Horse Feeds - Who Needs It?

Nutrition : General Nutrition

Karen E. Davison, Ph.D.

Director, Nutritionist, Equine Technical Solutions

Horses evolved over millions of years as grazers, roaming around selecting the best forages they could find.

While they ate seeds and grains growing on those plants, they did not take in large quantities at a single meal. So, why do we feed horses grain at all? Well, when you look at the horses that Mother Nature supports with a forage-only, continuous grazing program, you find that they are usually smaller framed, lighter muscled, mature at a later age and don’t have the lifespan we currently see in domesticated horses. Mother Nature’s program just isn’t designed to support the physical demands we place on domestic horses. 
Working horses gain energy from grain
Throughout history, horses that worked for a living — such as horses used to pull chariots, carriages and delivery carts, or those used in the cavalry — have all been fed grain. Because grain is a more concentrated energy source, containing more calories per pound than forages, working horses could take in enough calories to support their physical demands by eating grain. Working horses couldn’t spend enough time in the day grazing, or there wasn’t always quality forage available where they were, to support their activity levels. 
Other necessary nutrients in the modern horse diet
As knowledge of horse nutrition has advanced, we’ve come to realize that energy isn’t the only limiting nutrient in an all-forage diet. Depending on the forage and the type of horse, protein, vitamins and minerals may also be lacking. So, horse feeds have evolved from a single grain like oats or corn, to multiple-grain mixes; and now, even better, grains mixed with other ingredients to provide a complete complement of nutrients.
Today, we have grain mixes that provide balanced nutrition for horses of different lifestyles such as growing, breeding and performance horses. These grain mixes are designed to be fed with a minimum of 1 percent of a horse’s body weight in hay or pasture. That equals a minimum of 10 pounds of hay for a 1,000-pound horse, and provides the amount of fiber necessary for maintaining normal activity and digestive functions in the horse’s intestines. Many horses are fed more hay or pasture than the minimum amount, and quality of the hay or pasture will impact how much feed is needed to support adequate body condition and level of activity.
Most formulated feeds are designed to be fed at a minimum of 3.5 to 4 pounds per day in order to meet all protein, vitamin and mineral requirements when fed with hay or pasture. There are situations today where horse owners have very well-managed, improved pastures or top-quality harvested forage like alfalfa hay. These forages contain more calories and are available to the horse in greater quantities than what Mother Nature usually provided. When horses have access to free-choice top-quality pasture or hay, they will easily eat 3 percent of their body weight or more, which will provide more calories than needed for a maintenance or low-activity lifestyle.
Keeping horses at a healthy weight
In free-choice grazing situations, horses can become overweight or even obese, so how do you provide proper nutrition to them without an overabundance of calories? You can restrict time spent grazing to a few hours per day or reduce the amount of hay offered to 1.5 to 2 percent of their body weight, which will certainly help control calorie intake. But sometimes these horses will still gain weight if fed 3.5 to 4 pounds of feed. In these cases, feeding only 1 to 2 pounds of a formulated feed designed to be fed at higher feeding rates can result in nutritional deficiencies in the diet. You don’t want to increase the amount of feed and end up with an obese horse, so what do you do? This is where “forage balancers” or “ration balancers," such as Purina® Enrich PLUS® fits very nicely.
Enrich PLUS® horse feed is concentrated to meet nutrient requirements in a low feeding rate so it supplies few additional calories while providing adequate protein, vitamins and minerals that would be deficient in an all-forage diet. With Enrich PLUS® horse feed, three eight-ounce cups equals 1 pound. This is a great diet option for horses that maintain good condition on hay or pasture alone and just don’t need the calories that would come with 3.5 pounds or more of a formulated feed. 
Horses that are working hard, lactating or eating average-quality hay will still benefit from a well-formulated grain mix or feed product fed at the recommended feeding rates. But for those less-active horses, easy-keepers, or those with access to exceptional-quality forage, you may want to consider Purina® Enrich PLUS® ration balancing feed to meet nutrient requirements without additional calories they don’t need.