Feeding and Nutrition for the Modern Day Horse

The dietary and metabolic issues concerning the horse of today are not necessarily the same as those of yesteryear, as a result of our change in lifestyle, and greater reliance on mechanical means for industry and transport.  Horses are now fed either an improved pasture, which contains genetically selected, digestible plant  species, or they are stall fed, and given a range of concentrates and supplements that are selected by humans. In general, most horses are under worked and over fed, resulting in a range of horse health issues, put simply...are you killing your horse with kindness?

These metabolic concerns are a major economic loss to the equine industry. Some of these concerns have been linked to the high levels of sugar and starch (non structural carbohydrate, NSC) in the diet.  Is it therefore possible to reduce insurance premiums, by correct feeding?

Feeding horses has become over complicated, with the large number of feeds and supplements being promoted to the horse owner, often leading to information overload, and fad feeding.

The horse evolved as a herbivore designed to graze predominately prairie pastures, and small shrubs and foliage.  These prairie grasses typically produced grains with small seed heads, which contained low levels of starch. In a quest to improve animal production, these old prairie grasses have been replaced with genetically selected plant species that contain high levels of sugars and starch (NSC) both in the leaves, and in the seed heads.   Most modern horse pastures are based on plant species that were developed for intensive production of beef, dairy cattle and sheep. 

Basically, horses need

  • Both digestible, and slowly digestible fiber for energy and gut motility
  • Balanced minerals and vitamins
  • Fresh water
  • Digestible protein (and amino acids)
  • Digestible energy
  • Oils.

The quantity of each ingredient is determined by body weight, and the physiological condition of the horse (is it growing, exercising, pregnant or lactating). The key is to keep these ingredients in balance, and not to over feed any one component.

Horse feeds vary from hay to provide fibre, through to concentrates, to provide digestible energy, protein, minerals and oil. Most concentrates contain a grain or grain byproducts, which in turn contain digestible sugars and starch, ie NSC. The level of NSC in a feed can be determined in a laboratory (eg Dairy One), and helps to rank feeds. It should be stressed that not all horses react the same to high NSC feeds, however the discerning horse owner should be aware of the potential effects of high NSC feeds, and select lower NSC feeds if you are concerned about dietary related issues.

The trend  in recent years is to replace high NSC (>20%) grain based feeds with "fat/fibre" feeds.  

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