My horse friends and acquaintances love it when I bring Jason along to any of our social gatherings or to horse shows. They love to question him endlessly about feed, hay and supplements and Jason is happy to share his knowledge. If it is the first time someone has talked to Jason about horse nutrition the first question is almost inevitably something along the lines of “what supplements does my horse need?”

At this point I usually laughingly tell them that I have been banned from reading the SmartPak catalog in our house. In fact, I get the SmartPak catalog so infrequently now that I am almost positive Jason trashes it before I even know it arrived if he was the one who happened to get the mail that day. So many supplements, so little time! Through my many years of burying my nose in horse catalogs I have learned that there is a supplement to remedy almost anything that could possibly be wrong with a horse. On top of that any conscientious and caring horse owner will be dropping the big bucks and faithfully having multiple supplements delivered on a regular basis. The marketing for these products is powerful and the customer base is an easy sell. After all we are each trying to do the very best we can for our horses so we don’t take much convincing!

I just scanned the list of supplement categories for equines on the SmartPak website and there are THIRTY ONE supplement categories listed. Under selection it mentions there are over 300 individual supplements to choose from. WOW. And I can think of quite a few supplements off the top of my head that you can’t even purchase through SmartPak. There truly are endless choices.

At our farm we believe the basis of any feeding programs starts with forage – grass and hay. The vast majority of a horse’s calories, protein and mineral requirements should come from long stemmed forage. We actually do not bother weighing bales or flakes around here. Our approach to feeding forage is that it is in front of them 24/7/365 and they always have the option of eating forage. In the pastures we keep the hay feeders full. For the stalled horses if they in during the day they are fed hay in the morning when they are brought in. Before they have completely finished their morning hay they are given a lunch feeding of several flakes. When they are turned out for the evening their is still a bit of hay left in the stalls. If they are in overnight they are given hay when they are brought in at the end of the day. We also always do a night check on any horses in the barn overnight and they are given a generous hay portion again at night check. For about nine months out of the year our pastures have excellent grazing. Right now the horses are getting almost all of their forage from hay.

My point with all of this rambling is it is hard to know what you need to supplement without having some idea of the nutritional value of your forage. A lot of people will argue that hay tests are useless as different labs will not return identical analyses on the same samples. Our philosophy is it is better to at least know what ballpark you are playing in then to just go blind. We test our hay, our soil and our grass routinely.

Some of the values from our recent hay test (from the dry matter column) since we are not in grazing season right now:

Crude protein: 10%
DE (Mcal/lb) 0.97
ADF (acid detergent fiber): 39.6%
NDF (neutral detergent fiber): 60.5%
Calcium: .35%
Phosphorous: .26%

ADF and NDF represent how digestible the forage is, and by extrapolation, how much energy is available from within the forage. As a general rule, lower ADF and NDF numbers represent more digestible forage that contains higher levels of available energy. Whether or not the numbers presented here are acceptable for your horse situation is very subjective, but we are quite happy with these numbers for our retirees, who have free choice access to hay at all times. You don’t want ADF and NDF numbers to be too low however. A good analogy for this is spring grass. Spring grass is blamed for colic, laminitis, founder, etc. The ADF and NDF numbers in spring grass are very low. Then we horse owners often add insult to injury by pouring feed into them along with the spring grass.

If a 1000 lb retiree eats 2 % of his bodyweight in hay every day, the 20 lbs of hay he consumes are supplying him/her with 2 lb crude protein….just about the right amount according to the 2007 NRC Nutrients for Horses publication. Inadequate crude protein in the diet will lead to muscle catabolization, while protein fed in excess actually requires energy to break down into urea which is then excreted in urine.

That same 1000 lb horse eating 20 lb hay every day gets roughly 19.4 Megacalories of energy supplied him. (A Megacalorie represents 1000 calories). Again, this is just about right, and we can tweak that number with grain as needed.

Jason also likes to remind people that horses don’t eat percentages, they eat pounds. So we need to think not only in ratios as far as protein, balancing minerals, etc. but also in actual consumption amounts. To go back to my original rambling in this post about supplements, it is really hard to know what to supplement without having a general idea of what you might (or might not) need to supplement.

I’m going to wrap this post up now as it has gotten lengthy and turned into a bit of a lecture. In another post I’ll actually talk about what supplements we do use and explain why and when we use them, and also talk about the grain we feed.