A vast array of sometimes confusing options are available to choose from when it comes to deciding on what to feed your horse. There are many different feed brands, and each has multiple lines of feeds with a variety of products for various ages and stages of a horse’s life. Entering the feed store and being able to choose the right type of product for your horse is crucial when it comes to curating a balanced diet. But once you can understand your horse’s nutritional requirements, choosing a product should not be such a daunting task.

A frequent issue with feeding programs occurs when the product being fed to the horse does not match their nutritional needs. One example is an overweight horse being fed one cup of a performance feed, when this is not an accurate amount or even the product that best suits their needs. This is all too common, as horse owners understand the requirement of a supplemental source of vitamins and minerals in addition to hay; however they also know that the horse gains weight easily, so they simply provide a small amount. This is problematic, as the product will then not be meeting their vitamin and mineral requirements.

On the other hand, having a horse that is a hard keeper and feeding them a pound or two of a ration balancer is not going to be optimal for their nutritional well-being either. Being able to navigate the feed store and evaluate which product best matches your horse’s requirements, while also ensuring it is fed in the correct amount can make a significant difference in the quality of their nutrition program.

Among equine feed products, there are three broad categories: ration balancers, performance/life stage feeds, and complete feeds. Here we look at their purpose and feeding rates.

Ration Balancers

Ration balancers are products that are designed to fill the nutritional gaps in hay without significantly increasing the caloric content of the ration. They are a concentrated source of vitamins, minerals and often protein as well. Even easy keepers need a ration balancer! This is because the hay may not adequately meet a horse’s vitamin and mineral needs.

Within the ration balancer category, there are a few different types: vitamin and mineral premixes, concentrated pellets, and those that provide additional protein as well. For an average 500 kg horse, these products will have a feeding rate of about 200–1000 g per day (please note that this will vary between products and brands). Therefore, if your horse easily maintains their body weight on hay, a simple ration balancer and supplemental salt is likely all that is required for them.

Performance/Life-Stage Feeds

The next category to cover is extensive. The performance feeds, and breeding or life stage feeds (e.g., senior feeds), are often lumped into one broad category. These products have greater feeding rates than the ration balancers, as they provide vitamins, minerals, and protein as well as additional carbohydrates and fats.

These feeds are popular for hard-working equine athletes, horses that struggle to maintain weight, senior horses or breeding stock that require additional nutrition above and beyond hay and a ration balancer. The typical feeding rate for these products is about 4-10 kg per day.

These products can work very well when applied in the correct situation. However (again!) when you opt for one of these products, then feed it below the recommended feeding rate for your horse’s weight and workload, nutritional deficiencies will result. In this case you can balance the diet by adding a ration balancer to increase the vitamin and mineral intake for your horse. If your horse is on one of these products but is becoming overweight being fed at the recommended rate, consider switching to a ration balancer instead. In either of these situations it is recommended to work with an equine nutritionist in order to ensure your horse is receiving a balanced diet.

Complete Feeds

Complete feeds take the supplementation a step further and also provide the fibre portion of the diet. Therefore, these products will have vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, fats, and a significant amount of fibre. They are most commonly fed to horses with compromised dentition or gastrointestinal health issues; for example, a senior horse that is unable to adequately consume long-stem fibre would be a candidate for a complete feed. The feeding rates of these products will be vary according to the individual animal, but the distinguishing factor is that the feeding instructions will also include an option if hay is not being fed at all.

Once you have narrowed down which category of feed your horse requires, it is important to then rely on your hay analysis to guide your decision. Hay is almost always the primary component of the horse’s diet; therefore, it only makes sense to know the nutritional value. For example, if your horse readily maintains their weight on hay, they likely only require a ration balancer. However, knowing the protein content of the hay will be critical in determining if a product that supplies additional protein will be optimal vs a straight vitamin/mineral premix.

Additionally, if you have a senior horse that has been holding his weight well with hay and a ration balancer, but then your new hay batch is lower in energy and protein, you may need to make the change to a senior feed which is easily chewed and digested, offers immune support and promotes gastric health.

To conclude, there are a plethora of different products available to feed your horse, and navigating the seemingly endless options can be challenging. Every horse is unique, and relying on their individual nutritional needs, as well as your hay analysis, can guide you in choosing a product. If you have any questions or concerns about your horse’s nutrition, please reach out to a qualified equine nutritionist.