Introduction To Horse Nutrition

There are two things to be said about nutrition in horses.  The first is to feed horses the way they were created to eat.  The second is that no one remembers how they were created to eat.

Ask yourself this.  Who taught you how to feed?  Then ask, who taught them?  And who taught those people?  Until you go back about 50 years you won’t find out how horses were fed when most of us didn’t have hay and none of us had sweet feed.  

With almost 50 years working with horses (I started 1973), I have been able to see nutrition move from simple feeding of a few things to feeding thousands of different feeds and supplements all geared towards a specific point in the horse’s life.  I have also watched horse owners fall into the belief that these companies are working hard for our horses.  They are not.

Did you know the interstate system of roads was not started until 1960?  There were few farmers with tractors until the late 1950’s and before this, hay was made using horses.  To rephrase this, if you wanted hay 75 years ago you hooked up your field horses and went out mowing.  We often picked up the hay and stacked it by hand.  There were few farmers with self propelled baling machines.  Only the wealthy had baled hay brought to their farm and stacked in the mow.  There were no feed stores you could call for delivery of hay and bags of grain delivered and stacked neatly in your barn in 1973.  We got our oats delivered by train in a box car.  The day bags were delivered by a semi truck was a day to remember!

Think about senior feeds.  When is a horse considered a senior?  If we walked in the woods all day would we ever find senior feed for squirrels?  If we stopped in a restaurant would there be senior feed for us (not the senior menu but foods designed for senior humans)?  No because this is a marketing gimmick.

Think about low starch food for horses.  If I offered you a plate with a donut, a plate with half a donut and a plate with no donut, which would be the low starch donut?  Correct!  The plate with no donut!  So if you want to reduce the amount of starch you feed your horse just cut in half (or more) what you are feeding.  The low starch feeds are filled with inflammatory ingredients so the “scoop” you use will still be full but it will have less starch.  Marketing at its finest.

In the last 20 years I have seen an explosion of lameness (especially suspensory injuries) as well as obesity, insulin resistance and Cushing’s disease in the horses I visit.  With sadness I also see a lot of misunderstanding of what the cause of these issues are.  In a world of human and veterinary “Whack-A-Mole” medicine, the practitioner reacts to a disease with treatments and medications.  The horse owner also reacts with supplements and elixirs in hopes of curing.    The farrier reacts with special shoes and the other horse professionals proliferate with alternative therapies all trying to cure the horse.

In reality, the horses are reacting to what you are feeding them.  Look at these topics and invest your time here because if you want to keep your horse sound and disease free you will need to feed them as they were made to be fed.  They are not humans, dogs, cattle or any other animal on this planet as far as their digestive tract and their food needs are concerned.  Actually there are only 2 other groups of animal similar to the horse in digestion: the tapir and the rhinoceros.  Dig in here for more information on the nutrition of the horse.

This is a 45 minute overview of nutrition in horses to get you started.  And remember that with a membership (coming soon) you have access to the Horsemanship Nutrition Course to dig in and get tested on what you have learned.

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Basic Feeding Of Horses – Carbohydrates (Sugar)

Carbohydrate is a word that describes sugar.  Other words include saccharide, monosaccharide, disaccharide, polysaccharide, glycogen, starch, cellulose, soluble fiber, non-soluble fiber, structural carbohydrate and non-structural carbohydrate.  All sugar is made up of the same 3 elements: carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.  Glucose and fructose are both C6 H12 O6 but glucose has a ring of 6 carbons and fructose is a ring of 5 carbons.  This is incredibly significant in how the body uses these sugars with fructose more efficient in creating body fat and exhausting the cell to the point of death.

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Basic Feeding Of Horses – Fats

It is not necessary to feed a fat source or supplement to horses. The reason for this is based on understanding what a fat is and where the horse gets fat in a field of grass.

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Basic Feeding Of Horses – Hay

Hay is last summer’s grass.  It is a new supplement and it could also be called the original supplement.  The purpose of hay is to add calories to the diet when winter is hard on the horses.  Adding hay in winter to sustain life is why it was created.  Adding hay when there is no pasture (drought, lack of pasture) is an inadequate substitute for fresh and healthy pasture.  Here is why.

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Basic Feeding Of Horses – Lectins

Lectins are found in the outer coverings of seeds, fruits and leaves of all plants. Animals have adapted to these toxins in many ways. Horses have limited their diet to ground plants and have come to terms with their defense mechanisms.

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Basic Feeding Of Horses – Minerals And Electrolytes

Minerals and electrolytes in horses are elements (atoms) that are NOT carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. They include the macro-minerals of calcium, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, sodium, chloride and sulfur. They also include the micro-minerals (trace minerals) of copper, zinc, selenium, iron, and others.

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Basic Feeding Of Horses – Water

Most people don’t “think” about feeding water – they just do it.  Water, along with air, is more important than food as removing either will bring death within a minute to a few days

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Body Condition Score Of Horses

The Henneke horse body condition score was published by a professor at Texas A&M University in 1983 and is named after him. He wanted to use a simple system for horse owners to score the body condition of their horses. It has become popular and used widely.

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Concentrate Feeds For Horses

Concentrate rations are the opposite of forage for horses. They developed a while ago when people moved from the country farms to the industrialized cities. In order to feed these people, horses worked more to harvest more food for the increasing demand. Less farmers had to do more with their horses which caused weight loss in the horses because 1) increased work and 2) decreased pasture time. The solution was to feed them more sugar (glucose) in the form of grain (starch).

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Feed By Weight, Not Volume In Horses

Horse owners feed by volume which most will call a “scoop.”  This is irrational.  If we all decided to pick one size for a “scoop,” would that “scoop” of feathers weigh as much as a “scoop” of rocks?  Obviously not.  The density of the two are not the same.  It would take a lot of “scoops” of feathers to weigh the same as 1 “scoop” of rocks.

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Feeding Growing Horses

Foals at some point transition from nursing mother’s milk to eating solid food. This is normal but sometimes some problems can occur.

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The Physiology Of Nutrition In Horses

Knowing how nutrition works in the horse down to the cellular and molecular level is important. You may not think so or you may not feel capable of understanding the complexities.  If you try you will not only help your horse thrive, you will also save a lot of money!

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Top Line Score Of Horses

The Top Line Score came out in other animals, primarily meat animals (hogs, cattle), as a way to determine how much meat was on the hoof. And ultrasound machine would be scanned over the backs of hogs and the back fat was measured as well as the depth of meat. No one dares do this in horses as this would ruin the horse feeding industry. This is why.

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Weight Control In Horses

I see weight control as two issues in horses.  Either the horse remains underweight no matter how much they are fed or the horse remains overweight no matter how much restriction is applied to the diet.  Weight needs to seen as both body fat and as muscle mass.  Both are important for health but have different purposes.

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