Article written by Aimee Robinson for Valley Vet Supply
Let’s go back in time to 1821—for the sake of entertainment, you can be a horse.
You’re a drafty fellow, and there are fields to plow, wagons and carriages to pull and the five-day work week has yet to be heard of—especially for a horse out on the farm. Being the steady workhorse you are, you’re hoofing 10 to 15 hours per day and expending a lot of energy and calories. Your source of food includes grazing low-quality forage. (Hungry yet?)
Dr. Jyme Nichols, director of nutrition at Stride Animal Health, says this is about the time cereal grains were introduced into horses’ diets. The grains most popular and accessible to feed horses included corn, barley, and oats. Knowing horses required higher levels of fiber, as it’s safest for them and their diet, oats were a natural choice. Of the available options, oats have the highest level of fiber and supply extra calories that provide horses with extra energy.
“Fast forward to the present day—we have horses kept in stalls or in small turnouts, and they may have very limited hours of riding. The horse that used to work 10, 12, or 14 hours a day now maybe only works an hour a day when we have time to ride them. The rest of the time they spend eating. But they are still receiving the same concentrated grain meal that we were giving them many years ago when they were working so hard. If you take a high-starch feed like that and overfeed them, you can make a horse very excitable or crazy,” said Dr. Nichols during an interview with Valley Vet Supply.
Equine nutrition is complex—there’s no sugarcoating that; however, Dr. Nichols warns there’s plenty of “sugarcoating” when it comes to our horse’s grain choices. That, along with high starch, are just a few aspects to consider relating to our horse’s nutritional program.
With insight from Dr. Nichols, let’s review the most frequently asked questions about equine nutrition.
Does my horse need supplements?
The answer to that is never black or white. It depends on what you are doing with your horse — how old your horse is, whether you’re feeding your horse a forage-only diet, or whether your horse is on feed. It also depends on if your horse is dealing with certain problems like arthritis, gut issues, or specific needs that are outside of what we would consider “normal” basic nutritional needs.
Does protein make horses excitable or “hot”?
No, it doesn’t. It’s the starch and sugars in what you are feeding that make horses hot. There is some confusion about protein. It’s commonly thought that horses need more feed, more protein, and more nutrients so we’re going to feed this higher-protein feed. But what owners may not realize is that when they were feeding that higher-protein feed, they were also feeding more of it. It wasn’t necessarily the high protein that was making the horses become excitable. It was the fact they were feeding a really large volume of a high-starch, high-sugar feed.
Nutritionally, how can I manage or prevent a “hot” horse?
If you have a horse that’s naturally more excitable and anxious, one of the better things you can do is look for a diet that’s high in fiber and pull your calories from fat sources. Those fat sources are called “cool energy calories,” meaning they give horses the calories that they need, but they’re not going to make their mind and their attitude hot and excitable.
For energetic horses, avoid high starch feeds. Check the feed tag for the NSC, the combination of starch + sugar. NSC stands for non-structural carbohydrates. You get to that number by adding the starch number on the feed tag to the sugar level. Generally, for feeds to be considered low starch, the sum of starch percentage plus sugar percentage shouldn’t total more than 22%.
Can sugars impact certain horse health conditions?
For PPID horses or Cushing’s horses, starch and sugar are really important to manage in the diet. If you have a horse with a medical sensitivity, such as a horse with Cushing’s, laminitis or equine metabolic syndrome—the medical sensitivity to sugar means you need to make sure that your NSC is under 12%. After that, you want to make sure you’re feeding at the recommended levels of the feed. If you’re not—and let’s say that particular feed calls for 6 pounds per day and you’re only feeding those horses 3 pounds per day, you’re shorting them important trace minerals or vitamins.
How do you nutritionally manage a horse that ties up frequently?
There’s no generic answer. But keep horses off green grass (which has higher sugar content), feed low-starch/low-sugar feed, and make sure you have a proper balance of trace minerals, macro nutrients and vitamins. Also, ensure they have daily exercise.
How do I know if my hay is meeting their basic needs?
First off, do a visual check and body condition assessment of your horse. Look at rib cover—you should be able to easily feel but not easily see ribs. Next, you’ll want to look at your horse’s topline— you want it to be essentially flat. If they can hold water on their spine on a rainy day, that tells you they’re in a bit of an excess body condition. But if rain were to pour on them and just run off, and their spine peaks up like a mountain, that tells you their body condition is probably a bit under.
But the most concrete thing you can do is get your hay tested. Getting that information is the most important thing you can do, because forage is the foundation of your horse’s diet; it’s so important to understand what you are feeding.
Continue learning, and browse ValleyVet.com for trusted equine supplements from Stride Animal Health and more to support your horse’s health and nutrition.
About Valley Vet Supply
Valley Vet Supply was founded in 1985 by veterinarians to provide customers with the very best animal health solutions. Building on over half a century of experience in veterinary medicine, Valley Vet Supply serves equine, pet, and livestock owners with thousands of products and medications hand-selected by Valley Vet Supply founding veterinarians and their professional staff. With an in-house pharmacy licensed in all 50 states and verified through the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP), Valley Vet Supply is the dedicated source for all things horse, livestock, and pet. For more information, please visit ValleyVet.com.
The Northwest Horse Source is an independently owned and operated print and online magazine for horse owners and enthusiasts of all breeds and disciplines in the Pacific Northwest. Our contemporary editorial columns are predominantly written by experts in the region, covering the care, training, keeping and enjoyment of horses, with an eye to the specific concerns in our region.