Feeding Directions: Mere Suggestions or Strict Guidelines?
Feeding directions are an important place to start.
As human beings, we have the ability to manage our own daily food intake, but our horses don’t have that choice. They depend on us to provide the feed they need to survive. In the old days, the components of a horse’s diet were limited to plain grains and basic forages (hay and grass). Modern technology has changed that and now feed manufacturers have a wide range of ingredients at their disposal. With so many variations available, horse people have come to depend on the feeding directions provided by the manufacturer to help them determine the correct types and amounts of concentrates to feed their horses.
Without really realizing it, we manage our own food intake based on our age, activity level, metabolic rate, and desire to increase, decrease or maintain our current weight. We try to eat the correct foods in the right amounts to provide a nutritious diet that will allow us to maintain a healthy weight. These are the same basic principles feed manufacturers use to develop feeding directions for horses.
Who comes up with this stuff, anyway?
The National Research Council (NRC) creates basic nutrient and energy requirements, based on decades of equine nutrition research. Minimum requirements and toxicity levels of vitamins and minerals are outlined. Energy and protein requirements for horses of different life stages and uses are set. Using these data, feed manufacturers formulate feeds and determine the feeding directions necessary to meet the minimum and maximum nutrient levels for various types of horses.
Energy is the key
A growing weanling, a pregnant broodmare, a stakes winning racehorse, a hard working show horse, a weekend trail horse, and a pampered, pasture ornament all require different amounts of energy. Energy is the key to understanding how feeds are formulated. In order to create a suitable feed, the formulators must first ask themselves “How much energy should this particular type of horse consume per day?” Generally speaking, feeds are formulated so that an average horse’s energy requirements can be met mostly from forage (either fresh pasture or hay) and then the remaining nutrients and energy can be fulfilled by approximately 5 lb (or approximately 2.2 kg) of concentrate per day. Concentrates can be in the form of a sweet feed or pellet feed.
Taking a closer look at your feed
Have you ever sorted through your horse’s sweet feed? Normally you find molasses-covered grains, such as oats, corn, and barley. These grains can look different, depending on how they’ve been processed. The next most obvious bits you’ll find are pellets. These pellets contain the vitamins, minerals, and protein that are either nonexistent or exist in very low levels in the grains used to make up the feed. The purpose of the pellets is to balance the feed by providing the missing nutrients. In fact, these pellets are often referred to as “balancer pellets.” They ensure the feed will meet your horse’s daily nutrient requirements. Feeds that are formulated in this way are called fortified feeds. The same practice is used to make pelleted feeds, except that during the manufacturing process grains, grain byproducts, and the ingredients found in the balancer pellets are all mixed together into one pellet.
In very simple terms, you can say that grain and grain byproducts are the components of a feed that supply the energy portion, while the ingredients in the balancer pellets are the nutrient portion of the feed. Naturally, there is some energy in the pellets and there are some nutrients in the grains, but speaking in general terms this is how the feeds are formulated. The grains are combined to provide a particular amount of energy and the pellets are added to balance the needed nutrients.
What it all means to your horse
If the formulation and feeding directions of feeds are based on your horse’s energy requirements, then using the right feeds and in the right ways falls into your hands. Following the listed directions on your feedbag is a great place to start when deciding which feed to choose and how to feed it. Most feeding directions provide a table that describes a variety of work levels or life phases. Low, moderate, and heavy work levels define the amount of exercise a horse gets on average. Growing, broodmare, and senior are descriptors for the average amount of energy each life phase requires.
Define your horse as best you can by using these general life stages and exercise levels and then choose a feed that best fits. Base the amount you feed according to the manufacturer’s recommended feeding rates. As your horse gains or loses weight, increases or decrease his work load, or in the case of a broodmare, as her pregnancy progresses into lactation, make changes to their feed intake just as you would manage your own.
The need for less energy may not mean your horse needs less nutrition, so you may even need to make changes to the type of feed as your horse’s circumstances change. When you can’t feed at least the minimum recommended level of a fortified concentrate because it provides too much energy (makes your horse fat), you can add a vitamin or mineral supplement so your horse still gets the nutrition he needs without the added calories. If your horse needs more energy than can be safely provided by a feed (he gets too skinny) and you find yourself surpassing the recommended levels of intake, then you can add a high-fat energy supplement to his diet. When a horse develops a special need that the nutrients in the feed can’t meet, then it is time to add the specific supplement that can meet the need. In any event, all changes to your horse’s feeding program should happen deliberately, carefully, and over a period of time. Drastic changes in their diet can disrupt digestive processes.
In the end, you are responsible for feeding and managing your horse based on his current weight, life phase, work level, and special needs. All of these variables are constantly changing, so feeding programs should change with them. Feeding directions outline the best place to start and adjustments based on individual needs should follow accordingly.