Feeding is an often-misunderstood art. Knowledge, patience and an eye for small changes are all required in order to keep your horse at his ideal weight.
What Horses Live On
Water is an essential part of every cell in your horse’s body. Up to 12 gallons a day or more is required for vital functions. Clean, fresh water should be available at all times, and in winter, cold water may need to have the chill taken off to encourage your horse to drink more.
Carbs come mainly in the form of grains, and provide energy. Plant fibre (from grass, hay and other roughages) is required for digestion.
Found in such sources as oilseed meals, alfalfa and (to a certain extent) some grains, proteins are essential for growth, repair and maintenance of the body.
Fatty acids, such as those found in corn oil, wheat germ oil and the like produce extra energy, will help put weight on a poor doer, and, in small amounts, aid digestion (especially of vitamins).
Vitamins come from good hay, grain, sunlight and supplements, and aid all bodily functions.
Found in good hay, grain, salt and supplements, minerals build and maintain bone and tissue, and trigger natural bodily functions.
Determining How Much to Feed Your Horse
Before you can figure out how much to feed your horse, you need to know three things:
1. How much your horse weighs;
2. How much each of your feeds weighs;
3. What condition your horse is in (thin, soft, hard, etc).
Using a set of kitchen scales and your scoop (many prefer a coffee can or similar container to a feed scoop because you can easily mark it), determine how much a pound of each type of grain you feed is (you may find that a pound of sweet feed takes up more of the can than, say, a pound of barley).
To determine the weight of your hay, put an average-sized flake in a plastic bag. Weigh yourself on a digital bathroom scale, then weigh yourself holding the hay, and figure out the difference. If you don’t have a set of digital scales, most feed stores will weigh your hay for you. Most types of hay weigh between three to five pounds per flake.
You can weigh your horse using a weight tape, which isn’t an entirely accurate system, but will give you a good starting point. As a general rule of thumb, horses require 2 to 3 pounds of total food (grain and hay) per 100 lbs of body weight per day. Thin horses or hard keepers may need substantially more, and fat horses, easy keepers or ponies may require a little less.
Always keep in mind that horses need to be fed according to work done, size, age, type and temperament. Ponies tend to make better use of their forage, and therefore require less. Many ponies, in fact, do very well on good quality hay alone.
The harder a horse works, the more of his daily ration will need to be supplemented with grain. The average horse in good condition requires roughly 90% of his daily ration in roughage (hay) and 10% in concentrates (grain), and a good rule of thumb is to supplement the hay ration with grain at a rate of about 10% for each step up in activity level. So a horse in light work would get about 80% of the ration in roughage and about 20% in grain. A horse in medium work would go to a 70% roughage, 30% concentrates, and, in hard work, about a 60%/40% split. A horse’s ration should never go below 50% roughage.
Doing the Math
In general, a horse in good condition requires 2.5 lbs of total food (hay and grain) for every 100 lbs of body weight (so a 1,000 lb horse needs about 25 lbs of food per day. If that horse is in light work, he requires about 20 lbs of hay (or, between 4 and 6 flakes per day), and about 5 lbs of grain (spread over two or three small meals).
Fat horses or very easy keepers will often require less than this. Conversely, thin horses or hard keepers will require more. Remember, though, that increasing the grain or hay for a hard keeper may not be the answer. Changing the type of grain being fed might work better. A thin horse being fed a grain very high in concentrates, like corn, may just build extra energy, and actually lose weight trying to work that energy off.
Common Types of Grain
Oats are less concentrated than most grains, and are therefore quite safe for most horses. They can be fed whole, crushed, crimped or rolled. Some say whole oats shouldn’t be fed because the husk is difficult to penetrate, causing the oats to move too quickly through the digestive system to do the horse any good. Others feel this is an old wives tale. The truth is more likely that no two horses are alike, and what works well for one doesn’t necessarily work well for another.
Corn is the most concentrated (ie contains the most energy per pound) of all the grains. In most cases, it is not safe to feed to ponies, and should most certainly not be fed to hot horses. Corn can be fed whole, cracked, rolled or flaked.
With more energy than oats but less than corn, barley is a good compromise. It should be fed rolled, flaked or boiled, otherwise the husk is too hard to digest. Boiled barley is nice in a bran mash and, can often help put weight on a thin horse.
Bran is the by-product of the milling process of wheat. High in phosphorous, it upsets the calcium:phosphorous ratio, leading to bone problems if fed too often. Low in nutrients and easily digested, bran is best fed occasionally as a warm mash for a cold or tired horse.
A by-product of the production of sugar beets, beet pulp is mainly roughage, and is a good substitute for hay in horses with allergies. It is more digestible than hay and bulkier than grain. Beet pulp is a good way to add weight without excess energy. It should always be fed soaked as it swells when mixed with fluids (such as saliva and other digestive juices).
This is a mixture of grains, normally with added molasses to cut down on dust and make the feed a little tastier. Due to the content of corn and molasses, it is not always a good choice for ponies or hot horses.
There are many types of processed “pelleted” feeds on the market these days, and many give a horse all (or most) of what he requires. Beware, though, that not all pelleted grains are alike. Be sure to choose a type that is suitable for your horse’s needs. Pellets are convenient because they eliminate the need for mixing grains, but they are not overly palatable, and horses may tire of them quickly. Pellets are probably the safest grain for ponies and hot horses, though, as they do not contain high amounts of sugar and corn like sweet feed does.
Whatever you choose to feed your horse, be sure to follow these well-established rules of good feeding:
1. Feed little and often;
2. Feel plenty of roughage;
3. Feed according to work done;
4. Keep to the same feeding hours daily;
5. Make all changes in amount and type of feed gradually;
6. Feed something succulent each day;
7. Do not feed immediately before or after hard work;
8. Feed clean, top quality grain and hay only;
9. Make fresh water available at all times (except for a hot, sweaty horse, which must be allowed to cool down before drinking a large amount of water).
If you feed the correct amount and type of grain and hay and follow the time-honoured rules of feeding above, your horse should thrive (and if he does not, please enlist the help of your vet, as there may be more at play than grain and hay).