No More Feeding Mystery – How to Balance Your Barrel Horse’s Diet with Confidence

No More Feeding Mystery - How to Balance Your Barrel Horse's Diet with Confidence

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by Carol Layton, B.Sc M.Ed

It is often recommended by vets and nutritionists to feed your horses a balanced diet. A horse needs the right amount of nutrients; carbohydrates, protein and fats, as well as vitamins and minerals for proper digestive function. A balanced diet is essential for optimum performance and in avoiding health issues. Symptoms like a dull coat, poor hoof quality or topline, less than optimal performance and a weak immune system are the more obvious signs. So what is a balanced diet?

Feeding HayA balanced diet is one where all the nutrients are more than adequate to avoid deficiencies and the amount of each of the minerals avoids competition with another. One example is copper and zinc, too much zinc in the diet has been found to interfere with the intake of copper. Another is calcium and phosphorus; too much calcium can interfere with phosphorus and vice versa. There are many other examples.

To determine whether nutrient levels are sufficient and balanced in a horse’s diet, the amounts consumed from forage, feeds and supplements can be compared with the amounts recommended in the Nutrient Requirements of Horses, published in 2007 by the National Research Council (NRC), the reference for equine nutritionists. Providing an insurance buffer by using at least 150% of NRC target minimums and keeping mineral ratios in a tight range will protect the horse from suboptimal intakes of minerals.

Feeding a perfectly balanced feed or supplement can’t correct an out of balance forage whether it’s pasture or hay or a combination of both, especially when it’s the bulk of the diet.

The best way to find out what your horse needs is to find out the amounts of nutrients he is getting from the pasture and/or hay. Equi-analytical in Ithaca, NY is my lab of choice offering quality testing at affordable prices.

Note: Soil testing only tells us what is in soil, not what is in a horse’s diet. Soil testing and treatments are highly recommended for the long term health of soils though often, supplementing what is missing and/or out of balance in the horse’s feed is the cheaper and easier approach.

Collecting a Hay Sample
Laboratories recommend using a hay corer which can be purchased from labs like Equi-analytical or you may be able to ask your local extension (4-H) office if they have one you could borrow. The usual recommendation is to take a small amount from 15 – 30 bales to get a good representative sample. The lab will specify how much a hay sample should weigh. Equi-analytical provides simple instructions for using a corer/probe to sample hay.

Hay probe and drillHay probe and drill
Coring hayCoring hay
Emptying hay probeEmptying hay probe

Collecting a Pasture Sample
Observe your horses to see what plants they like to eat and which ones they ignore. Walk over the pasture and collect 15 to 30 or more random samples by using stainless steel scissors or your fingers to cut at the same height that your horses graze. Try to collect the different plants in similar proportions to what is in the paddock and represent what they eat.

For example, if you have 75% of plant A and 25% of other plants in your pasture use one plastic bag for plant A and a second plastic bag for the other plants. Mix the plants together in a small clean plastic bucket with the different plants in similar proportions to what is in your pasture.

Equi-analytical advises to freeze the sample and send to the lab as soon as possible without the sample defrosting. It’s a good idea to cut the grass into small pieces with stainless steel scissors or your fingers; a lot easier to mix together, work with, pack in a plastic bag when ready to send the sample.

When ready to send your sample off, choose an appropriate test package provided by the lab. For hay, if you need an accurate test for sugars (ESC and WSC) and starch for sugar sensitive/insulin resistant horses choose the wet chemistry test. For Equi-analytical, it’s the 603 Trainer, if sugars and starch are not so crucial; choose the cheaper 601 Equi-tech test. Both packages use the more accurate wet chemistry test for minerals.

For pasture there is no point testing sugars and starch, researchers in the field have to flash freeze their samples in liquid nitrogen to stop the plants from metabolising. Also consider that carbohydrate levels will vary over time.

A professional equine nutritionist can review your forage test results and help you develop a balanced diet specific to your horse’s needs. The diet is based on the nutrients that are already available in the main source of feed you are currently providing, (the hay or pasture) with guidelines set by the U.S. National Research Council. For example, if your hay is very low phosphorus a nutritionist can calculate a mixture of grains and/or minerals to supplement the hay and achieve a balanced diet.

Many horse owners spend huge amounts of time and money unnecessarily stressing over which feeds and supplements to use without ever knowing what nutrients are contained in the bulk of the diet (hay/pasture). It’s not uncommon for alfalfa hays to be very high in calcium, which can cause joint problems. Some grass hays are very low in protein. To keep your horses feeling and performing their best, it’s critical to first understand what is in the hay or pasture and from that point work with a professional to develop a diet that is truly balanced.

There you have it – no more ‘Mystery’ when deciding what and/or how much to feed!

If you enjoyed this article, you’ll love Exercise 4 – Jet Fuel in The Next 50 Barrel Racing Exercises to Develop a Champion.

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To learn even more about balancing your barrel horse’s diet, follow the links below:

Carol Layton B.Sc M.Ed does feeding plans for horse owners in the USA, Australia and other countries. To learn more about mineral interactions and hay and grass testing, visit and check out the nutrition articles.

4 replies
  1. Karen Turek
    Karen Turek says:

    Another option that I really like is to take the results from the hay testing and plug them into a software that is on the website. This software is very sophisticated and will tell you exactly where your horse’s diet is lacking or if they are getting too much of something like protein or calcium for example. It even has the options of noting whether a horse has a medical condition. For example if your horse has PSSM or IR and you enter a feed that is too high in NSC for these conditions the software will warn the user.

    The most eye opening experience for me from using this software is that a lot of vitamin and mineral supplements on the market are really no more then a glorified alfalfa pellets and it made me realize I have wasted a lot of money over the years thinking I was supplementing my horses and all I was doing was making myself feel good.

    Using Feedxl doesn’t require someone to be a mathematician and is a lot cheaper then hiring a nutritionist. It also gives a person the chance to adjust a diet whenever they want, for instance if the horse is going into harder work or going on a break. A nutritionist is also available for consultations on the website’s forum page. It’s inexpensive, very easy and fun to use.

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Hi Meredith, we are currently feeding our older horses Triple Crown Senior, only 2 lbs./day, along with quality pasture or grass hay + 1-2 flakes alfalfa. They also get minerals balanced to their forage in their feed 2x/day along with any other supplements they may need (for joints, digestive support, etc.). We appreciate that most Triple Crown feeds are low sugar and low starch.


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