by Dr. Clair Thunes PhD, Nutritionist for EnviroEquine & PET ~

As an equine nutritionist who helps owners design feeding programs for their horses, there is one thing I see a lot, and that is people selecting the wrong feed and then feeding that feed incorrectly. I also see a lot of people using interesting criteria for selecting feeds, some of which make sense and others that don’t. One of the main criteria that should be used for feed selection is how it’s designed to be fed and whether those feeding directions fit the needs of my horse, as well as the level of “nutrition” the feed will provide. Unfortunately these points seem to be rarely used.

I think it’s important to understand why we feed things other than forage because many horses do very well on forage alone. However, forage does not provide all of the vitamins and minerals that horses need. For horses that are working, growing, breeding, etc., forage alone may not provide enough calories. If your horse is able to maintain condition and do his required job (be that growing, dressage, wandering around a pasture) on just forage then you need a feed or a supplement that can give him the vitamins and minerals that are most likely missing in that forage-based diet. If your horse is unable to maintain condition and do his job on that forage-based diet, then you need all those vitamins and minerals that are not in your forage as well as a source of more concentrated calories.

In the feed world, the feed that focuses on providing the pieces missing in forage is referred to as a ration balancer. Ration balancers are highly fortified with a relatively small serving size of just 1 to 2 pounds per day for an average-sized horse. For the horse needing more calories, a more concentrated feed such as a performance feed is needed. These have larger serving sizes to enable you to get more calories in the ration. Because of the larger serving size, the level of fortification, pound for pound, is lower than in the ration balancer. This is where people make mistakes.

Very often people buy the performance feed or the senior feed and just give a couple of pounds when the directions recommend at least 5 or 6 pounds. Their horses can look good and be in good condition and, in that sense, they are feeding it correctly in that they are feeding to maintain an ideal body condition. However, with the more dilute vitamin mineral profile in this feed, feeding only a couple of pounds leaves the overall ration with deficiencies. The manufacturer has added that vitamin mineral fortification at a level specific to the recommended daily feeding rate, and when you do not follow those directions you will not have a properly fortified ration.

Often, I am met with alarm when I tell a client that they need to feed 5 or 6 pounds of their chosen feed in order to get the correct level of fortification to meet their horse’s needs. “But if I feed that much, he will get fat” or “he will be unrideable” they say. This is very likely correct, but if that is the case then it is a sign that you have not selected the correct feed for your horse and you would be better off feeding the ration balancer correctly than the performance feed incorrectly.

People are sometimes worried by the seemingly high level of protein in ration balancers, which is often close to 30 percent. In fact, I just recently had a conversation with someone who wanted to remove the 2 pounds of a 30 percent ration balancer from their horse’s diet in favor of feeding 6 pounds of a 14 percent senior feed. It took some convincing to help her see that this would result in feeding more total protein and would not result in a reduction at all. How can that be when the amount of protein on the analysis is less than half that of the ration balancer? Because 14 percent of 6 pounds (2.7 kilos) provides 382 grams of crude protein whereas 30 percent of 2 pounds (0.9 kilos) will provide only 272 grams.

While we are on the subject of protein, protein does not make horses hot and does not cause limb deformities in foals. So, do not let those old wives tales stop you from feeding a quality protein source to your horses. At the same time, do not feed protein as a source of energy. That is not protein’s job. If you need calories, you need sources of carbohydrate and fat.

In the last couple of years, a shift has occurred in human nutrition towards the farm-to-fork style of eating and away from genetically modified ingredients. This movement has reached the realms of equine nutrition with an increase in the number of feeds stating that they utilize non-GMO ingredients and promising that these whole food ingredients will meet the horse’s nutritional needs. Unfortunately, there are problems with these feeds. Many are unfortified which leaves rations with sometimes significant deficiencies in vital nutrients such as copper, zinc and vitamin E. It is also important to realize that many of these feeds have high starch contents and, therefore, are inappropriate for horses with metabolic challenges.

EnviroEquine has long been a believer and supporter of organic farming practices. From our Seabuckthorn products to our hemp products we utilize ingredients that are grown utilizing organic and sustainable methods. However, we also realize the limitations that can exist, which is why we believe in marrying the best of what nature and science have to offer. For this reason, if you are wanting to move away from conventionally farmed feed ingredients, we would suggest going beyond non-GMO to a certified organic feed as long as it has been properly fortified. To better understand the differences between non-GMO and certified organic, check out our comparison table. If you would like help in determining whether your feed is in fact meeting your horse’s needs, consider our Re-Diet program and I will happily take the guesswork out of your nutrition program.