(Part II of a three-part series)
SALEM, Ohio – So you wanted a horse or maybe your children talked you into buying a horse. Now, what are you going to feed it?
Horses are grazing animals with small stomachs designed to process small amounts of food.
Because of owners’ schedules, horses usually get fed relatively large amounts of feed at one time, when smaller, spaced-out portions are best for them.
Since this does happen, owners need to be careful with what and how they feed.
The amount of food a horse needs varies according to its activity, age, breed, the weather, quality of feed, quality of shelter, and the condition of its teeth.
According to Ann Swinker, Penn State University horse specialist, it is important to know how to feed your horse and to make sure it gets all the nutrients it needs.
Requirements. A horse requires five types of nutrients: energy nutrients, proteins, vitamins, minerals and water. Each nutrient plays an important role in the horse’s body.
Swinker said the energy in feeds is measured in mega calories of digestible energy. Energy nutrients are the body’s fuel and make up the bulk of the diet.
After food is digested, blood carries its energy to the body. Energy nutrients also power muscle movement to walk, breathe and even blink eyes.
Carbohydrates and fats, examples of energy nutrients, can be found in hay and grass. They are the main energy source for all animals. Fat or oil is another source of energy.
Proteins eventually become muscle, internal organs, bones and blood. Skin, hair, hooves and many other parts of a horse are also made of protein.
Vitamins are needed in much smaller amounts than other nutrients, but they are just as vital.
Small amounts of minerals – iron, copper, phosphorous, calcium and magnesium -are also needed.
Types of feed. Your horse can get its essential nutrients from many types of feed.
Roughage, found in hay or grass, is the bulk of the horse’s food. Grass or alfalfa hay, or a combination of the two, are good sources of roughage.
Les Ober, program assistant for OSU Extension in Geauga County, suggests finding a reputable hay supplier if you are buying hay.
To do this, ask other horse owners. Who do they prefer and trust?
“Hay is the No. 1 feed supply for a horse,” he said.
Swinker agrees, adding that hay is the most important part of the horse’s diet and makes up 50 percent to 100 percent of the horse’s diet.
It is the best source of energy, protein, vitamins, minerals and, most importantly, fiber that is necessary for normal gut function in the horse.
Grass hay is generally higher in fiber than alfalfa, but alfalfa may be higher in nutrients.
Many horse owners feed grass hay or straight alfalfa or a combination of both to their horses.
Grasses commonly used as hay are brome, orchard and timothy.
Hay quality. Horses need good quality hay.
“You need a good supply year in and year out,” said Ober.
Good quality hay stands out, Swinker said. “It should be bright green, leafy and fine textured, with a fresh, pleasant aroma,” she added.
Dust is bad in any feed for horses. It not only reduces the taste of the hay, it also aggravates respiratory problems. Avoid feeding moldy or dusty hay.
Ober said that when it comes to hay, the most important element is how it is stored.
“If it is in an improper structure, with no ventilation, it can spoil,” he said.
Ober said many horse owners try and work with hay producers to buy the hay out of the field after it’s cut.
Selection. Need help selecting hay that meets the needs of your horse?
Well, if you have a knowledgeable supplier, the task shouldn’t be too hard, but there are other options.
Quality of hay can be measured in terms of qualitative and quantitative characteristics.
Qualitative characteristics are visual appraisals: the look, feel, and smell of the hay.
By the numbers. Quantitative characteristics are actual chemical measures of various nutrients and other components.
Swinker said qualitative measures may be used to narrow down what hay to buy, but quantitative analysis measures should be used to make your final decision.
The first step is getting a hay sample analyzed by a forage testing lab.
To properly sample hay, a core sampler should be used. Core samplers can be purchased at most feed and farm supply stores or contact your county extension office to locate one.
Ten to 20 bales should be sampled and then mixed together for final analysis.
One pound of forage is actually sent for testing.
Swinker said that it’s important to choose a certified forage laboratory. They can be found by calling your county extension office. The cost for analysis ranges from $18-$40.
Test analysis. The test takes a few days to analyze items that are nutritionally important, but the key items to look for in forage quality are acid detergent fiber and crude protein.
Cellulose found in the fiber is a carbohydrate that has low digestibility in the horse.
Lignin, an organic compound also found in fiber, is essentially indigestible and interferes with the digestion of other nutrients.
The higher the acid detergent fiber level, the lower the digestibility.
Some analyses may contain estimates of the energy concentration of the hay. These values are generally intended for use with cattle and should not be used for horses, unless calculated correctly for horses.
You may want to approach a seller and ask for a sample. The seller might be willing to split the cost of the test to learn the information also.
Good pasture. Pasture grass may be a good money-saving food source for horses but the pasture still must be maintained. If animals are allowed to graze on a pasture too long, the grass may be killed.
You need a steady supply of appetizing plants, such as grasses or legumes.
Swinker recommends housing your horse in a stall for part of the day and use the pasture only for daily exercise and grazing.
Poisonous plants. Horses will usually avoid eating poisonous plants, because they don’t taste good, as long as there is an abundant supply of good quality hay or pasture available.
When a horse is faced with no pasture or hay, it might decide to sample one of the poisonous weeds left standing in the field.
To ensure your horse will be safe, always make sure it has an adequate amount of hay and feed.
As an owner, you should learn to recognize poisonous weeds and control them by pulling or by use of commercially registered herbicides.
“Owners should physically walk or ride around the pasture and pull weeds,” said Swinker.
Also remember to examine your hay for any unwanted plants.
Grains. Small grains, such as corn, oats and barley, are known as concentrates. Concentrates are lower in fiber but higher in energy than roughage.
Grain quality is just as important as hay quality.
Grains must be cracked, steamed and rolled, but if ground too finely, it may cause respiratory problems or colic.
According to Swinker, oats are the safest and easiest grain to feed with hay because it is high in fiber and low in energy, and higher in protein than corn.
Corn has the highest energy content of any grain and can put weight on a horse quickly. Barley is an intermediate source of energy and protein content.
Sometimes supplements are added to the diet to increase concentration of particular nutrients, but Swinker recommends only adding supplements to the diet if something is missing.
“If they have a complete diet, you don’t need to dump other vitamins in,” said Swinker.
She said that supplements should be used mainly for working or show horses.
Feeding a horse to maintain a body condition that is similar to that of an athlete takes a lot of work, dedication and patience.
Next week: What’s that smell? Before the manure piles up, find out what to do with it.
(Part II of a three-part series)