Most horses should be fed mostly forage or roughage. Hay, although a good start, won’t provide all the necessary minerals and nutrients. Therefore, grains and concentrates should be added to the diet to provide additional calories and minerals. Below is a list of roughage, feed, and concentrates in order of most to least complete.
Roughage and Fiber
A horse that isn’t on complete feed needs to consume 1.5-2% of its body weight in roughage, such as pasture, hay, or other fiber; that’s 15-20 pounds of hay a day for an average 1,000 pound horse. As horses evolved to graze, it’s most natural to give them smaller, frequent meals throughout the day if they’re not on pasture.
Green grass is beneficial and cost-effective when it comes to roughage; however, be sure to routinely check that the pasture is free of any toxic plants or debris that could harm the horse. Also bear in mind that fresh grass contains high levels of easily digestible sugar and horses that are likely to become obese should have restricted access as metabolic diseases can result. During colder temperatures in seasonal climates, hay supplementation may be necessary as pastures may not provide enough nutrients in winter.
Hay is a dried and baled form of grass – such as timothy, Bermuda grass or orchard – or alfalfa. Each type has its own benefits; horses prone to obesity need less nutrient-dense hay while others require higher protein or easily digestible carbs. Timothy hay is high in fiber yet low in energy and protein compared with alfalfa. Hay is usually stored in square or round bales – flakes from square bales can be weighed to determine how much should be fed (since flake and bale weights vary). Round bales can be more affordable but should be closely inspected for wetness or mold which can lead to devastating botulism poisoning. Ultimately, the quality of hay needs to be top notch; this means no dust and especially no mold as both can pose serious threats to horse health.
Cubes and Hay Pellets
Hay and alfalfa can be found in pelleted and cubed forms, which can be easier for horses with poor teeth as the roughage has already been broken down into small pieces. It’s very important to soak hay cubes in water for at least 10 minutes and even break them up manually if needed, as they can cause an obstruction or choking. Horses who struggle with airway issues may benefit from feeding soaked cubes or pellets due to the minimal dust that is released when doing so.
Beet pulp is a byproduct of the sugar beet industry, dried or pelleted, which provides fiber and carbohydrates without being high in sugar. It also has high calcium content and moderate protein levels. Soaking raw beet pulp not only makes it more palatable but also increases hydration levels and reduces the chances of esophageal obstruction. For beet pellets, there’s no need to soak them; they are great for ‘hard keepers’ who need to safely gain weight. Although a substitute for hay, beet pulp cannot fully replace it but can be used to reduce the amount of hay fed due to cost or increase water intake.
Mineral and Vitamin Supplements
Minerals and vitamins are very important to horse health. Major minerals like calcium, phosphorus, and sodium should be included in the diet, while trace minerals such as iron and selenium are also necessary, but in smaller amounts. Fortified grains are a great source of these nutrients, as well as mineral salt blocks or commercial mineral supplements. The necessity of these vitamins and minerals for each horse can vary based on the horse’s life stage, diet, and geographic location.
A ration balancer is a pelleted supplement with a protein base, usually a soybean meal. It can provide an extra protein boost when a horse is sensitive to sugary feeds.
Concentrates are another common supplement for horses that need more calories than just roughage provides; however, it’s important to consider the digestive system before offering concentrates. The microbiome in a horse’s gut is delicate and any sudden change in feed can cause colic. As well, equine-specific feed needs to be provided; horses should not eat cattle or poultry feed.
Make sure to carefully read the labeling on any feed bag and follow directions correspondingly. Furthermore, store all feed tightly closed so pests such as mice or opossums don’t access it; horses may overeat grains if they can get them themselves! If your horse appears to have overeaten grain, contact your veterinarian immediately—it can cause severe diarrhea and laminitis.
Complete feeds are formulated with the right amount of roughage, minerals, vitamins, and calories to make up an entire horse’s diet. Senior horses who have lost their teeth typically need a senior feed since they can’t chew hay effectively. Some horses that colic often can benefit from switching from hay to complete feeds. Supplements may also be needed if your horse has special health or hoof requirements – recommended by your vet or farrier. Generally, a horse’s diet should consist mostly of roughage with added minerals and vitamins as necessary; a bit of grain can help with overall health and provide a tasty treat! Always make sure your horse has access to fresh and clean water.