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    Horse Nutrition

    Tossing alfalfa hay into a trough and pouring a small coffee can of oats into a feeder may work for some horses — but not all.

    A young horse needs the right mix of energy, vitamins and minerals to keep his growing, active body healthy, while a senior horse, for example, needs a mix that is easily digestible and will help his aging system absorb enough nutrients.

    What your horse needs nutritionally depends on several things — age, size, breed, temperament, activity level, metabolism, environmental conditions, health, and stress level.

    Determine what's best for your horse by asking yourself these questions:

    • What is his activity level? Be careful not to overestimate. How many times a week do you ride? How long do you ride? What type of riding do you do?
    • How old is the horse?
    • What type of overall feeding program do you use? Does your horse feed on hay or pasture? Is the hay or pasture good enough quality to provide all the fiber he needs?
    • Is the horse on a regular worming schedule? A wormy horse requires much more feed because those worms eat up much of the nutrition that's meant for him.
    • Is the horse a "hard keeper" (has trouble keeping on weight) or an "easy keeper" (easily keeps on weight)? Some feeds are better at helping horses keep on weight.

    Horse Diet

    Your horse needs six basic things to stay healthy: water, fiber, protein, energy, vitamins, and minerals. You must provide all of these for your horse to perform the way you want him or her to.

    Water

    Always provide fresh water for your horse.

    Water helps the horse's digestive system function properly. If the contents of the horse's stomach become too dry, the horse will become impacted, which is painful — and can be deadly.

    A horse typically drinks about 10-15 gallons of water per day. Working horses or nursing mares may drink as much as 30 gallons or more per day. Make sure their water tanks are always full.

    Fiber

    In a perfect world, every horse would be able to graze 12-16 hours a day, which is his natural inclination. Grazing this much provides plenty of plant fiber to keep his digestive system working well. And that's why it's best to always keep some kind of fiber in front of them, rather than feeding two big meals per day.

    If a horse doesn't get enough fiber, he could get dehydrated, which, in turn, could cause painful laminitis or dangerous colic.

    Fiber is so important to your horse's digestive system that it should make up at least half of your horse's daily diet. If you can make it more, that's even better.

    If your hay is low in digestible fiber, you can increase the horse's intake by also feeding him pellets or cubes that contain fiber.

    You can also feed sugar beet pulp, which is made from the fibrous part of the sugar beet after the sugar has been extracted. Sugar beet pulp comes in dehydrated shreds and pellets, so all you do is soak it in water for a few hours so it rehydrates before you feed it to your horse.

    Protein

    Generally speaking, most adult horses require about 8-10 percent of digestible protein in their diet. Depending on his circumstances, your horse might need more or less. A lactating mare, for example, needs much more.

    When you're talking protein, it's all about the hay and how good it is. First off, good-quality legume hay will contain from 14-18 percent crude protein and high-quality grass hay contains 7-12 percent crude protein. From these protein rates, a horse generally will get 8-10 percent digestible protein, which is about right. Lesser-quality hay won't provide that.

    So if you have your hay tested and it contains plenty of protein, you're good to go. But if it doesn't, then you'll need to make up the lack of protein with a concentrate.

    To make sure you're feeding quality hay, have it tested. Your county extension staff can help you get it done. It doesn't cost much — usually about $10 — and it's money well spent.

    Energy

    The amount of energy your horse needs depends on what you expect of him. A horse that gets saddled up a few times per week for an easy ride doesn't need as much energy as a performance horse.

    Your horse gets energy through carbohydrates — cereal grains such as oats, corn, barley and sweet feed for horses — and you should feed your horse grain only when it's needed to provide the right levels of energy.

    So how will you know if your horse needs grain? He'll show classic signs of low energy: weight loss, a depressed demeanor, and he may not be able to perform like you expect.

    However, it's more likely that he's being fed too many carbohydrates. If he's being fed grain that he doesn't really need, your horse will have an excess of energy, he'll have increased fat stores, and he'll be difficult to manage because he's trying to burn off that excess energy.

    Vitamins

    Most mature, healthy horses usually get the vitamins they need through their feed such as calcium, zinc, and vitamin A, if it's good quality.

    However, young horses, performance horses, or horses that are under stress because of illness, changes in their environment, or temperament may need vitamin supplements.

    If you do give your horse vitamins, remember that he will also need minerals, as well. The best solution is a micronutrient supplement with both minerals and vitamins. One more option is to offer horse treats, many of which contain vitamins and minerals.

    Minerals

    Horses are more likely to suffer from a lack of calcium and phosphorus (salt) than any other mineral. Prevent that by giving your horse minerals in both block and loose form in horse feeders.

    • Block minerals are solid blocks of salt and minerals that animals lick whenever they want, or free-choice. You should always provide free-choice salt to your horse. If you also put a mineral block down, don't place it near a salt block. That's because most livestock crave salt and will head for the salt blocks more often than the minerals.
    • Loose minerals can be fed by a separate mineral feeder or simply added to feed.