Common Sense Feeding
by Patrick Cassady, Equine Specialist, ADM Alliance Nutrition, Inc.
For many of us, equine nutrition is a frightening subject to address
because of the volume of information out there and the availability
of a lot of products to address different needs. A great deal of
this information is manufacturer driven, and not always accurate. A
stroll down the supplement isle in a large feed store is a
confusing, sometimes frightening experience. Think of me as someone
positioned between those in the trenches and the highly educated one
in the long lab coat; an interpreter if you will. My aim is to make
the topic of equine nutrition more user friendly, and if I succeed
you will have a good understanding of the basics. I hope to make
this subject fun, instead of the usual trip to the principal's
office. Remember, knowledge is power, and the reason that Ph.D.
nutritionist has you shaking in your boots is because you feel
overwhelmed by his/her knowledge. Relax, feeding a horse is as the
title states − Common Sense.
The first step in any feeding program is to take a look at the
anatomy of the beast we are feeding. In simple terms with the
equine species we have an animal (mature) with a stomach about the
size of your ball cap, followed by about seventy feet of small
intestine, and a huge hind gut, that resembles a fermentation vat.
What this design tells us is we have an animal that doesn't have
much capacity in the stomach, so by nature he is designed to take in
small amounts of fiber, continuously for about sixteen hours a day.
He is classified scientifically as a herbivore which is a
Do not ever lose sight of this picture. If more people could grasp this idea, we would have a significant decrease in the occurrence of digestive upset (colic), founder, ulcers, tying up, Insulin Resistance, and a host of other metabolic issues. Think about it, how often do you see horses on diets that are exclusively forage with these kinds of problems? Hardly ever. By feeding a forage-based diet, that is a diet that contains a much larger percentage of forage (hay and pasture) than concentrate (typically cereal grains), there will be a much better chance to reduce digestive upset (colic), the second leading cause of death in horses, with old age being number one!
Art & Science
I divide horse nutrition into two categories − art and science, with both being equally important. The art of feeding a horse is the daily management of feeding. This involves evaluating your horse's condition; is he too fat, is he too thin, is he eating, is he sick, did he clean up the feed from the previous feeding? Providing the right environment, schedule, sources of nutrients, as well as having a well-trained eye to constantly monitor the horse's condition are all important factors in a sound feeding program. Although rations differ with the age and class of horse, it should be remembered that the most important factor is the individuality of the specific horse, as every horse is unique. In other words, feeding should be designed around the size, age, condition, reproductive stage, training, and growth requirements of each individual horse. We have all seen the negative results of someone who has the responsibility of feeding, who either does not take time to look at each horse or isn't knowledgeable enough to know what they are looking for, making feeding one of the most vital responsibilities on the farm.
The science of feeding the horse is where most of us
start to get nervous. This involves using numerical values for
amounts of energy, protein, vitamins, minerals, etc. As a
guideline, we can refer to the NRC (National Research Council)
publication Nutrient Requirements of Horses, in book form and
now available electronically. This is a compilation of all
nutritional research done and provides the nutrient requirements for
all ages, sizes, and levels of work through all of the life stages
of horses. It is important to remember that this is an average of
all information gathered from different breeds, types, and
disciplines of equines, creating a guideline. The
result is that we have a broad idea of what is needed nutritionally
for an individual, with this information not to be viewed as
absolute, but rather that it serves as a guide to approximate
amounts of nutrients that should be available in the diet, either
through the forage or supplemented.
Most feed companies like ADM look at NRC requirements as the minimum
amounts needed. Typically, ADM provides more than the minimum
nutrient amounts in their feeding programs, ensuring the animal will
receive more than just adequate amounts. Some nutrients can be
toxic if over-supplemented and strict attention is given to those
nutrients to ensure proper minimum amounts are not exceeded. The
bottom line is that NRC is a guide that is based on scientific
research, usually updated about every ten years to include the
latest scientific findings, such as newer technologies (processing
methods), new sources of nutrients (stabilized rice bran, corn germ
meal, naked oats, etc.), and therefore does not run
the risk of being a biased, market-driven set of guidelines.
Having established the approximate nutritional needs of the horse, you can then design a feed program to meet your horses' specific needs, using forage as the basis of your program (remember "Grazing Animal"). The most accurate way to determine the value of a forage is to have a laboratory analyze a sample, but in some situations it may be more convenient and reasonably accurate to use established or "book" values, as many times hay is often purchased in small quantities, and it is not practical to analyze each small batch. If you do purchase your forage in large enough quantities often your local county agriculture extension office may offer forage analysis services for a very reasonable fee or sometimes for free. Many times hay producers, especially those that produce hay for the equine market, may have already had the hay analyzed so always ask if an analysis was done and request a copy of the report. Typically, feed companies reserve hay analysis for their larger customers, but understandably cannot do this for everyone. Of course using commercial labs are always an option.
The limiting factor to feeding any animal is capacity − they can
only consume so much. A good-rule-of-thumb is that a mature horse at
light work will eat approximately 2% of body weight daily.
Therefore, we know we have to deliver the vitamins, minerals,
proteins, calories, etc. within this amount. In some cases, we may
be able to meet the needs with simply forage and a good
vitamin/mineral supplement. If the situation is such, due to work
load that we cannot meet the necessary nutrient requirements, then
and only then, do we feed something above and beyond the forage. We
advise staying away from the typical grain-based, high-carbohydrate
concentrates. Rather, we recommend using limited-starch and
limited-sugar sources, such as high-fat supplements or blends of
fats and fiber. Feed only enough of these to maintain good body
condition, keeping forage the main focus of the diet.
The old saying, "You get what you pay for" is certainly true when it
comes to equine feeds. By feeding good-quality nutrient sources we
can usually meet the needs of the animal quite easily, with
reasonable size portions. At the same time, pick a feed
program that fits the horse's current situation.
Example: A horse that has a very light work load is boarded at a facility and spends the majority of his time in a stall. Rather than feed an energy-dense ration (strong forages and concentrates) that he will consume in a matter of minutes, feed a less energy dense diet, such as good grass hay that might provide more bulk and "chew time" and satisfies grazing instinct.
Nutrition has a profound effect on the growth, performance, and the health of our horses. Thanks to a heightened awareness in the past decade to human nutrition, people are becoming much more interested in the same for their horses. The real winners here are the horses. By back grounding horses with good balanced nutrition, we are able to produce good, sound individuals with less health problems. The statement, "You are what you eat" really is a true one and applies to this Common Sense approach.
We will be covering other nutritional topics in the months to come,
and, of course, we always have a presence at Clinton's Tour Stops.
If you have a question or would like to see a particular nutrition
related topic addressed in this column, please contact us at
If you have questions about ADM equine products or programs, or need
help in developing a feed program for your specific situation,
please contact ADM's Equine Helpline 800-680-8254 week days from
8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Central Standard Time. We welcome any and
Patrick (Pat) Cassady has been an equine specialist for ADM Alliance
Nutrition for the past eighteen years, previously working for its
predecessor Moorman Manufacturing Company (MoorMan's®).
The original MoorMan's equine team created the FORAGE FIRST®
feeding program, where forage is the main focus of the horse's diet,
and was instrumental in developing a line of premium products which
have evolved to support any nutritional gaps in forage.
MoorMan's (now ADM Alliance Nutrition) was the original feed
manufacturer to introduce lower carbohydrate diets for horses,
creating a premium line of higher fat and fiber supplements and
premium balanced blends ("GLO products") balanced with the very best
vitamin/mineral sources (GROSTRONG® products). Fast
forward to today, and it is clear that most feed manufacturers are
now following ADM's lower carbohydrate lead. The horses are the real
benefactors, with a significant reduction in the occurrence of
digestive upset, founder, and metabolic issues, not to mention
horses that are more focused, calm, and shine like a new penny.
Pat has spent his entire life in the equine industry, after college working with some of the most accomplished horsemen in the performance horse business and finally establishing himself in the training, showing, and marketing exclusively with cutting horses, as well as judging this discipline on an international level for twenty plus years prior to the feed business.
MoorMan's®, FORAGE FIRST®, and GROSTRONG® are registered trademarks of Archer Daniels Midland Company.
ADM Alliance Nutrition, Inc. , a wholly owned subsidiary of the Archer Daniels Midland Company