Avoiding Feed-related Problems in Horses

Christine Navarre  |  4/24/2007 12:14:18 AM

picture of two horses grazing

A properly balanced diet is essential to maximize a horse’s health and performance. Conversely, feeding mistakes can cause serious health problems and even death. With corn prices on the rise, many horse owners are reevaluating their grain supplementation practices. The following are some general recommendations to follow when developing a feeding program for horses. Remember, each animal and each farm is different, so it’s always best to consult an equine nutritionist or veterinarian for specific recommendations.

  • A balanced diet doesn’t always have to include a grain supplement. A horse’s digestive system is made to have forage (grass or hay) as the main ingredient in the diet. If good-quality forage is available, most horses do not need corn or other grain supplements. Horses that are exercised frequently, are growing, are lactating or are underweight may need some supplementation. But too much energy in the diet due to overuse of grain supplements can cause over conditioning and even obesity, both of which lead to other health problems. Even some high-quality hay, such as alfalfa, or pasture may need to be limited to avoid too much weight gain. Always have hay tested for nutritional content to determine how much to feed and if grain supplementation is necessary.

  • Feed to avoid heat and cold stress. Hay, especially grass hay, produces heat when it is digested. In times of cold stress, provide more hay. In times of heat stress, feed the highest-quality hay available, so fewer pounds are needed, thus reducing the amount of heat produced during digestion. Again, have hay tested and talk to a nutritionist or professional before making changes to the diet.

  • Keep feeding consistent. The most common cause of digestive upsets in horses is a change in the diet. Any change in feed amount or type needs to be made slowly over a few weeks. And unlike cattle, which have a large first stomach, horses have a small stomach, so they need to eat small amounts frequently. In general, hay should be fed free choice. If needed, grain should be limited to ½ pound of grain per 100 pounds of body weight per feeding.

  • Minerals are essential. Different mineral supplements are needed for different soil types and different parts of the country. Matching a mineral supplement to the specific local area is important for horses grazing pasture. But a different supplement may be needed if hay was harvested in a different area or state. When having hay tested, make sure an analysis of mineral content is included.

  • Avoid toxicities. Horses are very sensitive to molds and their toxins. Although many grain supplements are labeled for more than one species of livestock, some grain supplements suitable for other livestock should not be fed to horses. Feeds such as “screenings” or “fines” have a higher mold content than whole grains. These may be harmless to cattle but should not be fed to horses. Cattle, sheep and goat feed may also have some chemicals added, such as monensin, that can be toxic to horses. In general, only feed horses supplements that are actually labeled for horses. Other ways to avoid mold problems are: 1) store only a few weeks’ supply of grain at one time and clean storage bins between loads, especially in humid summer months; 2) store hay inside or at least covered, especially if round bales are fed; 3) feed only the amount of hay horses will actually eat to avoid having old hay build up on the ground.

For more detailed information on proper nutrition, including nutritional requirements and potential feed related diseases and toxicities, please see the Horses section of the LSU AgCenter website. Another good resource is the article “Basics of Feeding Horses: Reading the Feed Tag,” by Kathleen P. Anderson, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension.

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