Feeding horses is both a science and an art. The science is found in the analysis of forage samples and the formulation of balanced concentrates (grain mixes). The art of feeding horses is in providing the necessary amounts of forage and concentrate to maintain the desired performance, growth and body condition of your horse. Today most horse owners purchase pre-mixed feeds that have been formulated by equine nutritionists to meet the daily nutrient requirements of specific classes of horses. So, how do you use the information provided by the feed companies to assure optimum nutrition for your horse?
Attached to each bag of commercially produced feed is a feed tag. The feed tag provides basic information about the feed in the bag and is required, by law, to provide specific information. By law, the feed tag must indicate the intended use of the feed including the class of horses for which it is intended (young growing horses, broodmares, lactating mares, etc.), the guaranteed analysis of the feed, a list of all feed ingredients, feeding instructions, and the name and address of the feed manufacturer.
The guaranteed feed analysis provides information concerning the nutrient content of the feed. Since concentrates are used to supplement the nutrients provided by forages, knowing the nutrient analysis of a concentrate will help you select the appropriate concentrate to meet your horse’s nutritional requirements. By law, feed manufacturers are required to list minimum levels of crude protein and crude fat (as a percent of total), maximum levels of crude fiber (percentage), minimum and maximum percentages of calcium, and a minimum level of phosphorus, copper (parts per million, ppm), zinc (ppm), selenium (ppm), and vitamin A (International Units per pound, IU). Occasionally, a feed company may include other nutrient analysis, such as vitamin E.
Dietary protein is an essential nutrient for all mammals, including the horse. Most concentrate mixes range from 10 percent to 16 percent crude protein and protein levels in the diet may be increased by using protein supplements. However, many horse owners place far too much emphasis on this nutrient when they purchase horse feed. The mature horse that is simply being maintained (not working, pregnant, or growing) requires less than 9 percent crude protein in their daily diet. Knowing that most grasses contain 9 to 13 percent crude protein, the mature horse’s need for crude protein is generally met by consuming adequate amounts of quality forage.
Crude Fat is a measure of the energy content of a given feed. Fat provides approximately 2.5 times more energy per pound than carbohydrates or protein. Thus, adding fat to your horse’s diet means you can reduce the total amount of grain consumed. In addition, because fat is metabolized differently than carbohydrates, it provides a safer means of supplementing energy to your horse. Some commercial feed tags will show a minimum crude fat content of 5 to 15 percent. Switching to a high fat concentrate should be done slowly, over a period of 10 to 14 days.
The crude fiber content of a feed is a reasonably good indicator of both the energy content and the digestibility of a feed. While digestible fiber does provide some energy for the horse, high levels of indigestible fiber displace starch, reducing the energy content of the feed. Crude fiber levels in grain mixes generally range from 2 to 14 percent with those over 10 percent containing roughage such as grass or alfalfa.
Calcium and phosphorus are minerals that are critical to the normal growth and development of young horses and to the optimum performance of older horses. Usually, concentrate calcium levels will range from 0.8 to 1.2 percent and phosphorus is included at 0.6 to 1.0 percent. While the amount of these minerals is important, the ratio of these minerals is equally important. A balanced diet will have a minimum calcium to phosphorus ratio of 1.1 to 1.0. The level of phosphorus should never exceed the level of calcium in the total diet and it is recommended that this ratio not exceed 3 to 1. The level of calcium and phosphorus in the horse’s forage should first be considered when purchasing a concentrate mix.
Other minerals include Copper Zinc and Selenium, which are important, especially for young growing horses. Copper and zinc are essential for normal bone development and selenium is normally coupled with vitamin E in maintenance of the horse’s immune system. Salt should be included in concentrate mixes at a rate of 0.5 percent for non-working horses and at 1.0 percent for working horses.
Feed companies are also required to provide a list of all ingredients included in their feed. Ingredients will be listed beginning with the ingredient found in the greatest amount and ending with that found in the lowest amount (See Table I). In addition, feed manufacturers will provide the name and address of the mill, special feeding instructions, and, when necessary, any added antibiotics and specific feeding instructions.
With feed prices at all time highs it is important that horse owners purchase the correct feeds and then feed them properly. Horse owners should also remember that any feeding program begins with forage and that concentrates serve to supplement nutrients that are not found in the forage. To optimize feeding efficiency it is recommended that you first test your forage (your local County Extension Agent can help with this), then purchase a concentrate mix that will meet any nutrient deficiencies found in the forage.
Table I. Example: Feed Tag
WolfPack 14% Pelleted Feed (For Yearling Horses)
Crude Protein (Min)…… 14%
Crude Fat (Min) ………. 6%
Crude Fiber (Max) …….. 12%
Calcium (Max) …………. 1.5%
Calcium (Min) ………….. 1.0%
Phosphorus (Min) ……….. 1.0%
Copper (Min)…………… 20 ppm
Zinc (Min) ……………… 40 ppm
Selenium (Max) …………. 0.1 ppm
Vitamin A (min)…….. 2,000 IU/lb
Grain Products, Plant Protein Products, Processed Grain By-Products, Roughage Products, Vitamin A Supplement, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Vitamin E Supplement, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Roboflavin Supplement, Calcium Carbonate, Salt, Dicalcium Phosphate, Biotin, Calcium Carbonate, Copper Oxide, Zinc Oxide, Ethylenediamine Dihydroiodide, Cobalt Carbonate, Potassium Chloride.
Feed ½ to 1 pound of feed per 100 pounds of body weight for horses from 9 to 18 months of age. Feed with quality forage at recommended rates and clean, fresh water at all times.