Nutrition is a broad concept that is commonly overlooked or misunderstood, even though it serves as the foundation of a healthy and happy horse. Knowing the correct decisions to make regarding your horse’s diet might feel like a difficult task, but there are several things to consider or learn to assist you in making the right decision. It begins with understanding various aspects as they pertain to equine nutrition! Once you have an appropriate diet created, StableSecretary can assist you with staying organized to follow through with your plan.
The most basic requirement of a horse’s diet is forage! Long-stem forage in the form of fresh grass, or grass hay, allows horses to mimic their natural grazing behavior closely. As owners and caretakers, you must ensure that your horses receive 1%-2% of their body weight in forage per day. Several factors, including breed, workload, age, and more, determine this amount. Forage, however, does not provide complete nutrition for your equine partners. Grasses and hay tend to be deficient in specific vitamins and minerals which the horse requires in their diet. This is when concentrates, or grain, are generally added to the diet. It is important to remember that this can present its own challenges. When adding concentrates, you add calories, which some horses don’t need (like your easy-keepers). These calories in concentrates come from sugars and starches, which can be problematic for horses predisposed to nutritionally related health issues, such as Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS). One efficient way to add minerals and/or vitamins to your horse’s diet is to provide them with a vitamin or mineral supplement. Ration balancers are a great option to add vitamins, minerals, and some protein to the diet, generally in the form of a pellet. Each horse’s needs are different; therefore, a ration balancer might not be sufficient for some. Some horses may require a fortified grain or a complete feed, potentially in addition to a supplement.
Regarding the horse’s digestive tract, they are considered a non-ruminant herbivore and a hindgut fermenter, consisting of similar anatomical features to those of other species. The equine stomach is relatively small when considering its overall size, as it makes up less than 10% of the entire gastrointestinal tract (GI tract) and holds only about two gallons. The colon of the equine digestive system is extremely large, making up almost 50% of the whole system and holding about 15 gallons. Knowing this anatomy is important, especially when considering how a horse is fed. The small stomach alludes that the horse was designed to eat continuously (primarily forage), and the large colon allows for the slow fermentation of ingested foods and nutrient absorption.
Nutrients are separated into six primary categories: water, protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, and minerals. These are all essential to life!
Water is generally listed first on this list, as horses can survive longer without other nutrients than they can without water. Water is pertinent for metabolizing and for body temperature control. The average horse consumes 5-15 gallons of water daily, depending on factors such as size, the environment, workload, etc. It is important to always have fresh and clean water available to your horse. Protein, in the form of amino acids (or building blocks for protein), is essential in the equine diet.
Aside from water, protein is the most abundant substance in the body, making up muscles, connective tissue, enzymes, hormones, and other substances.
Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy in the diet. The fiber component of carbohydrates is essential to allow the large intestine to continue moving and functioning properly.
Fats are necessary for the health of cell membranes and to act as a carrier for fat-soluble vitamins out of the GI tract. In the diet, fat can provide additional calories to horses in need (your hard keepers) and can act as an alternative energy source to simple carbohydrates.
Vitamins, or organic elements, are required in small amounts and are essential for metabolic functions to prevent obvious signs of disease.
Minerals, or inorganic elements, must be present in the equine diet to allow for normal bodily functions. It is important to educate yourself on various aspects of these nutrients. When it comes specifically to vitamins and minerals, you need to be sure you are not overfeeding or underfeeding, as various health issues can arise from an imbalance. When provided in the correct rations, these six essential nutrients will ensure that your furry friends receive proper nutrition for good overall health, happiness, and optimal performance.
When trying to understand what is required as far as nutrients in the diet go, the Nutrient Requirements of Horses text by the National Research Council (NRC) provides invaluable information. This literature is commonly referenced by veterinarians, nutritionists, feed manufacturers, and more. Within its contents are chapters discussing nutrition and the feeding of horses regarding nutrient requirements of different physiological classes of horses and those in various levels of work. This guide can be handy even for the average horse owner, as it provides you with an outline of the minimal requirement of nutrients. Consulting a veterinarian or nutritionist is always a great option if you are ever unsure about the best options to be added to your horse’s diet. They can easily assist with understanding the byproducts and ingredients included in the concentrate you are feeding your horse. To truly ration a diet to ensure that you are providing your horse with the minimal required nutrients, a nutritionist or a local feed company representative or feed store who can help you make a connection is the best option to inquire with for assistance.
While nutrition can be viewed as an unending topic of discussion, it is encouraged to continue learning about all of the options and new aspects of research that are being studied. To summarize, forage is an essential component of your horse’s diet; however, it does not provide a complete and balanced diet. To be educated on the equine digestive system is pertinent to truly understand why and how forage should be fed primarily, with concentrates being fed to fill in the gaps. Knowing the six essential nutrients will assist in understanding what resources, like the Nutrient Requirements of Horses text, are explaining regarding minimum requirements based on various factors. And again, proper nutrition is the foundation of a healthy and happy horse!
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