Guide to proper horse nutrition

This Guide to Proper Horse Nutrition is published on Stateline Tack.
This Guide to Proper Horse Nutrition is published on Stateline Tack.

Wondering where to start when it comes to nutrition? Stateline Tack has an introductory guide on their website with some good basic advice . . . and many links to other resources: Guide to Proper Horse Nutrition.

From my perspective, the most important elements of any feeding program are:

  • Make forage the core of your horse’s diet. Long stem forage (hay, hay cubes, beet pulp, chopped hay) provides the roughage your horse needs to keep its digestive tract working properly.
  • If your horse needs more calories, consider adding grain. Most horses do better on a low starch diet (low in sugar) and that means avoiding sweet feeds.
  • Make sure your horse’s nutritional needs are met. If you are feeding only hay (and some horses get enough calories from hay), make sure you do a nutritional analysis so you know that your horse’s vitamin and mineral needs are covered. In many parts of the country, hay is deficient in some vitamins and you need to provide them using a vitamin mineral supplement, a ration balancer, or a complete grain.
  • Provide plenty of fresh, clean water.




What supplements does your horse need?

Open any tack store catalog or website today and you will find a plethora of supplement options. Is your horse a bit creaky? There are joint supplments for every stage of life and almost every budget. Horse need to gain weight? There are fat supplements promising “cool calories”. Horse a bit exciteable? Not to worry, there are calming supplements.

Hope in a bottle (or a bag) is a very appealing concept. And the price for that hope is commensorate with the intended results. It’s easy to end up spending many dollars/day on products that are meant to supplement your horse’s regime. In fact, this is an industry that has perfected the marketing guilt message. Your horse would feel/look/behave so much better if you just fed him this product.

Case in point. Smartpak (don’t get me wrong, I love Smartpak for many reasons and shop there all the time, but they are the masters of marketing)  has a supplement selection guide. If you answer their questions, they recommend what might work for your horse.

In the spirit of curiosity, I tried it. There are enough questions involved that it feels thorough and you feel invested in the process. The survey asks you about your horse’s age, breed, work load, turnout schedule, type of forage fed, overall stiffness, tendency toward ulccers, etc. Some of the questions don’t have the answers you want to give. There’s not enough nuance.  But I filled it out to reflect Freedom as a healthy 14  year old TB with a moderately heavy workload who is turned out 24/7, has good hooves, no skin problems and is a bit of a hard keeper and suffers from some anxiety. As a horse that raced until he was six, with 28 starts, I also worry about wear and tear on his joints.

The program gave me three recommendations:  basic support ($3.10/day), enhanced support ($4.53/day) and comprehensive support ($6.85/day).

The comprehensive package included

Joint supplement
Weight supplement
Calming supplement
Insect control supplement
Digestion aid
Vitamin E for immune support

Let’s think about this. That’s six supplements in addition to a balanced diet (I feed 7 quarts/day of Triple Crown Senior). I think that’s where you do a sanity check and remember that in this case, SmartPak is in the business of selling supplements.

I’m not anti supplements, I just have a limited budget — $197/month is more than I can spend and the low end package, which comes in at $86.90/month, is just for Smartflex III Resiliance and Weight Gain.

I prefer to look at the whole feeding regime and make sure that everything is balanced before I add anything specific. For example, feeding more grain or more forage may be the best way to add weight to your horse. I also like to feed flax seed as it helps add calories and good omegas — which in turn helps hoof and hair growth and may even help with joint mobility. I like to look at blood analysis to see if there are deficiencies before adding a vitamin or a mineral — it’s too easy to end up feeding too much of one thing and not enough of another.

I actually do feed Freedom vitamin E but only after my vet did a blood panel on him (when I was testing him for Lyme). I’m not sure it makes sense to feed the additional Vitamin E unless there is a deficiency.

For joints, my preference is to start with straight MSM, which is less than $0.35/day. I don’t have a problem with going to a more expensive solution if that doesn’t work, but the jury is still out on feed through supplements. I feed CortaFlx to Freedom because Chemphar has published some research that shows improvements to horses and because it’s pretty inexpensive — only a bit more than $0.50/day.

I do like SmartDigest. I had Freedom on SmartDigest Ultra while I was treating him for Lyme and I definitely think it helped him hold his weight better.

I’m on the fence about calming supplements. I believe that magnesium can help if, and it’s a big if, your horse is deficient in it. Otherwise, I think there’s not much evidence that they help. For my own horse, calmness is a direct result of wet blanket therapy. The more I ride him, the better he goes.

I may try a feed through insect control supplement this summer. Freedom is really bothered by bugs. I’m still weighing the pros of minimizing bugs with feeding a chemical to my horse. I may try fly predators instead.

To be worth the investment ($6.85/day is $2300/year) I need to either see a clear benefit or have a lot of faith. I’m encouraged that SmartPak offers a money back guarantee of you don’t see results from their SmartPak line, but wonder how many people just want to believe that the magic powder really makes a difference.

What are your thoughts on supplements? What do you feed? Or why do you choose not to feed them?


I wish someone told me to gain weight

Freedom has an audience while he eats lunch
Curly and Willow are hoping that Freedom doesn’t finish his lunch.

Freedom is like one of your skinny friends who eats all the time but still complains about being too thin. While eating six quarts (6.5 lbs) of Triple Crown, two quarts of alfalfa pellets (2.5 lbs) and all the hay he wants per day, he was getting ribby. I know that Willow and Curly are feeling the pain. When I fed him lunch last week they were standing around his feed pan hoping he would miss a few pellets. Since he’s the alpha horse they won’t come any closer but they are definitely bummed. They both can gain weight by watching another horse eat.

This happens every summer (Fattening Up Freedom from August, 2011). His activity level goes down and so does his weight. It shouldn’t. So I think it’s the bugs. They make him fret and fidget and the weight just drops off of him.

Last year I gave him Purina Amplify. This year I tried adding lunch (an extra quart each of Senior and Alfalfa pellets). It didn’t help much. So I picked up one of those huge containers of oil at Costco and worked him up to two cups of oil/day. It seems to be making a difference and it’s a cheap way of adding calories.



Fattening up Freedom

Freedom is looking ribby
Freedom has lost some weight this summer. He's a horse that can start looking ribby if he's at all anxious and the bugs and heat seem to have caused him to lose weight.

Freedom has been looking a bit ribby this summer. He came out of the winter in good weight, and came out of the spring hunt season looking fit and lean.

I thought he’d fatten up once the spring grass came in and he wasn’t working quite so much . . . but he didn’t. He’s a horse that can fret off weight. Add some biting flies and heat to his day and he fidgets the weight off. Boy do I wish I had that problem!

Freedom in better weight
He came out of the winter in good weight. Here is at the beginning of the Spring hunt season.

The question is, how do you add weight to a horse who already gets free choice hay and who gets hotter than a rocket with too much grain? Freedom has traditionally done well being fed beet pulp, a ration balancer and alfalfa pellets. The volume of his meals is already pretty large — it takes him awhile to eat his way through all that soaked beet pulp. I didn’t want to add more volume as he’s already the last horse to finish his meals.

In the past when he’s need some extra weight I’ve added oil. But oil is messy and it’s very hard when you’re pre-mixing meals in plastic baggies to add it. First, I added more ration balancer and a bit more alfalfa. Then, I started feeding him lunch on the days that I could get to the barn — some soaked beet pulp with a bit more ration balancer and alfalfa. Horses generally gain weight when their meals are broken into more feedings and it did help Freedom, just not enough.

Freedom has filled out some.
I took this photo this morning. I think he's starting to fill out nicely.

About three weeks ago I started feeding Purina Amplify, a rice-bran based fat source that is also low in starch (too much starch is rocket fuel for Freedom). According to the Purina site, Amplify is like a ration balancer, supplying a horse’s vitamins and minerals in a higher fat formula (30%). I’m mixing it 50/50 with the Enrich 32 that I normally feed. It’s more expensive than oil but oh-so-much easier to feed. I started him on half a cup per meal but now am feeding him 3/4 of the cup a.m. and p.m. and another half a cup at lunch. I took a picture of him this morning and even in this cell phone photo you can see that he’s looking better.

I just wish someone had to force me to eat more fat in my diet to keep my weight up!

Take the Purina Challenge

Purina 60 Day ChallengeHere’s a reason to try Purina feeds. The company has launched the Purina® 60 Day See the Difference Challenge, which encourages horse owners to see the difference Purina® feeds can make in how your animals look and feel.

Purina believes that after 8 to 9 weeks of feeding Purina, owners will see the following differences in their horses:

  • Improvements in palatability
  • Shiny hair coat
  • Improved body condition: increased muscle tone and increased lean muscle mass
  • Optimum hoof health
  • Better overall health
  • No supplements needed if feeding as directed

To try the program, or if you already feed Purina and want some coupons, go to and register for a 60-day trial of Purina Feed.

I’ve been feeding Purina for 7-8 years now and have no complaints. Currently I feed one of their ration balancers, Enrich 32. And no, I don’t feed any supplements other than a joint supplement.

Free teleseminar on equine supplements

getty equine nutritionWondering what supplements your horse should get or if he needs any at all?

Dr. Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D., an equine nutritionist, is hosting a free teleseminar on Thursday, February 24th at 8:00 p.m. EST. where she will answer your questions.

Instructions: Dial 712-432-3030 and enter Code: 918791

If you’re not able to make it, you’ll be able to listen to the entire event at

Dr. Getty is a specialist in equine nutrition whose philosophy is founded on feeding a horse in sync with his natural needs and instincts. Dr. Getty is the author of the comprehensive resource, Feed Your Horse Like A Horse, and her articles and interviews often appear in national and international publications.

She also maintains an online forum, Ask the Nutritionist, where you can post questions.

Smaller, more frequent meals help horses gain weight

When I had a horse that needed to put on some weight a nutritionist gave me two simple pieces of advice. 1) Feed more and 2) Feed more frequently. In fact, he said, is you feed several small meals you might not even need to feed more grain.

Most barns feed a concentrate twice a day and usually horses get hay several times. Adding a lunch time feed can really benefit a hard keeper, even if you can’t feed lunch every day. Although many people worry about changing a horse’s feeding routine, adding a snack of up to 1 pound of their normal grain a few times per week won’t do your horse any harm. Horses evolved to eat small frequent meals and they digest their food more efficiently when it’s fed in small quantities.

I don’t feed a concentrate but I almost always give Freedom an extra ration of alfalfa pellets if I ride during the day. And one of the mares at our barn is a very picky eater. Feeding her lunch when possible goes a long way toward keeping weight on her.

The cost of adding fat to your horse’s diet

Adding fat to your horse’s diet is one of the quickest and least expensive ways to add calories. If you are already meeting your horse’s nutritional needs, you don’t necessarily want to feed more grain. Certainly, that’s been the case with Freedom. He is a bit of a “hard keeper” but if I feed him too much complete feed, he gets too hot to focus.

Oil is messy to feed. For many years I assiduously avoided it for that reason, preferring to feed rice bran. However, when you have a horse that is thriving on the calories provided by two cups of oil per day, it quickly becomes advantageous to find the least expensive source for fat. Over the winter, when feeding oil was a non-issue because it froze in the barn, I asked my husband to prepare a cost per calorie comparison to determine which fat source offers the biggest bang for the buck. I had just bought a bag of rice bran and was amazed by how much it cost.

Keep in mind that this comparison is only to evaluate cost per calorie. At a later date I’m planning to write about the reasons why you might — or might not — choose  particular fat source based on other issues.

Here’s what he compared: Soybean oil vs. corn oil vs. rice bran vs. flax seed.

Here’s a caveat. We belong to Costco. Price clubs like Costco allow you to purchase vast quantities of products such as oil at low prices. To benefit from the price comparison that’s detailed here, you need to have a bulk source of oil. I’ve been feeding soybean oil although I also feed half a cup of flax seed per day.  For Rice Bran I used the Triple Crown rice bran available from my feed store.