We all struggle with nutrition at some point in our lives.
Whether it is popular trends, lifestyle changes, or a new diet influenced by a study telling us consuming a specific food will give us cancer, eating a healthy, balanced diet can be challenging. Even more challenging, however, is ensuring our horses are also maintaining a wholesome diet. How do you know what to feed a horse during a winter? What are a horse’s nutrition needs during the summer? How do you account for fluctuation in a horse’s dietary demands with the changing of seasons?
Dr. Kathleen Crandell, an equine nutritionist, provided helpful and detailed answers to these questions. She has worked as a nutrition consultant with Kentucky Equine Research for 22 years and has Master’s and PhD degrees in Equine Nutrition, Exercise Physiology and Reproduction.
When it comes to horses’ diets and how their feed needs change during the season, Dr. Crandell emphasized the importance of noting seasonal fluctuations because the time of year can dictate what the horse needs. However, she said it is natural for horses to cycle through phases of gaining and losing weight, taking into account the abundance of forage.
“To maintain good body condition on a horse throughout the seasons, dietary changes can be quite varied from mostly pasture grasses in spring, summer and fall with hay in the winter to horses without access to grass receiving hay year round,” Dr. Crandell said.
One significant problem is providing all the nutrients a horse needs, so Dr. Crandell recommends adding some sort of vitamin or mineral supplement or concentrate feed to the horse’s diet to add those missing nutrients.
“What is fed depends mostly on the weight of the horse because the type of concentrate chosen will determine how many calories the horse will be getting on top of the forage in the diet,” Dr. Crandell said.
For instance, during the summertime, when horses are often working the hardest, keeping weight on may be difficult. This can be solved by adding a concentrate with more calories - preferably something with higher fat, or additional oil to the feed. Adding extra electrolytes and salt content - and, of course, plenty of fresh water - is also important to keep the horse in good condition. Contrarily, in the winter, keeping weight on the horse can be just as challenging, but Dr. Crandell explained that often all the horse needs is a ration balancer to stay at a steady weight.
The most common problems with horses’ diets are obesity or overeating, being a picky eater - which has many causes ranging from ulcers to being a cribber to stress - and over supplementation. It is important to know what the horse needs, why the horse needs it and when to know something is wrong if a horse’s dietary habits suddenly change.
Just as with any other animal, it is important to gradually implement all dietary changes so the animal has time to adjust.
“If there are going to be changes in the forage between seasons or changes in concentrates, all switches should be done gradually to allow for the digestive tract to adjust,” Dr. Crandell said.
In regards to varying dietary needs, Dr. Crandell noted not much has changed aside from horses working less and enjoying life more and that some horses are missing important nutrients in their diet. However, these can be fixed with a vitamin or supplement.
Overall, the most important aspects of proper nutrition and feeding guidelines vary depending on the horse. Even though this knowledge and advice can help with dietary decisions and plans, knowing your horse is the best way to establish a feeding regimen that will ensure your horse stays happy and healthy.
If there are any questions or concerns about your horse’s diet, please consult your local veterinarian or equine nutritionist.