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April 21, 2011
An equine nutritionist should be a member of your team of professionals who help you maintain a healthy and happy equine partner. This professional, however, is one that many horse owners may not be familiar with because not every veterinary practice has a vet who specializes in nutrition. Equine nutritionists are most often found at vet schools, but your local agricultural extension department should be able to give you the name of one in your area.
In the event that you cannot locate a local equine nutritionist, a good equine veterinarian should know the basics of nutrition. Your local feed store also should have someone on staff who is knowledgeable about their products. Remember, however, that they are trying to sell their products so you have to be somewhat knowledgeable yourself and use your common sense when selecting feed and hay for your horse.
The old saying “you get what you pay for” applies to selecting your horse’s feed. Quality nutrition is critical for his health and it is worth the price. It is your responsibility to provide your horse with high quality “groceries.”
Good quality hay should make up the majority of a horse’s daily diet. Hay should be leafy, bright green, and have a sweet, “new mown” fragrance. Inspect each bale of hay you buy if possible. If it is not possible to inspect the hay when you purchase it, and even if you did inspect it at purchase, be sure to inspect it as you use it. Never feed moldy or dusty hay as it can aggravate allergies in your horse!
Weedy hay lacks nutrients and tends to be dusty. Depending on the type and quantity of weeds in the hay, it can be potentially poisonous to your horse. Woody hay (lots of stems) is difficult for a horse to digest and offers little nutritional value.
You need to ask your equine nutritionist the protein level of the hay you feed. Young horses, working horses, and breeding horses require higher protein levels. The ideal hay is “first crop” hay. It tends to have higher protein levels than later cuttings. The only way to accurately determine the protein level of hay is to test it. For a nominal fee, a University Extension Office or feed mill can test hay for protein level, digestibility, and other important nutrients. Using the test results, a nutritionist can recommend a balanced ration, including exactly what supplements to add to provide proper nutrition for a specific horse.
Like hay, grain should be of the highest quality possible. The amount and type of grain also depends on your horse’s age, performance level, and breeding demands. I recommend Purina feeds based on my experience with my own working and performance horses. I have had particularly good results with their product “Strategy” which is designed for performance horses. Pre-mixed feeds offer a more complete nutritional package rather than feeding straight grains like oats. These feeds can be fed with hay or as a complete feed.
A horse’s intake of hay and grain will vary by season as well as the factors mentioned above. Do not forget that fresh water is your horse’s most important nutrient. Without it his digestive system would come to a grinding halt. You should watch your horse’s water intake year round but particularly in the winter when horses tend to drink less. You may have to add salt to his feed or a flavoring to his water to encourage your horse to drink in the winter. Ask your veterinarian or nutritionist if this becomes a problem.
A horseman must develop an “eye” for a horse’s health and condition and learn to properly evaluate if the quantity and type of nutrition provided is adequate. If you do not feel you have that ability, then it is your responsibility to consult with your veterinarian and equine nutritionist!
Feeding Tips for Performance
The decision to feed your horse supplements depends on several factors. They include the geographical area where your horse lives, his age, and his special health needs. At minimum, your horse should have free access to a mineral salt block that will provide him with important trace minerals. Young horses, age six or less, should be given calcium and phosphorus supplements to help them build strong bones.
I also recommend supplementing one weekly feeding with warm bran mash to encourage regularity. A meal of bran once a week is part of my feeding program. Most horses love this special treat! Bran may be purchased at most feed mills.
Here is my favorite recipe for a delicious bran mash that you can use for special occasions like Christmas and your horse’s birthday as well as for part of your weekly feeding program. Your horse will thank you! Recipe: Substitute bran for one-half of the feed that you would normally feed in one meal. Sprinkle in approximately one-half cup of brown sugar and a tablespoon of salt (especially important in the winter to encourage drinking more water). Add warm water and stir until the mixture is very moist. Top with apple slices and carrot pieces and serve to your happy horse. Repeat weekly.
Biotin is a supplement that is commonly given to horses to help improve hoof condition. Other supplements such as vitamins, selenium, and electrolytes may be necessary depending upon the geographical location of your horse. If the soils where your grain and hay are harvested are deficient in these micronutrients, they should be supplemented in a feeding program. Your veterinarian and/or nutritionist can advise you on the need for supplements and how much your horse should be receiving for optimal nutrition.
Recommendations on deworming are changing due to concerns about parasite resistance. You should consult with your vet to develop a worming program for your horse that will help protect his health and make sure the products you use are effective and used properly.
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