The 5 Types Of Feeds And Concentrates For Horses

horse feed

The majority of a horse’s diet should consist of forage.1 However, hay is not sufficient for a complete nutritional profile. The addition of cereals and concentrates provides important minerals and nutrients, but also additional calories. Listed below are the types of forage, roughage, and concentrates in order from least to most « complete ».

1. Roughage and fiber

A horse that is not fed a complete diet should eat 1.5 to 2% of its body weight in high-quality forage in the form of pasture, hay, or other types of fiber. This equates to 15-20 pounds of hay per day for an average 1,000-pound horse. Since horses evolved to graze, it is most natural to feed them smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day when your horse is not out on pasture.

Pasture

Green grass is the most natural form of forage and can be the most economical. However, it is important to regularly ensure that the grass is free of poisonous plants or contaminants that can harm the horse. In addition, fresh green grass contains high levels of easily digestible sugars, so horses prone to obesity may need limited grazing to prevent metabolic disease. In seasonal climates, pasture may not provide sufficient nutrients in winter, so hay may need to be supplemented in colder temperatures.

Hay

Hay is grass (e.g., timothy, bermudagrass, orchard grass) or alfalfa that has been dried and baled. There is no perfect hay; horses prone to obesity need less nutrient-rich hay, while others need more protein or easily digestible carbohydrates. Timothy, oats, and bermudagrass are grass hay. They contain a lot of fiber but less energy and protein than alfalfa. Hay is usually stored in square or round bales, and the former is divided into compartments called flakes. Weighing a sample of flakes from each new batch will give you an idea of how much to feed; flake and bale weights differ considerably. Round bales may be more economical but should be closely inspected for moisture or mold, which can harbor the dangerous botulism toxin. Hay quality, including low dust content and the absolute absence of mold, is of utmost importance for horse health. 

Hay cubes and pellets

Energy. Pellets on the table

Hay and alfalfa are also available in pellet and cube form. Horses with poor dentition can eat them more easily, as the forage in pellets and cubes is already broken down into small pieces. However, it is very important to soak hay cubes in water for at least 10 minutes2 and even crush them by hand, as they can cause esophageal obstruction or swallowing. Feeding soaked hay, cubes, or pellets can be beneficial for horses with respiratory disease, as dust production is minimal with soaked feeds.

Beet pulp

Beet pulp is a by-product of the sugar beet industry and is dried or pelleted. They are a source of fiber and carbohydrates without having high sugar content. They also contain a lot of calcium and have a moderate protein content. Soaking raw beet pulp makes it more palatable, increases your horse’s fluid intake, and reduces the risk of esophageal obstruction. Beet pellets do not need to be soaked. They are excellent as a supplement for « hard to keep » horses that need to gain weight safely. Beet pulp cannot completely replace the need for hay but is a good option if you want to reduce hay feeding for cost reasons or increase water intake.

2. Mineral and vitamin preparations

Minerals and vitamins are essential for the health of the horse. The main important minerals are calcium, phosphorus, and sodium, among others, while trace elements such as iron and selenium are also necessary, but in smaller quantities. They are found in many fortified portions of cereal, but can also be supplied separately in the form of mineral salt blocks or commercial mineral supplements. A horse’s vitamin and mineral needs will depend on its life stage, the forage fed, and its geographic location.

3. Ration balancers

A ration balancer is a commercial mineral and vitamin supplement pelleted with a protein source, often a soybean meal. They can be added to feed when a horse needs more protein but is sensitive to sugary feeds.

4. Concentrates

Concentrates are feeds that can be used to supplement the caloric content of a horse’s diet. Many horses require only roughage and a mineral supplement, but horses that are subjected to high stress, such as racehorses or pregnant or lactating mares, should be carefully monitored for poor body condition and given the necessary supplements. Before feeding concentrates, there are some important things to know about the horse’s digestive system. First, the horse’s digestive system relies on microbes to help digest the forage, and any change in the forage, especially grain, will alter this microbial population and can cause colic. Second, horses are very sensitive to some additives found in other animal feeds. Feed your horse only horse-specific feeds; feeds for cattle or poultry can be deadly.

You must read the feed bags carefully and follow the instructions. Also, make sure feed is stored in airtight containers and discard it if it becomes moldy or if pests such as mice or opossums have gained access. Grain is particularly palatable to horses, and horses can overeat if they have gained access to supplies. Call your veterinarian immediately if you notice your horse has eaten too much grain, as this can lead to severe diarrhea and laminitis. 

Grains

Cereals are corn, oats, and barley. They are very energy dense, with corn having the highest energy density and oats having the highest fiber density. Molds in any grain can be toxic to horses, but especially molds in corn. In commercial feeds, grains are often mixed with pellets to provide additional vitamins and nutrients.

5. Complete feed

Complete feeds are so named because they contain all the roughage, minerals, vitamins, and calories a horse needs for nutrition. Older horses that have lost their teeth or have lost them completely often need a senior feed because they crush hay into balls and drop it instead of chewing and swallowing it properly. For some horses that suffer from colic on a regular basis, it may be appropriate to switch from hay to complete feed.

Other feed additives are called supplements; your veterinarian and/or farrier may recommend them if your horse has special health or hoof needs. Otherwise, the main part of a horse’s diet should consist of forage, to which minerals and vitamins are added as needed; a small amount of grain can contribute to overall health and be a tasty treat. Make sure there is always a source of clean, fresh water.

Calculating your horse’s nutritional needs can be difficult. Feed stores have scales you can use and there are ways to estimate your horse’s weight. Be sure to ask your veterinarian for advice, and take the feed change slowly to maintain gastrointestinal health. The best source of further reading for any horse caregiver is the National Research Council’s Nutrient Requirements of Horses: Sixth Revised Edition.

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