It seems to be a modern-day habit to always be searching for something better. Whilst we don’t want to get stuck into old, unhelpful ways, sometimes reminding ourselves of the basic foundation will put our mind at rest about what we are feeding. There is no one single magic way to feed – there are many different feeds that could supply the nutrients your horse needs.
Nutrition is a very complex subject; there is no doubt about that. And a balanced diet is one that supplies all the essential nutrients in exact amounts, with no daily net gain or loss. In reality, however, this is almost impossible to attain because most horses are fed a combination of forage with some sort of off-the-shelf bagged feed or supplements. In an ideal world we might analyse forage weekly and prepare a bespoke feed or supplement to make up for shortfalls, i.e. feed a balanced diet – but for most horse owners this is not economically viable and it could be unsafe if not done with great care.
To simplify things, we need to first choose forage that is appropriate to our horse. Low energy, high fibre forage for horses who maintain weight easily and who aren’t working hard, and higher energy forage for horses who are losing weight or in hard work. Forage with a low water soluble carbohydrate content (sugar and fructan) is important for horses with laminitis, equine metabolic syndrome, Cushing’s syndrome or insulin resistance.
Ideally the forage should be fed ad lib (free choice) unless this oversupplies calories (energy) when it should be limited to a minimum of 1.5% of bodyweight in dry matter per day. If an overweight horse isn’t losing weight on this amount, you need to find lower calorie forage.
Then, you need to add other feeds and/or supplements to make up for any shortfalls in the forage. These shortfalls usually include calories, the minerals copper, zinc and selenium, vitamins E and A (in the case of preserved forage) and may include protein. Balancing forage can get very complicated due to the huge variety of products available. Manufacturers try to make it easier by supplying fortified compound feeds and multi-vitamin and mineral balancers and supplements, but you do need to feed the full recommended amount of these products. Alternatively, a plethora of straight feeds is available, including sugar beet pulp, quick-dried forages, grains and grain by-products e.g. oats, bran, maize, seeds e.g. linseed, sunflower seeds, and other less local feeds such as coconut (copra) meal.
Horses respond to nutrients rather than feeds as such, so you need to consider what is being supplied by the feeds you choose. If you prefer straights, you need to find out or take advice about how to balance them.
Multi-vitamin and mineral products and compounds containing vitamins and minerals are the safest way to provide essential micronutrients because many of them interact and if you slightly oversupply a single one, you risk affecting the supply of another. So although these multi-spectrum products can only ever be a ‘best fit’ they do provide a safe and useful way of ensuring your horse receives a balanced diet.
Once you have the diet balanced for essential nutrients, then consider health-promoting supplements and nutraceuticals such as joint, skin or hoof supplements.