The Facts on Feeds


I have heard that it is much healthier for horses to go on no-grain diets b/c it mimics what they would eat if they were horses in the wild. Is it actually healthier? Or do I need give my horses feed? What are the pros and cons of a no-feed diet, where they are just on hay and pasture? If I do need to give my horses feed, what is the healthiest thing to give them (oats? beet pulp?) I also heard that the things in horse feed such as the high levels of corn and oats weren’t good for them either. I would just like to straighten all of this out and give my horses what they need to be healthy and happy! – KH, Kentucky

Dear KH,
I applaud you for wanting to get back to basics with your horses’ diets and only give them what they truly need. What horses “need” is at least 1% but preferably 2% of their body weight each day in long-stem forage such as hay and pasture. This is the equivalent of 10 to 20 pounds of hay daily (for a 1,000lbs horse), which keeps their digestive systems functioning smoothly as well as provides the bulk of their required nutrition. Horses on high-quality, fresh pasture in little to no work may require only trace minerals to complete and balance their diet. However, horses fed primarily hay or horses being worked probably can’t get all of their nutrient requirements met from their forage alone–that’s where a typical “feed” usually comes in.

Whole cereal grains such as oats, corn, and barley were traditionally fed to race horses, draft horses, and other horses working for a living in order to help them meet their energy or caloric needs. A forage-only diet just wasn’t calorie dense enough for working horses (or pregnant or lactating mares) to maintain their weight. And although cereal grains have some protein, vitamins, and minerals, the amount and balance of these nutrients doesn’t round out horses’ diets.

Then companies began to formulate “fortified” grains made up of a combination of cereal grains and a pellet containing the protein, vitamins, and minerals lacking in a hay-only or hay and cereal grain-only diet. While this was a great idea, the problem is that the nutrients are tied to the calories in these types of products—it’s not possible to increase or decrease one without increasing or decreasing the other. Many owners feed just a couple of pounds of fortified grains—or even just a couple of handfuls—because they realize their horses don’t need the extra calories or the risk of medical problems that have been linked to grain: gastric ulcers, colic, laminitis, and others. Unfortunately, these small amounts come nowhere near the feeding levels recommended on the bag for most horses’ age, weight, and activity level. Therefore horses are being shorted their recommended daily nutrient requirements as set forth by the NRC (National Research Council).

Usher in the ration balancer. Also a pellet, this category of feed supplies the protein, vitamins, and minerals that may be lacking in a hay-only diet. It’s a great option for the easy keeper, the horse with Equine Metabolic Disease, Cushing’s Disease horses, horses with PSSM, or any horse that needs to be on a calorie or sugar/starch restricted diet. Horses on high-quality hay or fresh pasture may only need a multi-vitamin/mineral supplement, the next category of feed. The differences between ration balancers and multi-vitamins basically come down to protein and serving size. Ration balancers offer an additional source of protein for horses on poor quality forage, and are typically fed at a rate of one to two pounds per day, Multi-vitamins don’t contain a significant source of protein, and are typically fed at a rate of one to two ounces per day.

I hope this explanation of the purposes of various horse feeds has cleared up some of the confusion about what to feed and why. Basically, if your horses need additional calories to maintain their body condition and/or workload, then grain is a good choice. However, if your horses don’t need calories to add or maintain weight, you (and he) are better off meeting the rest of his nutrient needs with a ration balancer or multi-vitamin/mineral supplement (depending on the quality of your forage).

Lydia Gray, DVM MA, is the Staff Veterinarian for SmartPak. Prior to joining SmartPak, Dr. Gray served as the first-ever Director of Owner Education for the American Association of Equine Practitioners. She has authored numerous articles in publications such as The Horse, Horse Illustrated, Western Horseman and a variety of veterinary journals and magazines. Dr. Gray is also a frequent speaker at horse expos, veterinary conventions and other events. After graduating with honors from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine and receiving her Master's Degree in Interpersonal and Organizational Communication, she practiced at the Tremont Veterinary Clinic for several years. Dr. Gray is active in the American Veterinary Medical Association and Illinois State Veterinary Medical Association. She enjoys training and showing her Trakehner, Newman, in both combined driving and dressage, and is a USDF “L” Program Graduate (with distinction). Find Dr. Gray on Google+

Posted in Ask the Vet, Nutrition

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3 comments on “The Facts on Feeds
  1. This is really helpful information. I always wondered what the differences were between horse feeds.

  2. Tess says:

    wondering if you could help me we have a horse that is on Thyroid Meds horse also has had past issues with flounder/laminitis what would be a good feed to give here something low in sugar

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Tess, thanks for asking! It’s great that you’re looking into feed options with low sugar and starch content. Where you horse has experienced health concerns like founder and laminitis, I would encourage you to work with your veterinarian when making adjustments to her diet. In terms of feed options, it sounds like your horse could be an ideal candidate for the ration balancer or multi-vitamin/mineral type of product mentioned in the article. You might also want to consider other management strategies for reducing the overall sugar in the diet, such as soaking hay and limiting or eliminating any pasture. -Dr. Lydia Gray

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