Nutrition Advice For Your Horse From The Pro’s

by: Stacy Bromley Cheetham, MPA

An Interview with nutritionists at BUCKEYE Nutrition; Kristen Janicki, MS, PAS and Amber Krotky, MS, PAS

We sat down recently to have a chat with the nutritionists at BUCKEYE Nutrition, mainly to get nutritional advice for our horses, but we also wanted to know more.  We asked, what exactly makes a horse a hard keeper?  What role do you as an equestrian play in keeping your horse properly fed and hydrated?  And, what do certain breeds, like Thoroughbreds, need that differs from other breeds?  Horseback riding should be educational and fun, and your vet and equine nutritionist can help you to learn more about nutrition.

What makes a horse a “hard keeper?”

A hard keeper can be defined as a horse that has difficulty gaining weight or loses body condition easily. Whether it is due to a heightened metabolic rate or breed tendency, most Thoroughbreds fall into the category of being a hard keeper.

What role does hydration play in the overall nutrition plan?

According to the nutritionists, water is one of the most important nutrients in a horse’s diet, playing a role in digestion and thermoregulation among other functions. An idle horse requires approximately 1.3 gallons of water/222lbs body weight. Typically for a 1,100lb horse, that would be around 6-7 gallons of water per day. Adding a product like Horse Quencher into your horse’s water buckets can encourage them to get their requirements for hydration on a daily basis and promote good nutrition.

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What are the most important aspects to consider when putting together a nutritional plan for your hard keeper?

The most important aspect of a good nutritional plan for any horse includes starting with adequate high quality forage, hay or pasture. Forage plays a vital role in providing nutrients and overall digestive health, particularly in the hindgut. The hindgut of the horse contains a unique microbe population responsible for the fermentation of fiber and horses without adequate fiber in their diet are at risk for digestive disturbances such as colic. At least 1% of the horse’s diet should be fiber to ensure proper gastrointestinal health.

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Grain should supplement the forage, as appropriate, to meet the horse’s needs and for hard keepers, this is usually necessary to provide adequate calories to maintain weight and body condition.

Are there specific needs to address with an OTTB (off-the-track Thoroughbred, or one that has raced) that you don’t usually see in other breeds, keeping in mind of course that all horses are individuals?

Yes, there are a couple of specific considerations for feeding OTTBs. On the track, a Thoroughbred’s diet is highly grain-based, consuming between 10-15 pounds of grain per day. Large cereal grain meals, plus lack of turnout on the track can also lead to the development of ulcers and it is estimated that 90% of Thoroughbreds on the track do have ulcers. Therefore, considerations for improving digestive health are vital when transitioning an OTTB to life off the track.

How do the nutrition requirements differ for a pleasure horse/trail horse versus a hunter/jumper who is in training and competing at different levels?

Nutrition requirements, mainly total calories per day, for working horses differ based on the amount and type of work they are performing. Here are the differences in daily caloric needs for a horse weighing about 1,100 pounds:

  • Horses in light work (one to three hours of riding per week) should consume about 20 Megacalories with vitamin D (Mcal  DE). Horses in this group include mounts for the “weekend warrior” or recreational trail rider.
  • Horses in moderate work (three to five hours of work per week) require about 23.3 Mcal DE per day. This category also begins to estimate energy needs for skill work, such as jumping or cutting. Horses in this category include show horses, polo ponies or ranch horses work.
  • Horses in heavy work (four to five hours of riding per week, with substantial portions spent at the canter or doing skill work) need about 26.6 Mcal DE each day. Horses in this category include low- to mid-level eventers, some racehorses, and frequently shown horses.
  • Finally, horses in very heavy work (six to 12 hours of work per week) require roughly 34.5 Mcal DE daily. These are racehorses, elite three-day eventers and combined driving horses.

What role do supplements play in a horse’s nutrition plan?

First and foremost, a horse’s diet needs to meet their daily nutritional needs with good quality forage and grain when necessary. A fat supplement can be added to increase the caloric content of the diet without a drastic increase in the amount of grain they need to consume per day. Electrolytes can be added for working horses, especially in hot and humid conditions and Horse Quencher can be added to encourage drinking. There are a wide variety of other supplements on the market today, but most are lacking in solid scientific research proving their necessity. Make sure you work with a nutritionist or veterinarian before adding any additional supplements to your horse’s diet.

When choosing a feed for your horse(s) what are the most important things to look for on the label?

Many of the most important aspects of choosing a horse feed aren’t listed on the label. You will want to ensure your horse is eating a feed that is produced in a mill that uses high quality grains and ensures the quality and safety of the product you are purchasing. For example, you may want to ask the feed company what other types of feeds are produced at their mill, specifically with regards to medicated livestock feeds. Contamination of horse feed with a medication intended for use only in livestock, particularly ionophores such as monensin and lascalocid, can be highly toxic to horses.

On the label itself, consider the ingredient list and guaranteed analysis. Are the ingredients listed in general terms such as “grain products”? This means that the grains included in that feed could change from time to time (known as least-cost formulation.) It is important that your feed provides vitamin E. Make sure that nutrient is listed on the guaranteed analysis, not just in the ingredient list.

Speaking of feed labels, can you help decipher one for us – what do all those percentages mean to your horse?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is responsible for the regulation of all feed labeling and requires certain nutrients to be listed on the feed tag. For example, crude fat, fiber and protein will be listed as a minimum or maximum percentage on horse feed tags. For a feed with 12% crude protein, this concentrate will be present in any amount of feed you are feeding. Micro-minerals, those needed in small amounts, will be listed as “ppm” (parts per million) meaning milligrams of the mineral per kilogram of feed.

Sample food label

It is important, as owners, trainers, riders and even nutritionists, to educate ourselves on how we are feeding our horses and what is going into their bodies. Just as we are vigilant about what we, as athletes ingest, so should we be vigilant about what our horses eat. Hydration plays just as important a role, making sure that our horses get the crucial nutrients they need, while ingesting important electrolytes and staving off maladies such as colic and tying-up, which can be fatal. Working with a good vet and nutritionist, employing a high-quality feed program and incorporating helpful products like Horse Quencher into your daily routine all help to make sure your hard keeper looks and performs his best every day.

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