There are several different versions of the golden rules of feeding, which are guidelines to ensure good nutrition and feeding management. The guidelines laid out below are an evolved version of the traditional golden rules.
Offer free access to clean fresh water: Water intake is more important than feed, because like us, horses can survive longer with no feed than they can with no water. But interestingly horses can stay healthy drinking only once daily. They have evolved to visit water holes (dangerous places) as little as possible and their physiological processes cope well with water only once daily. However, working horses will drink more if offered ad lib water, so it is still good practice to do so. Water containers should be kept clean, especially field troughs.
Feed by weight not by volume: volume means nothing unless you know the weight! A 2.5 litre Stubbs scoopful of quick dried alfalfa chaff weighs about 200 g and supplies around 2.2 MJ of digestible energy (DE), whereas the same scoop of nuts with the same energy content as the alfalfa weighs about 1.7 kg and will supply 18.7 MJ DE. So the energy supply from one scoop of two feeds of the same energy content differs by 16.5 MJ DE – or a quarter of a 500 kg non-working horse’s energy requirements.
Watch out with supplements – they are often fed by the scoop, but the key factor is the weight so make sure to use the scoop that came with the tub! When calculating how much active ingredients your horse receives, you need to know the weight of one daily serving.
Feed according to the individual: this is the art of feeding, as opposed to the science. The diet should be adjusted according to the individual horse, their body condition and their temperament. There is great variability in individuals, and ‘book values’ of nutrient requirements are only ever a guide. In the same way, some supplements will work better on some horses than others.
Feed concentrates little and often: traditional concentrates are based on starchy grain, which is digested efficiently in the gut only in small quantities. Feed over 1.5 kg of a 30% starch coarse mix and you will overload the digestive capacity of the small intestine and cause hindgut disturbance. The newer, higher digestible fibre and lower starch compounds are safer to feed in large quantities per meal.
Feed only high quality feed: horses are susceptible to mouldy or musty feed, so they should be avoided. Supplements containing oil should be stored carefully and fed by the ‘best before’ date because oil can go rancid.
Feed meals whilst fresh: bucket feeds are best given dampened, but the water should ideally be added just prior to feeding fortified compounds. Some feed needs to be soaked e.g. sugar beet pulp or some forage nuts, but they should be soaked for the minimum recommended time and under no circumstances should more than one day’s sugar beet be soaked in one batch. In warm weather soaked feeds – especially sugar beet and grains such as oats – will ferment and could be harmful to your horse.
Herbal tinctures should be added just prior to feeding to ensure optimal effects.
Mix meals well to avoid selection and potential diet balance disturbance: Horse diets (forage) are short of essential vitamins and minerals and these must be supplemented. If a fortified compound feed is used, ensure the horse eats all the components e.g. the small vitamin and mineral pellets in a coarse mix. Mix powered and pelleted supplements into the rest of the feed to ensure the horse gets the full daily serving. Dampening feed or mixing with soaked sugar beet or forage nuts can help to ensure everything is eaten up.
Make all dietary changes gradually: this practice gives time for the beneficial micro-organisms in the gut to adjust to the change in their food supply, and allows the adjustment of digestive enzymes produced by the horse. Doing so reduces the risk of gut disturbances and this rule applies to forage including grass as well as concentrate feeds.
Horses have very selective senses of taste and smell, so they can be sceptical of new tastes and aromas. This scepticism is another good reason to change feed and forage gradually. Strong tasting or smelling supplements should be introduced gradually over several days to help a fussy horse to accept them in their feed. The new supplement should be persisted with because some fussy horses will accept the new taste or smell over several days, despite refusing it the first day or two.
Wait an hour after feeding before exercising: this rule applies to the old, traditional regimes of feeding large concentrate meals and it doesn’t apply to a horse on grass or fed ad lib forage, providing they are not greedy and are not going to do very hard or fast work.
Maintain routine, feeding your horse at the same time each day: Interestingly, this only applies if you do have routine! Horses respond well to either a strict routine or none at all. Horses living out in groups are not disturbed by being fed at random times, and if the times are truly random they do not suffer from anticipation stress. However, confined horses who have routine can get stressed if that routine is changed.
Adjust feed according to work done, not work that is going to be done: this rule originated to avoid ‘Monday morning disease’ which is cause by horses with a condition called polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM), who tie up if fed concentrate and not worked.
Feed plenty of forage: Hopefully this rule is applied by all good horsemen and women because we know that horses have evolved to survive on forage and feeding plenty of it will help keep them physically and psychologically healthy. The absolute minimum is 50% of intake as fibrous forage, but ideally horses should be fed appropriate forage ad lib and other feeds and/or supplements only to balance what the forage is missing. However, ad lib forage may not be possible for good doers and overweight horses or ponies.