They Are What They Eat

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So many choices, so little time. You’re a busy person and the feeding of horses has become much more complex in 2006. Or has it? If your head spins when trying to determine the ideal diet for your barn’s equine contingent, you’re not alone. We’ll set the record straight with the help of two experts in the specialized field of equine nutrition as we go back to the basics on the subject of “what’s for dinner,” horse-style, to maximize performance and productivity and maintain optimum health.

Cut to the Chaff

We know: there’s “this grain” and “that grain,” each meticulously developed to deliver benefits ideally suited to a horse’s specific needs. Carey A. Williams, Ph.D. at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, Equine Science Center, Equine Extension Specialist, says the first step is to formulate your feed program around hay or forage, the basis of the equine diet.

Fact: horses are grazing animals with digestive tracts best suited for eating forages for 16 to 18 hours per day. Their small stomachs hold two to four gallons of feed, while hindguts manage 23 to 30 gallons of fibrous material with billions of bacteria digesting it. However, “Often people pick one type of hay, and it can be low quality or mature grass which doesn’t work for all horses, or those exercising a lot, lactating or still growing,” says Williams. For these horses, consider better hay and evaluate properties of the two types. Grass includes sub-categories of timothy, brome and Bermuda. Legume hay can be alfalfa, clover or lucerne, all higher in nutrients and protein than grass choices. Alfalfa cubes are an option, says Williams, if protein is needed—for example, growing horses up to age two require 14 to 16 percent.

Getting to the Grain

Most all varieties of feeds are already fortified with vitamins and minerals. Some contain higher fat levels for horses that need them, such as broodmares, and mares and foals. Williams is frequently consulted about “which type of grain” a horse should have and will also prescribe a high-fat feed, “energy dense,” for an exercising horse. The Atkins Diet Revolution fad impacted equine nutrition lingo, as low-carbohydrate feeds, a.k.a., “light,” find a specific use with the “metabolically-challenged” horse who might be insulin resistant or prone to Cushing’s Disease, laminitis or founder. A high-protein diet is appropriate for the growing foal, while, as common sense might dictate, a high-calorie, high-energy diet is indicated for a racehorse. As always: energy intake must be balanced with energy expenditure and it’s all about that balance, no matter the factors in the equation.

It also helps to peek inside the horse’s digestive system: horses don’t have a gallbladder and they can’t process very high fat diets. “Don’t send your horse to McDonald’s for a cheeseburger,” Williams jokes, because any more than 20 percent fat in the diet will be excreted. It’s actually difficult to feed that much. “Even if you feed two cups of corn oil a day, with 15 pounds of hay and five pounds of grain, that would register between 10 and 12 percent,” calculates Williams.

And about those carbs—fiber, sugar and starch are all carbohydrates, and they are all processed differently. Fiber is a structural carbohydrate; sugar and starch are non-structural, called “NSCs.”

High-energy corn, for example, which is 60 percent NSC, is processed in the small intestine and may provide a short burst of energy before a “crash.” Super-high-fiber hay, low in sugar and starch, passes by the small intestine and is fermented in the large intestine.

“When a horse is on a high sugary diet, carb overload occurs, as sugars and starches pass through the small intestine and get fermented in the large,” explains Williams. “That’s the wrong pathway and causes problems in those ‘metabolically-challenged’ horses.”

Williams just doesn’t love the term “low carb” since hay, which is mostly fiber and is a carb, should be the majority of the horse’s diet. Instead, she prefers, “low sugar” and “low starch” as terminology, and she likes beet pulp: “not a lot of calories but a lot of bulk,” which many companies are adding to feeds.

How Much?

Measure grain by weight and not by volume: no guessing, please. “Coffee cans or scoops vary in size,” notes Williams. “For a baseline, weigh the scoop, then the grain and scoop on a bathroom scale, then subtract for accuracy. One scoop of pellets won’t equal one scoop of oats.”

If the horse is on permanent vacation, not exercising at all, has pasture and hay 24/7 and you can’t see the ribs, leave the grain in the bin, cautions Williams. “Horses can live off pure hay alone,” she notes, and if the hay isn’t top-notch, simply supplement with a multi-vitamin and mineral product. It’s tempting, but don’t overdo supplements, just as you wouldn’t with your own daily pill regimen. Most grains contain a sufficient complement of vitamins and minerals, and if you order additional products, you may do harm if substances interact and cause toxicity or other problems. Example: extra-high levels of Vitamin E interfere with beta-carotene absorption.

“Keep it simple,” says Williams. “One popular supplement company estimates that horse owners feed an average of eight supplements, often simply because ‘a friend told me to.’ Ask yourself: ‘Why am I really feeding this?’ ”

Avoid being overwhelmed when calculating feed and nutrient levels by assessing body weight and condition. The popular reference, Body Condition Scoring (BCS), allows us to visually determine a horse’s body fat and stipulates that between markers one and nine, five is average and is where a horse should be.

Williams recommends you take advantage of your state’s land grant university and its Cooperative Extension services: ask agents about mineral properties in your local soil (these will affect hay content) and get specific advice about grain and supplements. For horses with medical problems, you’ll consult your veterinarian, too, before changing your feed regimen. Almost any feed you want is out there now.

What’s the Buzz?

Dr. Randel Raub is on the same page as Dr. Williams, concurring that we humans are often prone to killing our horses with kindness: Raub is director of research and new product development at Land O’ Lakes Purina Feed LLC, and his company, along with others, makes feeds with a non-structural carb (NSC) content of less than 20 percent for use in those metabolically-challenged horses that require this level.

High NSC isn’t always bad and Raub stands up for sweet feed, especially if a horse gets regular exercise. Why? NSCs in sweet feed are easily digested, readily available for a horse’s immediate energy needs or can be easily stored and used later as an energy source. Bottom line: that combination of grain and molasses tastes yummy to a horse and sweet feed has its place, especially at the racetrack where calorie-burning horses consume large quantities and usually don’t suffer from metabolic disease-related issues. Remember that with pelleted or processed feed, more NSC control is available versus a typical grain-based sweet feed with 40 percent or more NSC content.

He also feels that calling feeds “low starch,” “low carb” or “lite” does us consumers a disservice: “It’s not just, ‘feed this and all my problems will go away,’ if an owner isn’t addressing the fact that the horse is 500 pounds overweight and inactive!”

Raub agrees with Williams that over-supplementation is a problem: “We want to cure everything with a pill” and that’s not always helpful, nor is adding unnecessary components to your horse’s diet. A well-planned program of hay and the correct feed for your horse’s activity level and medical history should be your primary focus. Analyze your feed bag labels, and you could find these components already in the mix, along with others; ask an expert (not just a friend!) if you’re not sure.

Wondering where equine nutrition will head in the next decade? Raub thinks we may see feeds with less molasses application and a trend toward even more pelleted/extruded types of feed. The industry overall will likely produce additional types of feeds with intrinsic fiber components, and “if ethanol production for fuel continues to expand, using corn and grains in the process, surprisingly, those byproducts could become increasingly important as a feed ingredient.” Finally, just as with us humans, the focus on improving geriatric equine nutrition will be greatly enhanced as horses’ lives extend appreciably. “With more older horses come more health problems,” affirms Raub, “and horse feeds will address those in more targeted ways.”