As the old adage goes, “You are what you eat.”
Does this same rule apply when feeding horses? Absolutely! In fact, horses have digestive systems that are unlike any other domestic animal.
For example, a horse’s esophagus only works “one-way,” meaning they can’t vomit or regurgitate. Horses also have no gallbladder, which means fats get processed entirely in the small intestine.
What does all of this mean? Put simply, feeding a horse requires more than tossing a few oats into a bucket. Knowing what to feed horses can make the difference between a horse that merely survives—or a horse that thrives.
Do you want your horse to thrive? Read on to learn some common horse feeding mistakes you need to avoid.
1. Feeding Too Much
We love our horses like members of our family. We love making them happy—and few things make a horse as happy as the sound of grain in a feed bucket.
But there’s a difference between occasional treats and overfeeding. It’s easy to go overboard on the feed, giving our horse more than he actually needs to maintain a healthy weight.
The majority of healthy horses will do just fine with access to good pasture or hay. Depending on your area, you might also include a few supplements (more on that later).
Does your horse need grain, like oats or sweet feed? Unless you live somewhere with extremely cold winters or you’re training hard for competitions, he probably doesn’t need the extra calories.
Overfeeding almost always leads to obesity. As is true with humans, this can present a whole host of other health problems, like laminitis.
If you want to “spoil” your horse, find other ways to do so without overfeeding. It will backfire in the long run!
2. Not Feeding Enough
On the flip side, some horses are not “easy keepers” and require more calories to maintain their weight. This especially true as your horse enters his senior years.
If hay and grass aren’t enough to keep meat on your horse’s bones, it’s time to up his supplements or add a little grain to his diet. Start with 1-2 pounds of grain twice a day and make adjustments from there based on his appearance.
Make sure to maintain a good balance, though—the bulk of your horse’s diet should still come from foraging. Too much grain (especially if he’s used to eating it) could lead to colic and other digestive issues.
Horses in hard training may also need extra feed to compensate for their energy expenditure. If your fit horse starts to look more gaunt than lean, you might consider upping his feed regimen.
3. Not Enough Emphasis on Forage
As mentioned earlier, the majority of your horse’s diet should come from grass and hay.
Ideally, your horse should consume 1-2% of his body weight in forage each day. For a 1,000 pound horse, that would be between 10-20 pounds of grass or hay.
If you don’t add grain or other concentrates to his diet, up to 3% of his body weight in forage is acceptable. Pregnant or lactating mares may consume even more.
Depending on where you live, it might be easy to maintain good grass in your pastures. If you live in the desert or at a very high altitude, your pasture could be more pathetic than plentiful.
Do what you can to keep your pastures in good shape. This might include seeding in the spring and rotating pastures to allow new grass to grow.
If, despite your best efforts, you can’t keep enough grass in your pastures year-round, be sure to invest in high-quality hay for your horses. Look for blends of grass, clover, alfalfa, and timothy to provide an array of nutrients and protein.
Also, make sure any hay your purchase is free from dust and mold. Store it in a dry, covered area off the ground to ensure it stays that way.
4. Feeding By Volume (Not Weight)
Here’s another common mistake when feeding horses: Focusing on volume instead of weight.
If you’ve been feeding your horse one scoop of oats a day and suddenly switch to one scoop of corn, guess what? You’ve just drastically increased the number of calories and the amount of sugar your horse is consuming.
Even though they may fill the same scoop, oats and corn provide very different nutritional values. Even sweet feeds or pellets made by the same company can vary in density from bag to bag.
Rather than eyeballing it or measuring with a scoop, measure the feed by weighing it instead. Read the bag to understand the nutritional content per pound, along with recommended feeding guidelines.
Then use an actual scale to ensure you’re feeding the amount you should be.
This same principle applies when feeding hay, too. Two flakes of hay from one bale might be several pounds lighter (or heavier) than two flakes from another bale.
Keep your feeding routine consistent by weighing those flakes before tossing them into your horse’s stall.
5. Wrong Type of Feed to the Wrong Horse
Have you noticed how many specially formulated feeds there are?
Walk down the aisle of any feed store, and you’re sure to see feed for broodmares, young horses, active adults, and senior citizens. Each of these feeds has been scientifically developed to supply the nutrition that type of horse needs.
Just like there’s no “one size fits all” diet for people, there’s no one type of feed that suits all horses.
A formula for senior horses won’t provide enough nutrition for a broodmare. An active formula will be too many calories for your lazy pleasure horse.
If you’re supplementing your horse’s diet with feed, be sure to get a formula designed for their age and workload. And remember that you’ll need to adjust it over time as their age and workload changes.
6. Adding Too Many Supplements
Supplements that provide certain vitamins and nutrients can make an excellent addition to your horse’s feeding schedule.
Some supplements, like Innovet CBD oil for horses, produce excellent results with no side effects. Formulas that contain biotin or glucosamine can also keep your horse’s hooves and joints in good working order.
The danger comes with feeding too many supplements that might contain the same nutrients. For example, large amounts of Vitamin A can be toxic to horses.
What happens if you’re feeding multiple supplements that each contain this vitamin?
If you’re not sure what’s in your local grass and hay, get it tested for nutritional value. Then you can supplement any specific deficiencies, like selenium.
If you want to use supplements for something specific, like hoof growth or joint health, look for something that contains only the necessary nutrients for that condition. Your horse probably doesn’t need the extra vitamins and minerals in an “all-in-one” formula.
7. Forgetting to Supply Salt
Sodium and chloride (the main components of salt) are both essential to your horse’s health.
The downside? Neither one is naturally present in grass or grains.
To ensure your horse gets the salt he needs, drop a salt block (or several) in the pasture. You might also place a small one inside the stall or add a bit to his feed bucket.
This is especially vital if you live in a hot climate or if your horse sweats a lot during exercise.
8. Offering More Than One Water Source
Your horse has access to water in his own private stall, but what about when he’s out with the herd?
If one of the horses is especially bossy, he could bully the other horses away from the water trough. A horse that’s injured or arthritic might be unwilling to walk down a steep slope to access water from a stream or pond.
To ensure every member of the herd has access to water, set up several water “stations” around the pasture. It could be as simple as hanging a few extra buckets or ordering another trough.
9. Neglecting Dental Health & Deworming
All the good feeding practices in the world won’t matter if your horse can’t properly chew his food.
Like humans, horses also require routine dental care. Make sure to get your horse’s teeth floated regularly to ensure he’s chewing and digesting his food properly.
It’s also vital to follow a regular schedule of deworming to keep those nasty parasites out of your horse’s gut.
Feeding Horses: Don’t Make These Mistakes
Just like mealtime for ourselves, it’s easy to make mistakes when feeding horses.
Sometimes it’s quicker or easier to take shortcuts, or sometimes we don’t want to pay a little extra for higher quality items. In time, however, those “shortcuts” are sure to catch up and affect your horse’s health.
Follow the feeding tips listed above, and you’re sure to have a happy, healthy horse for years to come!
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