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Different Feeds for Different Needs

Understand the feeds and calories in your horse’s diet.


Did you know that the average adult horse requires 15,500 calories per day to maintain his or her weight? Additional calories are required in athletes, geriatrics and pregnant mares in the third trimester. Weather conditions, especially extreme cold, also boost the body’s need for calories.

The very best way to provide your horse with the needed calories is by feeding good-quality forage in the form of hay or pasture. Horses need fiber in their diet in order to keep the bugs in the intestine functioning and to further digestion. Fiber is, however, low in calories and varies in its digestibility, therefore it needs to be fed in large quantities. Fifty percent of the daily calories in your horse’s diet should come from hay or pasture. Ten to twenty pounds of hay need to be fed to the average horse to achieve that goal. The other fifty percent can come from feeding additional forages or grain products.

For instance, sweet feed and pelleted concentrates are rich sources of protein, fat and carbohydrates. Pound for pound, they are more calorie-rich than hay, pasture, complete or senior feeds. They are always intended to be used as a supplement to hay and are usually fed at a rate of one-half pound per 100 pounds of body weight per day. (This comes to about five pounds divided into two meals for the average horse.) These feeds vary in protein and fat densities in order to accommodate a variety of growth and activity needs. All of the commercially prepared bagged feeds have a label attached that will tell you at least the percentage of fat and protein the feed contains. The higher the fat and protein content, the higher the calories. If two different feeds have identical protein content, the one higher in fat will provide more calories. A few companies specialize in high-fat diets, and we are seeing great results in hard-keepers who are being supplemented with these feeds. Remember that you will pay a higher price for a higher calorie content.

Complete feeds can be fed with or without hay. This means that complete feeds are high in fiber. If the average horse is to be maintained on a complete feed without forage, he or she will need on the order of 14 to 17 pounds per day! That’s a 50-pound bag every three days! Because complete feeds are low in calories, we recommend them for miniature horses or easy-keepers so that they can look forward to a larger portion in their feed bucket than would be allowed with a richer concentrate.

Complete feeds fed without hay are wonderful for the horse with heaves because the dust in hay exacerbates respiratory problems. A complete feed is not a good choice for the hard-keeper who can still eat hay or graze, because he can get more calories in less volume from a concentrate (discussed above).

Senior feeds are complete feeds designed specifically for the older horse. They can be fed with or without forage. The fiber in the geriatric feeds is easily digestible. Each mouthful of this feed can be fully utilized by the aging intestine. Again, pound for pound, senior feeds are less calorie-dense than a sweet feed or pelleted concentrate. If a senior feed is to be effective as the horse’s sole source of calories, expect to feed 12 to 14 pounds per day.

Keep all these facts in mind when you are trying to decide on the appropriate feed for weight loss, weight gain or special digestive or dental needs. Calories is the key word: a pound of forage has fewer calories than a pound of complete feed, which has fewer calories than a pound of concentrate.

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