Thoughts Behind Equine Nutrition

November 4, 2019

When it comes to pasture and hay quality, how to care for a senior horse, body condition scoring or feeding rates, there are many discussions to be had. In my time crossing the farm gate or hosting a producer meeting, I have seen an increase in new horse owners who want to provide the best care they can to their animal. With so many feed and supplement options on the market, the information can be overwhelming. However, this blog is not about products, but to help educate those looking for answers.

Going into fall, we are all aware pasture quality decreases. So how does this affect a horse? Pasture grasses produce sugars which are used to fuel growth. When temperatures become to cold for grasses to grow, the sugars are then stored for later use. The ingestion of these stored sugars may lead to laminitis or digestive issues in some horses. Overweight horses or those sensitive to sugars are most at risk. Though there is no science to prove it, we often see cooler weather and changes in barometric pressure lead to less water consumption. This, plus an increase in hay feed to help with warmth, can lead to impaction colic. Keeping water temps above 45 degrees, plus access to loose salt will help with water consumption. Watering down bran to make a mash is a choice of some, but research has shown it is the increased water that helps, while the bran may just cause digestive upset.

Transitioning horses from pasture to hay should be a slow process. Good quality hay means a hay of any variety that is clean, has a high steam to leaf ratio, small diameter stem, few seed heads or blooms, and has a fresh smell and look. Maturity of a plant at harvest time will reflect quality more than any other factor. Younger plants will have a higher protein, energy, and mineral content than those mature plants with thicker stems. In addition, more mature plants contain more indigestible fiber, thus reducing nutrient availability. If this is the case of your hay, an addition of a higher quality feed may be necessary to meet your horse’s daily requirement. I encourage producers to have their hay tested. This can easily be done by calling your CVA feed specialist to send a sample off to the lab for analysis.

While transitioning a horse from pasture to hay, take time to body condition score. Evaluate their hair coat, look for shine, and determine the amount of flesh on the horse by looking at top line and muscle mass. Can you see ribs or barely feel them? A low body score of 1 means the horse appears to be all bones, while score of 9 means the horse is obese and looks similar to a fat steer in the feedlot, no ribs can be felt, the neck is cresty, and there is visible fat around the tail head. An ideal score is a 5-6 when ribs are barely felt.

A senior horse may struggle during winter months due to the inability to chew and digest hay, as well as from the metabolic changes taking place, and their inability to handle colder temperatures. Providing extra hay increases calories and helps keep horses warm, but a senior horse may require even more to maintain a normal body temperature. Digesting fiber releases more internal heat than starch, sugars, or fats, so adding hay is the best option for any age of horse. Thick winter coats or blanketing may cover up weight loss so take time to feel the withers, ribs, back, and tail head. Winter can be a challenging time for senior horses so monitor intakes of hay and water, plus consider adding a senior feed supplement to help them get through the cold months. Work with an equine feed specialist to help determine what kind of senior feed your horse may need. Be prepared to answer questions like “Does your senior horse still have teeth, what quality is your hay, or what body condition score is your horse?” so that person can give you the best possible advice. Besides feed, having a shelter to get relief from the wind will help keep your horse comfortable during the cold winter months.

Feeding guidelines start with a horse’s lifestyle. To determine the amount to feed to be fed, start with getting an accurate weight. Local coops and feedlots have scales you can use or ask for a weight tape at your feed store or veterinarian. For hay, a horse requires 1-1.5% of their body weight per day in roughage (hay). So, a 1200lbs horse will require 12 to 18lbs of hay daily. Moving to the addition of grains means measuring feed by weight not volume (oats and corn do not weigh the same amount in a coffee can). Purchasing a pre-weighed scoop from your dealer will make feeding easier. Do not feed more than 5lbs of grain per feeding for a 1000lbs horse. A general rule is to feed no more than .5% of a horse’s weight in grain or else problems such as colic or laminitis may occur. Keep in mind a senior feed may be considered a “complete feed” meaning roughage is included, so these feeds will require a higher feeding rate than a normal grain. If feeding a grain, please do not add extra corn or oats to the diet as this will unbalance and decrease the nutritional value of a feed. Avoid dust and molds and keep feed mangers clean. If feeding a large group of horses, put out extra feeders and make sure they are spread apart for more timid horses as they tend to get pushed back from the group. Regular exercise, parasite control, and dental checks will also help your feed perform its best.

Stop by, call, or email your local CVA feed specialist for any questions on equine nutrition. I encourage new owners to reach out to our team or any other highly educated equine professionals in your area. We are here to help you and there are no silly questions. Visit and click on the feed tab to find a specialist in your area or email me at
by Brandi Salestrom
Posted: 11/4/2019 3:34:13 PM by Kristin Petersen | with 0 comments

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