Back to Basics

The subject of Equine nutrition is complex and at times confusing meaning that deciding what to feed your horse can be a difficult decision. Vet Stephanie Davis takes things back to basics to help simplify the fundamentals of feeding horses. 

By Stephanie Davis, DVM  | Equine Veterinarian

It has become a recurring theme of mine to stress the importance of being proactive when it comes to our horse care. In my practice, we often discuss that the collective effects of our every day workouts are more demanding on the horse’s body than the competitions themselves. So, with that in mind, what can we do on a consistent proactive basis to ensure our horses remain healthy and perform at their best?

When it comes to sport horse management, owners tend to think about joint health before anything else. Joint management and health have been extensively researched in horses. This is because joint disease is one of the most common ailments that will limit a horse’s ability to perform. So, from that perspective, it is understandable that joint care is such an important topic of interest for horse owners. Based on research (see links below for a recent paper and literature), it has become widely accepted that a performance horse should have some sort of joint maintenance/health program. These programs will often consistent of monthly, weekly, or even daily joint care.  

This same philosophy must also be applied to our horse’s nutrition. Every day that we give hay, grain, and/or supplements, we are influencing our horse’s bodies. The intent of proper feeding is to maximize their body condition, energy level, and performance. Unfortunately, equine nutrition can be overwhelming to understand. There are endless feeds and supplements on the market that make it difficult for horse owners to decide what is best for their horses. So, I think it is important to simplify and review the fundamentals of feeding horses.

To start simply, the horse needs forage and water. As complicated as nutrition can be, the basics are really that simple. Horses are designed to consume approximately 2% (22-28 pounds) of their bodyweight in forage (grass and hay) over the time span of a day. It cannot be overstated that the grass and hay that your horse consumes is the most important part of their diet.

Once the forage needs are met in your horse, the rest of the horse’s diet management can be built from there. Due to the process of harvesting and storage, hay will collect undesirable dust and mold spores. Additionally, once harvested, vitamins (particularly Vitamin A and E) in the hay will degrade. So, what can we do about the dust, mold, and vitamin loss? The hay steaming process eliminates dust, allergens, and mold spores. So, steamed hay is the ideal way to manage the undesirable particulate matter in the hay. Additionally, research has shown that horses also prefer to eat steamed hay over soaked or dry hay. Not only will the hay be clean and healthy, but the horse will be more likely to consume more of the steamed hay than dry hay. This can be extremely important when you start talking about re-feeding skinny horses or nutritionally rehabbing a thoroughbred off the track.

The most important take home message is that water, fresh grass, clean hay, and a ration balancer are the mainstay of a horse’s diet. Anything that is added to the diet beyond those should be based on the age, breed, discipline, geographic location, or disease state of the horse. No matter the program, it is always a good idea to go back to the basics and re-evaluate your feeding regimen to give your horses the opportunity to perform at their best.


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