What information is important when reviewing a horses diet?
Article by Nikita Stowers MSc (Nutrition) BSc (Animal Science) BBS
Equine Nutritionist – Veterinary and Nutritional Integration LTD
Why should we review our horses diet in the first place?
Often as horse owners we undertake this exercise when something is not quite right with our horse or we have seen a change in their behaviour, performance or physical well being. However, anytime is a good time to review our horses diet and there are some crucial pieces of information we should gather in order to do this exercise properly. It really comes down to 3 key ingredients for success when planning your horses diet and it doesn’t need to be overcomplicated.
Know your forage
This may sound simple but forage (usually pasture and hay) is the foundation of any horses diet and so having an idea of how much they are getting each day and what this is made up of is really important before you look to “fix” your diet with any hard feeds or supplements.
Gastroscoping is the absolute Gold Standard for diagnosing Gastric Ulcers and for Diet evaluation, Forage analysis is no different. Pastures are so different all around NZ and so knowing what you have to start with is a huge benefit. You would be surprised at how affordable a seasonal pasture analysis can be and the savings that you could obtain by not over supplementing usually far outweigh the analysis cost. If you don’t want to get your pasture or hay tested, you can always make some estimates if you know what species you have.
If you need help don’t be afraid to contact a qualified nutritionist for help or look at doing it yourself with a programme like Feed Assist which will help you take the guesswork out of planning your horses diet. Also keep in mind that your forage (especially if your horse is at pasture all year round) will change significantly as the seasons change, so assessing your horses diet at the start of each season is a really good starting point.
Once you have a good idea of what is in your base forage, you then want to make sure they are getting enough which for all horses should be at least 1.5% of their bodyweight per day (on a dry matter basis). However, dry matter is one of those terms that Equine Nutritionists use but doesn’t mean a whole lot to the average horse owner. You can actually get a pretty good idea of what your dry matter might be in your pasture at any given time, and we plan to share how soon!
Know your horse's requirements
Again sounds easy right? After all, we know our horses better than anyone else! To make sure we are doing right by them we need to ensure we are providing the correct level of nutrients for their weight and size, the amount of work they are in, their age and any other health conditions that we might need to take into consideration.
Here is a tip for you, most of our sport horses in NZ fall into Light or Moderate work when looking at feed bag daily feeding rates - with the exceptions to these being Racehorses, high level eventers, and Broodmares in their last 3 months of pregnancy and first three months of lactation. So if in doubt your horse probably falls into one of these categories.
The great thing about feed companies in NZ and Australia is that they generally base their recommended feeding rates on NRC recommended levels. This makes it even easier to balance your diet. Keep in mind that if you aren’t feeding the recommended feeding rate then your horse will most likely need some sort of topping up with minerals and trace elements. Poseidon's Digestive VM works perfectly in these cases as illustrated below.
Top up as required
So you’ve ticked off steps one and two and know a bit about your forage and hard feed. Now under most NZ conditions you shouldn’t need too much else, unless your horse has a specific health ailment you are trying to address or needs to gain weight etc.
The most common deficiencies we see in the field are – Iodine, Selenium, Copper and Zinc and occasionally we also see imbalances in things like Calcium and Phosphorous that need sorting out. But if you don’t have your forage analysed yet (we encourage you to do this sooner rather than later) then ensure that you go for a reputable supplement with known quantities of ingredients. This is really important because what may be perfect for your horse may be different for another horse up the road or even next door. Be sure to check the Selenium inclusion level as well and refer to our Selenium blog for information specifically about selenium.
You may require some additional calories for weight gain in which case always look to fibre and fats first before seeking out grain based feeds and you may also need some targeted supplements such as gut health supplements. If you do, make sure you look for one that is well rounded as there is quite a bit of variation.
The reason Poseidon Digestive EQ and Digestive RP work so well is that it contains researched ingredients at therapeutic levels that target the entire Gastrointestinal tract. Some supplements just focus on the foregut and some on the hindgut, so that’s something else to keep in mind.
Ok so the above points make sense right but how about some real life examples you say? Well here is one taken from a forage analysis carried out during Winter 2022.
This is a really typical pasture analysis for NZ, although depending on where you are in the country, what time of year it is, and what pasture you have in your paddocks this can differ greatly. We analysed this forage and found that if a 500kg horse in light work was to be grazing this pasture for 16-24 hours that they would only have deficiencies in Zinc, Selenium, Iodine and Sodium.
This would make for a really cheap and effective diet – Yipee! Again this is just an example but it also shows us that if we are adding multiple supplements to our horses diet they may not necessarily need or benefit from them, and worse still we could be compromising their health by doing so!
So in summary – Know your forage, Know your horse, Top up when required!