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Rational thinking

Posted in Management

Does your horse really need lots of different feeds and supplements? Spillers nutritionist, Isabel Harker shows you how to keep his ration simple

Winter is a common time for owners to review their horses’ feeding regimes, but in an attempt to ensure our horses are happy, healthy and content, we often find ourselves feeding many different feeds and supplements – and before we know it, our feed room starts to resemble a bric-a-brac shop!

Choosing the correct feeding regime can be fraught with confusion, and with so many different products on the market, it can be difficult to know what to choose.

When deciding on the correct ration for your horse, there are some important steps to follow that will help you decide on the right type and amount of feed to give…

1 Body condition

A weigh tape will only estimate your horse’s bodyweight, so use condition scoring alongside this, as a guide when calculating how much energy your horse needs.

2 Work level

If you are hacking and schooling five days a week, your horse can be defined as being in light work. However, if you are competing every weekend and schooling in-between, your horse is more likely to be in medium work.

3 History

Recall your horse’s history, behaviour and temperament. Has he ever suffered from laminitis or tying up? Is he excitable or laid-back? Consider this when deciding whether or not to feed a cereal-based diet.

4 How much feed?

For most horses, a ration is based on two per cent of their body weight. For example, a 500kg horse would need to eat 10kg per day, split between forage and a compound feed at a 70:30 ratio.

This means he’d get 7kg of forage and 3kg of compound feed per day which, if from a reputable manufacturer, will meet his vitamin and mineral requirements. For an overweight or underweight horse, the total daily ration should be calculated at 1.5 and 2.5 per cent respectively.

5 Which feed?

Most feeds fall into a specific category – eg, ‘low-energy’, ‘competition’, ‘high-energy’ or ‘stud’. Within each, there may be a specific feed that suits your particular horse’s requirement, but if you’re unsure which is most appropriate, it’s worth contacting the feed company, whose experts can help you choose the right product.

Simple solutions

So how exactly are specific diets formulated for different horses? How can you review your horse’s current ration and, more importantly, simplify it? To help illustrate just that, let’s take a look at a typical yard with four horses of varying type, size, age and level of exercise…

Pipit is a New Forest who lives out Case one:


Pipit is a 13-year-old, 13.2hh well-tempered New Forest, who lives out during the summer. His owner, Sue Robertson has him in work and he is in good condition.

As a New Forest pony, Pipit has a lovely temperament and is likely to be a good doer, so a low-energy feed is the ideal choice for him.

What’s more, because 40 per cent of Pipit’s diet comes from a hard feed, he may not require his current vitamin and mineral supplement on top of this.

Pitcher is a 16.1hh Dutch Warmblood in workCase two:


Pitcher is Sue’s nine-year-old, 16.1hh Dutch Warmblood. She has him in work and he’s in good condition, with an excellent temperament.

Pitcher currently munches on ad-lib hay, and 40 per cent of his ration is compound feed, to which Sue adds a vitamin and mineral supplement, plus garlic, glucosamine and MSM.

The first thing to note is that this amount of compound feed already provides Pitcher’s full quota of vitamins and minerals, so there’s no need for Sue to splash out on a supplement.

Garlic offers all-round health benefits, so there is no detriment to the diet, as long as it is used in moderation. Glucosamine and MSM help support mobility, so if Sue feels they are effective for Pitcher, there is no reason why she can’t continue to use them.

Breezy Warrior is a 16hh Thoroughbred in moderate workCase three:

Breezy Warrior

Breezy Warrior is Amanda Toms’ nine-year-old, 16hh Thoroughbred. He is in moderate work and has no history of health problems.

Amanda currently offers Breezy ad-lib hay and feeds him 4kg of conditioning feed, a low-energy chaff, a magnesium supplement and a hoof supplement each day. Although there is nothing specifically ‘wrong’ with the way Amanda feeds him, both her and Breezy’s lives could be made easier with a few small tweaks here and there.

Breezy’s current diet suggests he needs a conditioning feed to help maintain his condition, so feeding a specific conditioning chaff would help support this by providing extra calories and quality protein in a non-heating form.

Amanda uses the magnesium supplement because Breezy can be highly-strung, but conditioning feeds are normally high in starch and, therefore, not ideal for excitable types. A non-heating conditioning feed with a controlled starch level, where the energy comes from fibre and oil rather than from cereals, would be a more appropriate choice.

With typical Thoroughbred feet, Breezy is likely to benefit from his hoof supplement – the key ingredient of which is biotin. Research dictates a daily dose of 15-20mg will help, so Amanda should look for a good-quality hoof supplement that provides not only this, but calcium, zinc and amino acids such as methionine, too, to ensure the best chance of success.

Veterans, like Palie, may need special dietsCase four:


Palie, also owned by Sue, is a 16-year-old, 16.1hh warmblood. Although a relative ‘oldie’, he is in good condition and still in work, and he’s a pretty laid-back chap. Sue feeds Palie 3.5kg of a veteran feed, alongside a joint supplement, a vitamin and mineral supplement and garlic each day.

Most veteran feeds are similar to conditioning feeds, but with added extras to help support an older horse in his later years. All horses reaching their late teens may benefit from enhanced levels of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, quality protein and joint support, but this doesn’t have to mean a complicated ration.

A senior mix provides all of these features in one feed, so as long as Palie continues to receive this as at least 30 per cent (or 3kg) of his ration, there’s no need for Sue to feed a vitamin and mineral supplement – so she can do away with it altogether!

Adding oil to feed is a simple way to provide extra caloriesUseful additions?

As you can see from these various cases, asking yourself if you really do need to feed those added supplements is the easiest way to simplify your horse’s feeding regime. However, looking at the addition of feeds such as chaff and sugar beet may also help to cut down the number of bins in your feed room.

Sugar beet, although an excellent source of energy from fibre, is 80 per cent water when fed. So unless you’re going to feed it in very large quantities, it offers very little nutrition and is merely a succulent – not forgetting the rigmarole involved in soaking it for 24 hours prior to feeding.

Choosing a chaff that complements your horse’s diet will help maintain optimum health – eg, for both Pitcher and Palie, a conditioning chaff that provides extra calories from fibre and oil would be ideal. Pipit may also benefit from the same chaff during the winter, even if only added as a handful per feed, as the extra oil in a conditioning chaff promotes good coat shine.


Feeding plenty of forage is also important, so consider not just the amount of forage you put into your horse’s haynet or rack, but its quality, too – particularly during the winter when he’ll be stabled more.

For most horses, feeding ad-lib forage is recommended, as not only will it help to prevent boredom, but it will also help to keep your horse warm during the colder months. That’s because of the fibre fermentation going on in the hindgut – think of it acting as a sort of ‘internal hot water bottle’ for your horse – which in turn may help him maintain weight throughout the festive season.

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