Horse Feed – Who Needs It?
Karen E. Davison, Ph.D.
Manager – Equine Tech Services
Land O’Lakes Purina Feed
Horses evolved over millions of years as grazers, roaming around selecting
the best forages they could find. While they did eat seeds growing on those
plants, they did not take in large quantities of seeds or grain at a single
meal. So, why do we feed horses grain at all? Well, when you look at the
horses that Mother Nature supports with a forage-only, continuous grazing
program, you find that they are usually smaller framed, lighter muscled,
mature at a later age and don’t have the lifespan we currently see in
domesticated horses. Mother Nature’s program just isn’t designed to support
the physical demands we place on domestic horses.
Throughout history, horses that worked for a living; such as horses that
pulled chariots, carriages, delivery carts or those used in the cavalry;
have all been fed grain. Because grain is a more concentrated energy source,
containing more calories per pound than forages, working horses could take
in enough calories to support their physical demands by eating grain.
Working horses either didn’t have sufficient time in the day for grazing or
there wasn’t enough quality forage available to support their level of
As knowledge of horse nutrition has advanced, we’ve come to realize that
energy isn’t the only limiting nutrient in an all-forage diet. Depending on
the forage and the lifestyle of the horse, protein, vitamins and minerals
may also be lacking. So horse feeds have evolved from a single grain like
oats or corn to multiple grain mixes, and now, even better, grains mixed
with other ingredients to provide a complete complement of nutrients. Today
we have grain mixes that provide balanced nutrition for horses of different
lifestyles such as growing, breeding, and performance horses. These grain
mixes are designed to be fed with a minimum of 1% of the horse’s body weight
in hay or equivalent pasture. That is a minimum of 10 lbs of hay for a 1000
lb horse, which provides the amount of fiber necessary for maintaining
normal activity and digestive functions in the horse’s intestines. Many
horses are fed more hay or pasture than that and the amount and quality of
the hay or pasture will impact how much feed is needed to support adequate
body condition and level of activity.
Most formulated feeds are designed to be fed at a minimum of 3.5 – 4 lbs per
day in order to meet all protein, vitamin and mineral requirements when fed
with hay or pasture. However, there are situations where horse owners have
very well managed, improved pastures or top quality harvested forage (such
as high quality alfalfa hay). These forages contain more calories and are
available to the horse in greater quantities than what Mother Nature usually
provides. When horses have access to free-choice top quality pasture or hay,
they will easily eat 3% of their body weight or more, which will provide
more calories than needed for a maintenance or low activity lifestyle. In
these situations horses can become overweight or even obese, so how do you
provide proper nutrition to them without an overabundance of calories?
You can restrict time spent grazing to a few hours per day or reduce the
amount of hay offered to 1.5 – 2% of their body weight and this will
certainly help control calorie intake, but sometimes these horses will still
gain weight if fed the minimum 3.5 – 4 lbs of feed. In these cases, feeding
only 1 – 2 lbs of a formulated feed that was designed to be fed at higher
feeding rates can result in nutritional deficiencies in the diet. You don’t
want to increase the amount of feed and end up with an obese horse, so what
do you do? This is where “forage balancers” or “ration balancers”, such as
Purina Nature’s Essentials Enrich 12™ and Enrich 32™fit very nicely.
These products are formulated to be low in calories and to meet protein,
vitamin and mineral requirements in 1 – 2 lbs per day for 1000 – 1200 lb
horses. With these two products, three eight ounce cups equals one pound.
They are a great option for horses that maintain good condition on hay or
pasture alone and just don’t need the calories that would come with 3.5 lbs
or more of a formulated feed. The Nature’s Essentials product you choose
depends on the type and quality of forage available. Enrich 12™ works well
for mature horses eating green pasture or high quality hay such as alfalfa,
while Enrich 32™ has a higher protein content to better fortify a typical
grass hay diet or for horses that are still growing and need a higher
protein balance to better support growth and development.
Horses that are working hard, are lactating or are eating average quality
hay will still benefit from a well formulated feed product fed at the
recommended feeding rates. But for those less active horses, easy-keepers,
or those with access to exceptional quality forage, you may want to look at
Purina Nature’s Essentials Enrich 12™or Enrich 32™ to meet nutrient
requirements without adding unnecessary calories.