horse) but any premium feed will outperform a value feed in the same class.

Many people selling economy feeds will show you the tag comparing it to a more expensive feed and tell you that you are just paying for a flashy bag and advertising.  Don’t believe it.

The feed industry is competitive so much of the difference between a bag of $17 feed and a bag of $24 feed is in the ingredients, formulation and performance of those feeds.

The better feed will save you money by offering a lower feed rate because it will have more digestible energy and will not require additional supplements because it will be fortified with quality ingredients.

If you are running a boarding and training facility the math is still the same.  Your boarders are probably spending a fortune on supplements for their horses.  Consider having a meeting with them and asking if they would be willing to accept a $25 increase in board in order to save $100 in supplements.

The other side to that coin as was put to me by a wise barn owner is, “These women think they are being bad horse moms if they aren’t topping the feed with supplements anyway.  They wouldn’t know what to think about a good feed.”

This is a valid point but I’ve managed to host boarder meetings and after a feed trial the boarders were on board.


I saved this for last because hay and forage must be the pillar of any strategy for feeding horses and is often overlooked.

In much of the Untied States where hay is plentiful and reasonably priced (relatively) the calories provided by hay are cheaper and better for our horses than the calories from feed.

I have done the math on this equation so many times for barn managers I can do it in my sleep.  It always comes out the same.

The problem here is that as a barn owner I can go to the feed store and pick up $300 of feed but when the hay guy comes I write a check for $3000.

The average grass hay is 800 calories per pound and it is mostly digestible.

The average concentrated maintenance feed is 1,300 calories per pound.

At the time of this writing the cost for 1,300 calories of a concentrated feed is about 48 cents.

1,300 calories worth of grass hay is 40 cents.

This math will not work for some of you reading this article because of the high cost of hay in some parts of the country but you should still do the math.

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