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Feeding guidelines

From: Christina

Hello Jessica

Can you give me guidelines for feeding a horse. Isn't there a rule of thumb as a percentage of the horse's weight? For example, one-half or one percent of their body weight should be consumed daily in forage/grain. So if my horse weighs 1250 lbs. he should get between 6 and 13 pounds of food. And what is the proportion of hay/grain in this formula?

Without a scale, is it possible to figure out how much grain by weight is being consumed, if I know that it is pellets and that he gets 7.5 qts of grain per day? And if I know that the bale of hay timothy/grass hay weighs about 30 - 50 lbs, how much of it per day should he get? Pasture is not a significant part of the horse's diet.

My horse was being fed 9 qts per day but was getting a little silly in the winter so that was cut down to the current 7.5 qts. I asked that the hay be increased if his weight dropped but it doesn't appear that that has been done, as he looks like he dropped some weight about the croup area. I think he's getting about 5 flakes a day but I really don't know for certain.

Thanks. Christina

Hi Christina! If you're going to go by a percentage of the horse's body weight, it's better to use 2% as a base and individualize the horse's feeding program from that point. Many horsess require 2.5% in roughage alone; some horses may need 3% to keep the same condition as other easy keeper" horses that may get only 1.5%. There are many factors you need to take into account: the horse's size, age, physical type, condition, and workload will all affect the feeding program. So will climate, terrain, and weather conditions -- and so will the feedstuffs themselves.

Your vet should be able to give you the best advice on this subject -- he knows your horse, the conditions in which it is kept, and what work you do with it. He also knows the type and quality of the feed. I can give you some general information -- and remind you that all horses need access to fresh, cool water, and to a mineralized salt block, at all times.

Horses need roughage -- lots of roughage, preferably around the clock. Horses ought to get, at a minimum, 1% of their weight in hay and pasture grass. If pasture isn't a factor in your horse's diet, then hay should be his primary foodsource, supplemented with grain if your veterinarian feels that the horse needs it. Not all hays are equal -- there's an enormous difference between the energy content of, say, a grass hay with 6% or 8% protein, and a legume hay such as alfalfa, which at its best would provide more than 17% protein. Flakes of hay can be small, dense, and heavy -- or large, loose, and light -- or anywhere in between. A thin slice of alfalfa may weigh the same as a much larger armful of grass hay.

Grains are not equal either -- oats are probably the safest and most reliable grain to feed horses, but what kind of oats? Plain, crimped, clipped rolled? And what quality? "Racehorse oats" can weigh nearly 40 pounds per bushel; cheap oats may weigh nearer 20 pounds per bushel, which means that it's very important to know the WEIGHT of your horse's feed, not just the measure of it.

The answer to the question "Can you figure weight without a scale?" is NO. You can't. At many barns, hay is fed by the numbers (one flake, two flakes, three flakes) with no attention paid to the weight or nutritional content of a "typical flake". At many barns, grain is fed by the "scoop" or "coffee can" method -- one scoop, two scoops, one coffee can, two coffee cans....

Many horse owners and indeed many barn owners have no idea what their horses need or what they are getting. I know that good feed scales are expensive, but even an inexpensive bathroom scale is much better than no scale at all.

You can buy a container of gallon or two-gallon plastic bags, take them to the barn and fill them with the amount of grain your horse is fed daily, take them home and weigh them. That will at least let you know how many pounds of oats or other grain are held by the scoop or coffee can. ;-)

You should talk to the manager of the stable, and find out exactly how much hay and grain your horse is getting. Then weigh the feed, so that you'll be able to give your vet an accurate report. Then TALK to your vet! It sounds to me as though your particular horse may well be getting far too much grain and far too little hay, but that's something you'll need to figure out with your vet's help.

In the meantime, there are two great sources for nutrition information: one is the Lon D. Lewis book, "Care and Feeding of the Horse," and the other is the book and diskette that provide the full NRC requirements and allow you to figure out your own horse's precise needs. Both items are reviewed in the "Horseman's Bookshelf" section of my web pages, and there's even a link to if you want to order them.


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