I started describing our feeding program in my first post on this subject. I described our approach to feeding forage since that is the foundation for any feeding program. I also mentioned that we are not big on supplements around here. We do use them as needed, and I emphasize the “as needed” part.
Of course forage makes up the bulk of our program and the horses have hay and/or pasture available to them 24/7/365 as described in the post referenced above. We also always have free choice salt available for the horses as well. We do nothing fancy in the salt department, just white blocks in a holder near the water troughs. The trace mineralized blocks are worthless, as Jason said they are described with the word “trace” because the only minerals in them are the ones that happened to land on them as they wheeled the blocks past the mineral storage.
A few horse people seem to get hung up on how to meet the salt requirements. Some are convinced that horses have to have loose salt and there is supposedly some study floating around somewhere that says horses that have only salt blocks instead of loose salt are chronically salt deficient as they don’t have rough enough tongues to lick salt from a block. I call BS on that. My horses have a blood panel done yearly and I’ve even had hair analysis done a couple of times. I’ve yet to see a salt deficiency. Given the proficiency that some of the residents display in doing what I call salt block sculpting and carving with the salt blocks they don’t rely on their tongues anyway!
Another trend in the salt department lately appears to be Himalayan salt. I am neither for or against Himalayan salt but I have yet to see or read about any compelling reason as to why horses need this very expensive salt. Trust me, all you have to do is ask Jason about how eager I am to jump on board with each and every feeding bandwagon there is! If there were some truly convincing argument in favor of Himalayan salt the horses here would have it in front of them.
We also keep a mineral supplement available to the horses as well. It is either in loose form in a pan in the shelters or in a block form in holders just like the salt. I’m not going to go into the details of the mineral mix because our mineral mix is not necessarily relevant for any other farm. It is based on our hay/soil/grass analyses that Jason does on a regular basis. We have also top dressed the horses’ feed daily with kelp meal in the past in lieu of using a mineral mix. It is just easier from a time perspective to have it available to them free choice instead of scooping it out individually every single day.
As far as “hard” feed or grain that has evolved over time as well. We’ve run the gamut of options from Jason designing and balancing a feed for us and having it custom milled to using a variety of commercial feeds. The custom milling was great but our problem with that is always the minimum tonnage that we had to buy in order to have this done. Of the local options we have available for custom mixing feed we have to order a three ton minimum. In the summer months it spoils before we use it all so it just didn’t work out logistically.
So then I felt like a mad scientist as I ended up with a zillion different feeds in my feed room trying to make pre-made feeds work. That was just a headache. Then our local feedstore started carrying a feed milled about 70 miles away from us just across the Alabama line. It was basically almost exactly what Jason had designed when we tried the custom milling route. The NSC content (non soluble carbohydrates) is one of the lowest on the market at 9%. Compare that to Nutrena Safe Choice which has an NSC content of somewhere around 22% and Purina Equine Senior which is approximately 24%. (Please note those are NOT exact percentages for those feeds, those are from memory and I have not looked at a NSC comparison chart in quite awhile). I would also like to point out that it is easy to get caught up in the latest fads when it comes to feeding horses. Horses need carbohydrates, they need protein, they need fat, they need fiber, they need digestible energy, etc but around here safety comes first and safety with elderly, insulin resistant residents equals low NSC.
This feed is 14% protein, 8% fat and 16% fiber and comes in a pelleted form. It can be fed as a complete feed which is a key factor for us and our toothless wonders. The vit/mineral profile is good AND they come from organic sources. A lot of feeds and vit/min supplements have an ingredient list that looks impressive but the form of the minerals is often a form that is basically unavailable to the horse. So for example even though the ingredient list says you are giving your horse X% of selenium it is probably all just passing straight through the horse without being absorbed. This feed is the closest I have found to a one size fits all for our farm.
The only other ingredients currently in our feedroom are beet pulp shreds and alfalfa cubes. Since some of our older residents are missing some or most of their teeth they simply cannot masticate grass and hay properly and they need us to supply them with some alternate forms of forage. This is just my personal opinion but I would NEVER feed any form of beet pulp (pellets, shreds, etc.) or hay cubes without thoroughly soaking them first. If you have ever had the misfortune of dealing with choke in a horse you will go out of your way to avoid it! This also means that almost all of the residents get their pelleted feed that I described above soaked as well as this is a pretty dry pellet. Not just the residents with questionable teeth but those that tend to eat fast for example get their pelleted feed soaked. Basically almost every horse on the farm is fed soaked feed. We spend lots of time soaking feed around here!
The only supplement that we use with regularity is Yea Sacc. We feed this to all of the older residents and anyone that tends to be anything but an extremely easy keeper. Yea Sacc is a live yeast culture which helps stabilize gut pH and also enhances fiber digestion. We cut our feed bill dramatically when we started using Yea Sacc a couple of years ago. We of course have some residents that get various joint supplements that their owners provide.
I am often amazed at the length of the SmartPak strips that accompany new arrivals. Their owners are spending a fortune every month giving their horses a zillion different supplements. Everything from coat enhancers to immune system boosters, various vit/min supplements (sometimes more than one!) and everything else under the sun. I have to say they are always (pleasantly) surprised that their horses look and feel just as good if not better with us after we convince them they don’t need all of those supplements. The horses are glad not to have so many mystery additives to their food and the owners save a lot of money every month. Again we are not against supplements when their is a real need, but why spend the money “just because” or “just in case?”
One other note about feed. Jason always gets a chuckle when he hears the pronouncement that sweet feed is terrible for a horse, nothing but carbs and sugar! This is often followed by the proud announcement of “therefore my horse eats a pelleted feed.” Guess what folks, what do you think is the binder ingredient holding most of those pelleted feeds together? That’s right, molasses. You cannot just assume that pellet=good and sweet feed=bad. You have to look at all of the ingredients and see what the total NSC content of the feed is to have an accurate picture. Believe it or not there are sweet feeds out there that will have a much lower NSC content (and much lower molasses levels) than some of the pelleted feeds.
I am very lucky to be married to Jason and be able to take advantage of his knowledge every day. Although I have taken a couple of basic equine nutrition courses it is hard not to be lazy when you can just go ask Jason. It is quite nice having someone around who can basically balance out an entire feeding program in his head just because he has done it so many times! It is especially great to have someone who can scan the label of a supplement or a feed tag and let me know right away if A) there is enough of the right things listed and B) if the ingredients are available in a form that is readily uptaken by the horse. It saves a lot of time and money!