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The Basics Of Equine Nutrition - Feed Levels, Nutrient Requirements & Diet Change

With winter looming and many horses’ routines changing, either switching from being out to in, or generally spending more time indoors, you might be thinking about moving to their winter feed routine. While nutrition is too vast and complex a subject to fully cover here, hopefully this article might help to give you a few pointers to consider.

How much should you feed?

This should be based on the weight of the animal with an aim of feeding between 2.5% and 3% of their body weight per day. The most accurate way of weighing them is by using an equine weighbridge but realistically, who has one of those hidden away? If you have an equine weight tape, that’s a great, simple tool to use; while not always completely accurate, they give a good approximation, which can be useful if you’re monitoring for differences (e.g. weight loss or weight gain).

If you don’t have a weight tape, you can get a fairly accurate weight using an everyday measuring tape and a simple formula, which has been shown to be accurate within +/- 50 pounds (22.6kg):

  • Measure around the girth area – from the base of the withers, down to roughly a hands-width behind the point of the elbow, round the belly and back to your start point – in centimetres or inches to give you the heart girth measurement
  • Measure the length from the point of the shoulder to the point of the buttock to get the length measurement
  • Then use one of the following calculations;
Girth x girth x length, divided by 11,900 = Body weight in kg
Girth x girth x length, divided by 330 = Body weight in lbs

For example, using this method, Rock is 196cm round his girth and 154cm in length, so it works out that he weighs approximately 497kg – which for a 15.2hh, broad rib caged Connemara is probably fairly accurate.
 
Once you have their weight the other factors to consider are:

  • Body conditioning score – see Henneke body scoring system, for example. Don’t rely on a weight measurement alone, get hands on and feel for ribs, fat deposits, etc. 
  • Stage of life – younger and older animals will have more specific requirements to consider due to growing or having a reduced number of teeth, etc.
  • Activity – try to be really truthful with yourself about the level of work they do. Do they live in/out? Are they clipped?
  • Metabolism – do you have a good doer or a horse who finds it hard to keep weight on? (Rock is definitely in the good doer category!)

Per feed, it’s also important to consider the total weight of feed. Try not to exceed 3.5 - 4 lbs (1.5 - 2kg) per feed for a horse, including all chaff and sugar beet, or 3 – 3.5 lbs (1.25 – 1.5kg) for a pony, as this prevents overloading their digestive system and helps towards optimum digestion.

Changing the diet

Changing your horse’s diet should be done extremely gradually to avoid hind gut disruption and the risk of colic, which is partly why autumn can see an increase in colic cases – the recommendation is a lot longer than most people think. It’s recommended to adjust over 3 weeks (or 2 weeks as an absolute minimum).

Week 1 would be 75% of the old diet and 25% of the new diet
Week 2 would be 50% old diet and 50% new diet
Week 3 would be 25% old diet and 75% new diet

This includes switching from summer grazing to hay/haylage and also moving from hay to haylage.

Nutrient Requirements

As a rule, it’s recommended that equine diets should be higher in fibre and fat and Digestible energy (DE) should be considered in your diet proportions eg the approximate amount of forage versus the concentrate (hard) feed.

There are 4 dietary components to consider;
Water, Forage, Concentrates and Supplements

Water

Water is the most important nutrient and should always be readily available. Horses will drink an average of 8 - 12 gallons (30 - 45 litres) per day (!) but other factors affect this, such as the weather, exercise and dry mater intake (e.g. hay rather than grass). Make sure your horse always has access to clean, fresh water.

Forage

Forage is higher in fibre, which is fermented in the hind gut, and lower in energy than concentrates. Hind gut fermentation generates heat, helping them to keep warm and maintain body weight. It provides slow release energy and should be the main part of your horse’s diet. Forage includes grass, alfalfa, hay, haylage, chaff, straw and sugar beet.

Forage should make up at least half their daily food intake as it’s vital to keep their digestive system functioning and is the single most important feed component, aside from water. Feeding a diet more weighted towards fibre aids in preventing colic, dehydration and gastric ulcers, as well as helping to meet their psychological needs. When the fibre is fermented in the hindgut, it also provides important vitamins like B1, biotin and vitamin K.

The absolute minimum forage requirement is 1% of their body weight per day and a maintenance diet is approximately 2.5% of their body weight per day. For example, if you had a 1000lb or 450kg horse, a 2.5% maintenance diet of forage would be 24lbs or 11kg per day.

But all forage is not created equal in terms of energy, nutrients and protein. For example, alfalfa hay that’s cut early in maturity is high in nutrients (calcium and protein rich) and typically higher in energy than other hays, such as timothy. Haylage generally has a higher digestible energy level than hay but it also has a higher water content, so due to being wrapped for storage, the nutrient and fibre levels can be “diluted”. Hay harvested in May and June is likely to have a higher nutritional value than that cut in July or August.

For more information on hay and haylage, see 'The Difference Between Hay And Haylage... Explained'.

Beet pulp or sugar beet is a low sugar by-product and is a forage alternative that can be used to supplement fibre needs. It comes with and without molasses, which should be considered if you have a good doer or a sugar sensitive horse.

Lots of horses at rest, in light or even medium work can have a fully forage diet, but you might like to also consider a balancer to ensure they get all the essential vitamins and minerals.

Concentrates

Concentrates are higher in energy and lower in fibre than forage, and may be required if your horse is worked harder and needs more energy than a forage only diet can provide. There are several different types of concentrate, such as corn, oats, barley, maize, soybean meal, etc. As they contain increased levels of crude protein (CP), they are higher in energy. Generally these concentrates are fed as pre-mixed feeds but they are available as “straights” too. How much you feed is an import factor in colic prevention, so their diet should be fibre based and you should feed as little concentrate as possible. If too much concentrate is fed at one time, the small intestine won’t digest it all and it will be passed through too quickly to the cecum, where the microbes will go crazy and the pH levels will be upset and become more acidic.

Supplements

Supplements include trace minerals, vitamins and fat. Generally, levels of trace minerals (copper, zinc, manganese and selenium) are sufficient in premixed concentrate feeds and can also be met with forage, unless your soil is particularly mineral deficient. When it comes to vitamins, vitamin A comes from forage, vitamin D from sunshine and vitamin B is produced in the hind gut. In addition, there’s also vitamin C and E, which may be needed more by very athletic horses. Fats are an excellent source of calories for either weight gain or energy increase and can be fed at up to 10% of the total diet; so if the diet calls for 30lbs or 13.5kg, 3lbs or 1.3kg of it can be fat. Linseed, flax, corn, vegetable and sunflower oils are the most common types of fat.

There's no doubt that equine nutrition can be a mind-boggling subject as there’s so much to consider, but to summarize;

  • Make changes really gradually
  • Feed smaller amounts frequently
  • Base your diet on feeding forage and fibre
  • Always make sure clean, fresh water is available
  • Consider if you really need to feed a supplement or whether a balancer might be a better option

The author of this article, Caroline Ramsay, holds an Equine Nutrition Award by The University of Edinburgh, covering feed composition (and how this affects digestibility), nutrient sources, dietary management, general nutrient requirements of horses and ponies, body condition score and clinical nutrition.

For more advice from Caroline, see her Horsemart Author Page or you can keep up to date with all her adventures with her Connemara, Rock, by following them on Facebook or Instagram @grey_connieadventures.

Caroline Ramsay
Horsemart Content Contributor
Published on 29-10-2020
Caroline is a horse owner and rider based in bonnie Scotland where she juggles how to keep a native fit while working full time in IT and renovating a never-ending project house with her other half and 2 cats. Caroline holds an Equine Nutrition Award by The University of Edinburgh which covered feed composition and how this affects digestibility, nutrient sources, dietary management, general nutrient requirements of horses and ponies, body condition score and clinical nutrition. Caroline has experience with older horses as her first pony lived to the grand old age of 28, competing until he was 26, and is also sadly very familiar with broken horses as unfortunately, his replacement was extremely accident prone. Caroline set up her Instagram account to document the honest highs and lows of starting a young reluctant horse and chart their journey together.