Feeding Them Right

As nutritional science evolves, feed companies are stepping up and offering better products for the horses in your care.

One of the most important aspects of horse care is proper nutrition. It is also an area that receives a great deal of attention and research as scientists and veterinarians look for better ways to keep performance horses in peak condition. The goal is to acquire and maintain ideal body condition for a horse’s specific type of performance by providing the right mix fuel and nutrients.

New research shows there may be big differences in the requirements of racehorses, active show horses, older school horses and pleasure horses. New topics of investigation in equine nutrition research include: feed requirements, the importance of forage, protein and amino acid requirements, benefits of feeding fat, fat sources, essential fatty acids, vitamin and mineral requirements and specialized feed products. With so many options, it takes a bit of time to understand what is best for your horses without overfeeding or buying an expensive feed that provides more than your horses need.

Feed Requirements

With a barn full of boarders and/or school horses, it is important to look at each horse as an individual. But you can start with basic feeding principles and work from there. Horses should eat about 2% of body weight (dry matter basis) each day as forage, from pasture, hay and/or processed forage products to maintain digestive health and reduce boredom. That means 22 pounds per day for an 1,100-pound horse.

Assuming the horse is in the correct body condition, most horses that are lightly ridden several times a week in English or Western pleasure or equitation do well consuming that much forage along with a salt/vitamin/mineral supplement and/or a few pounds of a fortified feed. Horses that do moderate work, such as jumping, lower-level eventing, upper-level dressage, regular showing, reining, cutting or barrel racing might need some additional good-quality forage, 5 to 6 pounds of a balanced, fortified feed and/or a high-fat supplement. Horses that race, event at the upper levels, or do endurance will test the limits of their digestive systems.

Protein Requirements

In the past, if horses needed more energy or to gain weight, it was common to increase the amount of protein or simply add more grain. According to Judith A. Reynolds, Ph.D. at ADM Alliance Nutrition, this practice results in decreased performance, high ammonia levels in stalls and wasted money. As the workload increases, horses need more total feed, not a higher percentage of protein in the feed.

Mature horses, whether idle or working, need only about 9 to 11% crude protein in the total ration, which is easily supplied by good-quality grass or mixed grass/legume forages. Actually, crude protein is not the most important consideration in performance horses. Horses have requirements for each of the essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein, rather than the protein itself. In a paper presented at the 2002 AAEP Convention, Leslie Breuer, Ph.D. of LH Breuer and Associates, summarized a study comparing a group of horses fed 14.5% crude protein with a group fed 7.5% crude protein plus supplemental amino acids. No deficiencies were found in the lower protein group. “Horses require amino acids, not proteins,” he said.

Benefits of Adding Fat

A typical horse ration of hay and grain contains 1 to 3% fat by weight. Horses can utilize up to about 18 percent fat in the total ration without adverse effects. Most added-fat diets contain 5 to 10 percent fat concentrates or high-fat supplements, so the total rations contain 3 to 6 percent fat. (Compare this to a typical high-fat diet in humans, which is 40 percent fat!)

Research has shown that increasing the amount of fat in horse diets is beneficial. Fat is a source of essential fatty acids and concentrated energy, and it aids in the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.

It is a common misconception that energy should come from grains, but compared to fats, grains are really a low-energy source. Fats and oils contain 3 times the digestible energy of an equal amount of oats and 2.5 times the energy of corn. By adding fat, you can feed less grain and decrease the risks of colic, ulcers, developmental orthopedic diseases and laminitis. A horse is only able to utilize 50 to 60 percent of the energy available in hay and grain, but over 90 percent of the energy in vegetable oil. This makes oil very attractive for increasing weight or meeting high energy needs.

It is also believed that feeding fat increases stamina in already fit horses. A calmer, improved attitude may also be seen because adding fat can decrease the glycemic response, or “sugar high” that results from grain feeding. A study done at Kentucky Equine Research in Versailles, Kentucky, showed the highest glycemic response was from sweet feed, followed by oats, corn, high-fiber, and added fat feed.

Fat Choices

Adding fat to the diet can be as simple as mixing regular vegetable oil with the grain. It is best to increase the amount of oil fed over a 2 to 3 week period to avoid digestive upset like diarrhea. Dr. Reynolds does not recommend adding fat unless the total ration is then re-balanced for protein, vitamins and minerals.

Typical forms of fat for horses are corn, canola and linseed oils, flaxseed, stabilized rice bran, and copra meal (a by-product of coconut processing). Both stabilized rice bran and copra meal are high in digestible fiber and low in starch and sugar, but they are also very high in phosphorous and low in calcium. Therefore, when using them, be sure to balance the total ration for the calcium/phosphorous ratio.

Karen E. Davison, Ph.D., Equine Specialist for Purina Mills, LLC, wrote “the total quantity or percentage of added fat is not the key to achieving optimum performance results. Instead, it is the inclusion of high-quality vegetable oils with other quality ingredients and nutrients supplied in adequate and balanced amounts that has been proven to consistently provide the desired results. A thoroughly researched, well-balanced ration made of high-quality ingredients is the best way to realize the benefits of high-fat diets.” Be sure to follow the recommendations for the feed you use and contact the feed company with any questions.

Essential Fatty Acids

Another subject that has been getting a lot of attention is omega-3 (alpha-linolenic acid) versus omega-6 (linoleic acid) essential fatty acids (EFA). Flaxseed oil, with 50 percent omega-3 and 15 percent omega-6 EFA, is the best vegetable source of omega-3 EFA. In contrast, corn oil contains no omega-3 EFA. Soybean oil and stabilized rice bran contain both, but are higher in omega-6 than omega-3.

Paul Siciliano, Ph.D. associate professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, believes that there is a lot of potential with omega-3 EFA. Higher amounts of omega-3 EFA may help decrease the body’s response to inflammatory stimuli, which could help a horse with conditions such as heaves or equine recurrent uveitis and help all horses recover from exercise.

According to Laurie Lawrence, Ph.D. at the University of Kentucky, some preliminary studies have shown that horses fed high levels of omega-3 may respond better to training, but additional research needs to be done to confirm any findings. “At this time, I don’t think any benefits of omega-3 fatty acids have been clearly demonstrated in horses,” she said. “Generally I think that we have added fat to horse diets without considering the omega 3 to omega 6 ratio and whether there might be any potential effects. At this time there is not a good basis for recommending a specific amount of omega 3s in the diet or a specific ratio for 3:6. Very likely in normal healthy horses there is not a big issue, however in horses in stressed environments or horses

that have ongoing inflammatory processes, it might be prudent to consider the omega 3 to omega 6 ratio.”

Siciliano agrees. “The whole challenge is that we need to see clinical applications. Just because we see changes in plasma, does that mean a horse is healthier? There are a lot of unanswered questions regarding an appropriate dose.”

Vitamins and Minerals

Cereal grains and forages are deficient in at least 10 to 15 vitamins and minerals horses need. Since the development of fortified feeds, though, deficiency syndromes have been drastically reduced in horses.

For horses on a complete forage diet, many options are available to ensure the horses receive a proper balance of vitamins and minerals. One of these options is MoorMan’s mineral/vitamin products, available from ADM Alliance Nutrition as part of its Forage First programs. Topdress and free choice salt and multi-vitamin/mineral products are available at a surprisingly low cost per day. Granular, block, tub and pelleted versions are created to balance the type of forage you feed.

There are many supplement choices, whether you need to provide one, several or multiple nutrients from one product. Of course, most commercial feeds also contain vitamins and minerals in varying amounts and ratios. Dr. Laurence advises consumers to read the label carefully and call the company if you have questions about vitamin and mineral fortification.

Feed Product Choices

So what products are available on the market to meet the needs of your horses? Many modern feeds contain added fat and digestible fiber so they have less grain and starch compared to older formulas. Large, reputable companies, such as Purina Mills, Southern States, ADM Alliance Nutrition and Blue Seal have a variety of grain and supplemental products to meet your horses’ needs.

The two most common forms of feeds, sweet feeds and pelleted feeds, usually contain different ingredients and are digested differently by horses. Sweet feeds are limited to oats, corn, molasses and a protein/vitamin/mineral pellet. And, since corn (71 percent) and oats (53 percent) are very high in starch, sweet feeds usually contain more than 60 percent starch.

“Horses should eat about 2% of body weight each day…”

Pelleted feeds can be formulated with many more ingredients, including some that are very low in starch. Commercial feeds with less than 25 percent starch are recommended for horses prone to obesity, colic, founder, tying-up, ulcers and developmental orthopedic diseases.

Feed companies offer a variety of crude protein levels in their products, but 10 and 12 percent crude protein are the most common choices for performance horses. According to Dr. Reynolds, the protein content of the total ration, including the hay, is more important that the percent of protein in the feed alone. “The protein percentage in the feed should be chosen depending on the protein and amino acid content of the forage and the amount fed. Concentrates, really, should only supply nutrients not found in forages in adequate amounts.”

If you want a concentrated feed that is higher in fat, choose one that has 4.5 to 10 percent fat. The fiber level should be at least 10 percent, but preferably 13 to 14 percent to minimize digestive disorders.

You can also purchase complete rations that contain enough fiber to supply 100 percent complete balanced nutrition without additional hay or pasture. Senior formulas typically have higher levels of protein, fat and fiber that are easily digestible. Some brands can be soaked and fed as a mash if chewing is a problem. Premium feeds also often have additional yeast culture, vitamin E, selenium and biotin.

Below is a sampling of products available on the market; names and contact information for many large feed companies are listed separately. It is best to compare brands, talk to your veterinarian and/or a nutritionist to see which would be the right fit for your situation.

ADM Alliance Nutrition

  • Patriot Performance: 10%, 12% or 14% crude protein, 6% crude fat, 14% crude fiber
  • Patriot Senior: 14% crude protein, 7% crude fat, 20% crude fiber
  • Grostrong: 13% crude protein, 6% crude fat, 17.5% crude fiber, less than 23% starch
  • Moorglo: more than 23% starch, 13.5% crude fat, 14% crude fiber supplement formulated to replace grain

Blue Seal

  • Trotter: 14% crude protein, 2% crude fat, 20% crude fiber
  • Hunter: 14% crude protein, 6% crude fat, 9.5% crude fiber
  • Pacer: 12% crude protein, 6% crude fat, 9% crude fiber
  • Horse: 10 – 12% crude protein, 6% crude fat, 9% crude fiber
  • Vintage Victory: 10% crude protein, 10% crude fat, 11% crude fiber
  • Vintage Senior: 14.5% crude protein, 4.5% crude fat, 12% crude fiber


  • Training formula: 14% crude protein, 6% crude fat, 11% crude fiber
  • Maturity/Senior formula: 12% crude protein, 4.5% crude fat, 15% crude fiber
  • Reduced Energy formula: 12% crude protein, 4% crude fat, 14% crude fiber


  • Legends textured and pellets: 10%, 12% or 14% crude protein, 6% crude fat, 8% crude fiber
  • Legends EquiTech: 10% or 12% crude protein, 10% crude fat, 8% crude fiber
  • Legends Maturity: 12% crude protein, 6% crude fat, 18% crude fiber

Pennfield Feed examples

  • Phase Three Performance Choice: 10% or 12% crude protein, 6% crude fat, 9% crude fiber
  • Phase Four Pleasure Horse’s Choice: 12% crude protein, 2.5% crude fat, 9% crude fiber
  • Phase Five Senior’s Choice: 14% crude protein, 6.5% crude fat, 20% crude fiber


  • Omolene 100 Active Pleasure: 10% crude protein, 4.5% crude fat, 6% crude fiber
  • Omolene 200 Performance: 14% crude protein, 6% crude fat, 6.5% crude fiber
  • Strategy: 14% crude protein, 6% crude fat, 8% crude fiber
  • Equine Senior: 14% crude protein, 4% crude fat, 16% crude fiber
  • Equine Adult: 12% crude protein, 3% crude fat, 25% crude fiber

Triple Crown

  • Triple Crown Performance: 10% crude protein, 10% crude fat, 7% crude fiber
  • Triple Crown Performance: 14% crude protein, 10% crude fat, 6.5% crude fiber
  • Triple Crown Senior: 14% crude protein, 10% crude fat, 17% crude fiber
  • Triple Crown Lite: 12% crude protein, 3% crude fat, 20% crude fiber

Special thanks to Dr. Judy Reynolds from ADM?Alliance Nutrition for her technical assistance with this article.

For More Info

  1. ADM Alliance Nutrition: 1-800-680-8254
  2. Agway: (717)-530-7778
  3. Blue Seal: (603)-437-3400
  4. Buckeye Nutrition: (330)-828-2251
  5. Formax Feeds/Conagra: 1-800-241-2200
  6. Nutrena: (612)-742-9300
  7. Pennfield Corp.: 1-800-732-0467
  8. Purina Mills: 1-800-227-8941
  9. Semican: (819)-362-8823
  10. Southern States Coop: (804)-281-1000
  11. TDI Feed: 1-800-457-7577
  12. Tiz Whiz: 1-800-860-6789
  13. Triple Crown Nutrition: 1-800-451-9916






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