16 Equine Nutrition Facts

A healthy horse starts on the inside, so it is important to provide your horse with top-notch nutrition in order for him to perform his best. But it can be tough to separate fact from fiction when there is so much confusion and so many opinions on how a horse’s digestive system works and what they should be fed. Thankfully, we met up with Cargill Animal Nutrition’s Equine Technology Team’s Abby Keegan to help shed some light with these equine nutrition facts and myth busters.

The average horse eats 15 to 20 pounds of hay a day and a balanced diet of hay and grain should not be more than 50% grain.

Unlike humans, horses lack the ability to vomit if their tummy hurts—imagine having a horrible stomachache and not being able to throw up! Why? “Thanks to a one-way sphincter where the esophagus empties into the stomach,” explains Keegan. After food passes into the horse’s stomach, the ring of muscle closes tightly, stopping any food from reentering the esophagus. Because of this, horses often roll when they have belly pain, which can lead to torsion colic.

It is a common practice in the horse world to gradually change over your horse’s grain when swapping feed, but do you do the same for hay? “Colic risk is actually higher when changing hay versus changing feed,” says Keegan. “Don’t forget to gradually mix in any new cuttings or different sections of a cutting, even if it’s from the same field or type of hay. Your horse’s microbial population needs time to adjust.”

While it takes days for food to go in one end and out the other, it only spends a short time in a horse’s small stomach. “Feed only spends about 15 minutes there in comparison to a day or longer in the hindgut,” says Keegan.

Hoof supplements can take up to a year to show a noticeable difference in your horse’s hooves. Because the hoof wall grows so slowly, the new wall benefitting from the supplement (most likely biotin) will take months to reach a length that makes difference visible. Luckily, biotin is a water-soluble B vitamin, meaning the horse’s body does not store it and it is completely safe to feed for long periods of time.

“Bile from the liver flows directly into the small intestine to aid in digestion of fat,” says Keegan. As opposed to humans who eat few large meals a day and only need bile at certain times, the horse is designed to eat constantly so they have no need to store the emulsifying liquid.

The cecum—a fermentation vat where fiber is broken down to be digested— is a common place for impaction colic. Why? “Food enters and exits the cecum at the top,” says Keegan, explaining that the organ is a “blind pouch.” “It’s incredibly important that horses drink enough water and are fed forages that aren’t too high in undigestible fiber,” she adds. If not, the partially digested food can get stuck, causing the horse pain, and potentially lead to—you guessed it—colic.

Like water, horses should have access to free-choice salt. They need at least 10 grams of sodium a day

Your hay isn’t as great as you think— no matter how high quality it is, hay can’t provide all the nutrients a horse needs to thrive. “While quality hay or pasture will provide most of the key nutrients a horse requires to survive, even high quality hay and pasture are deficient of many microminerals such as Copper and Zinc,” explains Keegan. “In addition, thriving is much different than surviving and thus higher fortifications of other nutrients are often key.” Testing your hay and pasture often will give you an idea of what the forage your horse eats is providing and what you may need to supplement with grain or another additive.

Lysine is as necessary in your horse’s diet as protein. The amino acid is essential to a horse’s diet to help with protein synthesis but is often lacking. Because of this, many commercial feeds contain lysine to help the horse synthesize all of the included protein.

The GI tract of a horse is quite strange. “The horse has a unique digestive system; it’s a lovely cross that combines components of a monogastric—like a pig—and ruminant—like a cow.” The first half of the system, the mouth to the small intestine, is similar to that of a human, pig, or cat. The hindgut is similar to that of cattle, sheep, and giraffes, though horses do not have the classic four-compartment stomach that is seen in most ruminants.

“Alfalfa hay is a great forage source for the right horses,” says Keegan. You’re thinking, “What?! Isn’t it bad to feed alfalfa?” Nope—not for horses that need it. “The thing to remember is that it tends to be much higher in calories and thus the average horse would easily become overweight,” she explains. Lactating mares, growing foals, and underweight horses need the excess calories while horses already at a healthy weight do not.

Warm bran mash doesn’t actually keep your horse warm. While your hot coffee may make you feel cozy, a horse’s body generates more heat while digesting hay than grain, so toss an extra flake on chilly winter nights instead.

While you do want to feed your horse by weight, not volume, it isn’t bad to up the amount if your horse needs it. “If your horse is a hard keeper, it is perfectly safe to feed him higher quantities of a feed as long as the feeding directions on the tag indicate so,” says Keegan. “There are many feeds on the market today designed to be fed safely in higher quantities. If you have a hard keeper, do your homework at the feed store to find the right product and don’t be afraid to feed him.”

The old tale of keep your horse away from food and water after exercise is just that—a tale. A study performed in Italy by a University of Bari Aldo Moro Veterinary School researcher found that horses that were fed and watered after cooling down from strenuous exercise recovered faster than those who were not.

A hot horse can have cold water. We have all seen Black Beauty colicing on the stall floor because his groom gave him cold water after exercise, but times have changed since then. Numerous studies have shown that cold water and hot horses can mix and keep your horse properly hydrated after a workout.

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