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  • Writer's pictureHelms Hill Farms

Nutrition Basics



Let’s talk about diets for a minute. No, I’m not pressuring you about the “quarantine 19” that we all gained, but your horse’s diet. There are a lot of people out there that know a horse needs grain and hay and that’s about the extent of it. So let’s add to the pool of knowledge, shall we? This is just the simple beginning of nutrition, for everyday horses with no underlying issues.

We’ll go over the basics that every horse needs: water, fats, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, and minerals. Obviously water is the most important element in a horse’s diet.

Without water, none of us would be alive. A fresh, clean water source is vital: a water trough in the pasture or buckets in stalls.

Fat is also important for energy. Higher fat feeds are going to add more energy to a horse’s diet. However, you can feed a low-fat grain and add fat to your horse’s diet in the form of vegetable oils or rice bran.

Carbohydrates are the main energy source in most feeds. Most carbohydrates are based in glucose. Some carbohydrates are soluble, and break down easily in the small intestine, such as starches and sugars. Others, like fiber, are insoluble and have to travel to the large intestine to be broken down. Corn, barley, and oats are good examples of soluble carbohydrates and can be found in nearly every feed. You do need to be cautious when adding a new feed with a high sugar or starch content, as a sudden change can cause colic or laminitis.

Proteins are used to develop muscles during exercise or growth. Proteins are made up of amino acids. Alfalfa can be a great source of protein and is easily added to a diet in the form of pellets, cubes, or just straight hay. Second or third cutting alfalfa can be up to 30% protein and greatly contributes to total protein needs. Most fully grown horses don’t need that much protein, usually only about 10% protein total in their diets. The difference is lactating mares, foals, and younger, developing horses, which all require a higher protein content.

Protein deficiency can actually be seen with a rough/coarse coat, reduced growth or milk production in lactating mares, weight loss, and overall performance. The same can be said for excess protein, with symptoms including increased water intake and urination and increased sweat loss during exercise or training.

Vitamins are either water-soluble or fat-soluble, which refers to the parts of the body in which they function. Most horses on a “maintenance” schedule get enough vitamins naturally through fresh, green forage and grain. Some horses in certain situations such as a high grain/low fresh forage diet, low quality hay, if a horse is under stress (traveling, racing, showing) or recovering from illness and not eating well, might require a vitamin supplement. Most of a horse’s daily vitamins do come from nature and proper fresh forage, so keep that in mind if your horse is on a shorter turnout schedule.

Minerals are one of the most important as they’re required for maintenance of fluid balance in cells (electrolytes), nerve conduction, maintenance of body structure, and muscle contraction. One mineral that should always be readily available to a horse is salt. A salt block or lick in your horse’s pasture or stall is a great tool! Only small amounts of other minerals such as calcium, potassium, magnesium, sulfur, and phosphorus are needed daily. Remember, adult horses on fresh, green pasture and a grain ration usually receive their proper amount of their daily minerals.

Remember, whatever major changes you make to your horse’s diet should be under the advisement of a licensed veterinarian. Changes should be made gradually so as not to disturb your horse’s digestive system. Do your research and read your feed labels!

And as always, contact us if we can help!

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