Healthy As a Horse: How to Design An Optimal Feeding Program

September 22, 2020
 cowgirl bailing hay outside stalls

Creating an optimal feeding program for your horse can be a challenge, but it’s well worth the time you put in. With optimal nutrition, your horse can enjoy a healthy body weight, appropriate energy levels and improved overall health. These four strategies can help you to develop a feeding program that will support your horse’s nutrition and performance needs.

Evaluate Your Horse’s Condition

For your feeding program to be a success, start by taking stock of your horse’s current condition and workload, as well as your goals for your feeding program. Is your horse underweight? Do you want to boost his energy to give him a competitive edge? Consider whether your horse has any conditions — for example, if the horse is pregnant or has Cushing’s disease — that will affect his nutritional requirements.

You’ll also want to think about how your feeding program will fit into your facility’s practices and feed schedule. If you own your barn and feed your horses three or four times a day, you’ll design your program differently than you would if you board at a facility where horses are fed twice per day.

Start With Forage

The bulk of your horse’s diet needs consist of forage, like hay or pasture, so start there. Your horse should consume at least 1% of his body weight in forage each day. If you have a 1,200-pound horse, plan to feed or give your horse access to a minimum of 12 pounds of forage.

Keep in mind that forage has many benefits. A horse that has continuous access to forage may stand a reduced risk of colic compared with horses that consume forage in two or three larger meals. Forage can also help to buffer your horse’s gut, providing valuable protection against stomach ulcers.

Having your hay tested can give you an accurate idea of its nutritional value and what nutritional needs you may need to make up for with grain and supplements. Your local department of agriculture can help to connect you to hay testing resources, as well as information about common soil nutrient deficiencies in your area.

Calculate Nutrient Requirements

You’ll need to calculate just how much protein your horse needs. According to the University of Georgia Extension, a mature 880-pound horse that isn’t in heavy exercise will need to consume about 504 grams of protein per day. A horse in intense exercise will need about 804 grams of protein to maintain its body weight and condition.

If you know the protein content of your hay, you can calculate how many grams of protein your horse is consuming daily through hay alone. Convert the weight of your hay your horse eats each day to kilograms, then multiply it by the percentage of the protein it contains. You’ll need to convert the final result, which will be in kilograms, back to grams.

For example, if your horse eats 6 kg of hay, and the hay has a 10.4 percent protein content, you would multiply 6 kg x 0.104. The end result, 0.624 kg, equates to 624 grams of protein. If your horse is in intense work and needs 804 grams of protein, you’ll need to make up for the lacking 180 grams of protein through a feed concentrate.

Supplement For Specific Needs

A diet that includes manufacturer-recommended amounts of processed feeds will often deliver all the nutrition that your horse needs, but you may still need to supplement his diet. Performance horses can benefit from supplements like EPO-Equine, a blood builder that can support greater stamina and endurance, or from Un-Lock, an advanced muscle formula that can help to reduce muscle cramping. Take a look at your horse’s performance demands, health issues and more to identify appropriate supplements.

Creating and maintaining an ideal feeding program for your horse will take time, and it’s an ongoing process. Be prepared to reassess and adjust this program as the seasons and your horse’s athletic levels change. Once you know how to establish the right feeding program, you’ll be able to revise it as needed to support your horse’s health. 

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