Why we ignore the most important nutrient for horses.

Updated: Jan 4

Ok, you got me. We are actually going to talk about the second most important nutrient in equine nutrition. The first being good ol’ H20 that horses simply can not live without for more than a few days. Visions of amino acid proteins, trace minerals like selenium, or vitamins like E or biotin are most likely dancing across your head, but you’d be wrong to think that these are the most important nutrient for horses. The vast majority of horse owners won’t be able to guess it, because we never talk about it. We don’t see it mentioned in Facebook posts or advertised as a selling point for horse feed. The equestrian industry does such a poor job of educating on this topic that not one of my students have guessed it correctly. However, equine study programs (and other livestock management) at agricultural universities and classes around the world START with this nutrient.


Poor balance of this primary nutrient has many negative externalities including unthriftiness, hormone imbalance, and poor performance. Incomplete understanding of this nutrient can also lead to other, less direct, externalities such as increased cost, increased labor, and decreased farm efficiency.

So, what’s the nutrient already, you ask! The all important nutrient that we ignore the most is calories measured in megacalories per day for horses. Many of you will stop reading here, because you’ll think “oh that’s too easy. I’ve got that covered. No need to learn more about that.” But, I caution you! It’s exactly this down play of calories that has our horses suffering and horse owners spending a fortune every year on products that don’t work.

When you plan your horse’s ration or your farm’s feed program on a calorie-centric approach you immediately 1) decrease costs, 2) decrease labor, and 3) improve the majority of your horse’s appearance. Yes, it’s that powerful, and it’s the first nutrient that I help my clients balance. Whether your horse needs calories or not focuses the products we can use in a good diet plan.

Here are two common examples for you to consider.

  1. The Skinny: Horse owners are always sending me photos of their skinny horses followed by a predictable list of relatively low-calorie dense feed stuffs. A perfect example would be a skinny thoroughbred being fed mature grass hay, a cup of beet pulp, rice bran and alfalfa pellets. There are three reasons why you are having a hard time putting weight on your skinny; 1) you’re not feeding enough because you don’t understand how many additional calories your horse needs each day to gain weight, 2) you're feeding the wrong thing because you don’t know how many calories are in each pound of feedstuff, or 3) your horse has an underlying disease (i.e. ulcers, parasites, hormone imbalance, cancer). It's that simple.

  2. The Fatty: Understanding your horse’s daily caloric intake each day is, perhaps, even more important with the fatties. An example I often get is the obese, recently foundered Quarter Horse on over-grazed pastures, alfalfa hay, and a cup of senior feed. There are three reasons why you are having a hard time dropping weight on your fatty; 1) you’re feeding too much because you don’t understand how few calories your horse needs to survive each day 2) you're feeding the wrong thing because you don’t know how many calories are in each pound of feedstuff, or 3) your horse has an underlying disease (i.e. equine metabolic syndrome, Cushings disease).

Here’s how you develop a calorie-centric feed plan that is sound and efficient.

  1. Choose a forage not on color or cost but by understanding it's caloric value and its effect on your horse.

  2. Choose a feed product based on calorie density first before you determine it’s other values. There are enough products on the market today that you should be able to feed the way the nutritionist intended- read the directions.

  3. Know the caloric density of a supplement before you add it- not it’s sugar/starch value or protein, but the calories!


So, here’s the tough question. If caloric density is the most important number to understand about a forage, feed or supplement, why is it so lost on the majority of horse owners? I think it’s simply because it’s so hard to find. Let's start with hay, because that's most likely the largest volume of feed you provide your horse. The vast majority of horse owners don’t get forage analysis done which is the only way to ascertain your horse's primary calorie source. Very unfortunately, feed companies by law are not allowed to put caloric density on feed labels, and few horse owners are willing to contact their feed/supplement companies for this information [though some companies make it accessible online]. Therefore misinformation persists and guessing prevails. It's also unfortunate that we can not directly apply what we know about human energy metabolism to horse energy metabolism. I've seen a few horse owners make this mistake. Finally, the interplay of calories and other nutrients is confusing when we start to compare the overabundance of feeds and supplements available to us. For better or worse there is tremendous diversity in the marketplace. Some feed/supplement products have high caloric value but low vitamin/mineral content, some have low caloric value but high vitamin/mineral content, while others have both! It takes a firm, practiced understanding of feed labels to determine these ratios.


When you take On Course Equine Nutrition's webinar series course, you learn how to categorize the plethora of feed and supplement products out there. You learn how determining your horse's caloric needs makes feed and supplement shopping so much easier. You also learn what's important [and not so important] to you so that feeds and supplements make more sense.


Interested in taking an equine nutrition course that will make you the smartest feeder at the barn? Click HERE for details.


Or schedule a FREE 15 Minute Discovery Call now with On Course Equine Nutritionist.


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