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The Very, Very Basics of Feeding Horses – Jason’s Post

After an early morning today and a busy week leading up to what we hope is a relaxing Easter Sunday, Melissa, in a rare moment of fatigue, has given this blog post over to her enthusiastic if sometimes unastute husband !

Given my background in production agriculture and my degree and my years in the feed industry, I am often asked what I consider to be a “good” horse feed, or what I might consider a “good” horse supplement. The truth is that it depends on the horse, on the owner, and on the individual situation that both horse and owner find themselves in at the time. Most feeds and supplements today do what they advertise they will do, and this can be good and bad in equal measure depending on the situation. That said, there are a few nutritional basics that should make up the foundation of ANY good horse nutritional programme. I’ll spend the balance of this post sharing them with you. (And sorry for the British spellings. I may be a new Yank, but old habits and the Queens English I learned in Canadian schools die slowly and die hard !)

1. Make diet changes SLOWLY when possible !

As far as I am concerned, this should be commandment # 1 !! Melissa and I regularly receive horses from all over North America at every season of the year. Upon arrival, our horses receive an ‘ideal’ type grass hay free choice and all the water they can drink along with any medications that they may have been on in their former home. During their first day or two they receive no grain beyond that which is required to digest their various meds. The reason for this is based on the biology of microflora which digests forage and grain in the horses’ hindgut/caecum.

These “bugs” can broadly be divided into grain digesters and forage digesters with way more forage digesters present at any given time. Nutritionists out there will shudder at this description, but for our purposes, it is accurate to suggest that the grain digesting microflora change proportion in the hindgut over a period of several weeks. So if we overload an already stressed horse with grain too quickly (or sometimes even just a different type of grain), we run an increased risk of inducing acidosis and all the maladies that stem from it (ulcers, laminitis, founder, colic, etc.).

Our program here involves introducing grain in no more than 1/2 lb increments per day. Similarly, when changing grain feeds significantly, we back down the old one in half pound increments to about 50% of the original volume, mix the old and the new at that rate for 7-10 days, and then ramp up the new feed in half pound increments until the poundage approximates what the horse was getting before. When troubleshooting equine nutritional problems, fully 25 % of my calls can be fixed over time by addressing this issue.

2. Have adequate forage available to the horse at all times !

Horses were meant to digest generally poor quality roughage, and in any grazing situation a typical horse eats upwards of 14 small roughage meals in a 24 hour period. Think about how that compares to what a horse receives in many boarding situations. Living in a stall, no matter how nice the barn in question may be, does nothing to promote a ‘natural’ situation or induce natural behaviours in any horse. Grain is fed (often in large quantities) twice or three times a day. Hay is thrown down twice or more a day, and mangers are often empty for as many hours as they are full. My first question when I’m asked to troubleshoot nutrition problems at equine facilities is” How long has that hay rack been empty ?”. My second question is, ” When and how much grain do your horses get fed ?” Another quarter of the problems I see can be (and are) solved by changing the variables related to hay availability and timing/quantity of grain feeding.

3. Base your equine nutrition program on forages first, test the forages repeatedly, and then supplement the forage up to the level of nutrition required. If you really want to fix trace mineral deficiencies in forages, it’s often a very good idea to start by testing the soil in which the forages are grown and addressing the problem at the source rather than adding it later. Every ag extension office in the country has soil probes available to test soil for nutrients, and most extension agents will be able to tell you in general terms what your local soils may be lacking or what they may have in excess.

Not only will this be easier on your pocketbook over time, it will also lend great peace of mind when the inevitable road bumps involved in horse ownership hit simply because you won’t be guessing at the results when someone asks what the horse was eating. I am often told that testing forage and soil is time consuming and expensive. In truth, I believe it is neither, but I do think the process is very unfamiliar to most horse owners !! There are many forage and soil labs on the internet that will send you self addressed and stamped envelopes to mail your samples in to their lab, and for somewhere between $20 and $ 40, will send you a complete analysis back, often within a week.

I hope you found this post informative. I know Melissa has talked about some of these things before, but at least now you know where she gets the preaching from !

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