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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?
A 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.
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:
- How to Use the Glycemic Index to Increase Health and Performance
- Feed for Speed – How to Fuel Fast Twitch Muscles for Faster Times
- Free, Easy and FAST – Support Your Horse’s Joint Health & Function with Nutrition
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 www.BalancedEquine.com.au and check out the nutrition articles.