As you open a sack of feed and empty it into your feed bin, have you ever stopped to think about how it was made? Some horse owners have become sceptical of horse feed manufacturers and prefer to feed straights that they can recognise. Our UK manufacturers, however, generally produce high quality feeds that are hygienically clean, balanced (when fed as recommended) and processed in such a way as to benefit your horse. That said, there is no harm in feeding straights providing you balance them correctly.

The term compound feed describes a horse feed that is made up of two or more ingredients blended together. A compound feed can be low calorie (energy) or it can be higher calorie, in which case it is also called a concentrate feed. The term ‘hard’ feed tends to be used for concentrate feed that is significantly higher in calories than the forage e.g. hay. The three main types of compound horse feed that are available are pellets (also called nuts, cubes and pencils), coarse mix (also called muesli and sweetfeed), and chaff, although some extruded feeds are also available nowadays. Pellets and coarse mixes tend to be made to balance the forage portion of the diet when fed at the full recommended amount. There has been a crossover in the chaffs and coarse mix recently, so that chaff-based coarse mixes (with added vitamins and minerals) are now available.

We have a huge choice of compound horse feeds in the UK. Photograph courtesy of Clare MacLeod.
We have a huge choice of compound horse feeds in the UK.
Photograph courtesy of Clare MacLeod.

Pelleting was the first technology used in the horse feed industry, by Spillers. Ingredients are ground and forced through a die – sometimes with the addition of steam – to produce pellets. This process produces a uniform feed that is palatable and avoids horses selecting out favourite ingredients, and can incorporate useful milled ingredients including linseed, soya hulls, sugar beet and oat fibre. Coarse mixes came along later, and although they are often more appealing to the owner, they often contain ingredients for visual appeal, that may not be optimal for the horse’s requirements e.g. flaked maize for a yellow colour, and flaked peas for green colour.

There are several technologies used in the processing of feed ingredients, to increase digestibility, palatability and practicality of use. Heat treatments including micronisation (using dry heat) and steam-flaking (wet heat) ‘cook’ cereals making them more digestible and micronisation is also used on sugar beet pellets to make them soak down faster. Extrusion is a hot, pressure cooking process that increases digestibility of starch and protein and produces a kibble, which can be used as an ingredient or for a finished feed. High temperature drying is used to dry chopped grass and alfalfa, preserving nutrients compared to field drying to make hay. The resulting material can be either pelleted or fed as chaff either straight or in compounds.

Balancer products are a relatively new addition to the compound feed market, and offer a useful way of balancing essential nutrient shortages in forage (hay, haylage and grass) without adding extra calories (dietary energy). They tend to be pelleted, are fed in smaller quantities than regular compound (around 100 g per 100 kg bodyweight) and are a concentrated source of vitamins, minerals and some good quality protein.

All compounds must be fed at the full recommended amount (along with forage) if you are to give your horse a balanced diet, so if your horse doesn’t need this – e.g. they would get too fat on such a ration – then you need to change from a traditional compound to a balancer or a multi-vitamin and mineral product.

We are fortunate to have a huge choice of good quality compound horse feeds in the UK, although this can create confusion! If in doubt, look closer than the sack packaging into the ingredients list to help you choose. Be sure to feed the full recommended amount of any vitamin and mineral-fortified product, or change to a more suitable version if this is not appropriate for your horse.

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About Clare MacLeod

Clare MacLeod MSc RNutr is one of the UK’s few registered independent equine nutritionists who also has expertise in health and fitness. She advises private and commercial clients in all sectors of the horse world and is a hands-on horse owner herself. Clare is passionate about correct nutrition as a foundation for good health, without which peak fitness is not possible. She states “Good nutrition isn’t everything, but there’s nothing without it”.