Yes, I consider the feeding of horses a safety tip! Various problems can be caused by poor feeding techniques including colic of the horse, laminitis or founder, excess energy, and a myriad of other miscellaneous problems.

In my mind, there are two very important items to keep in mind when feeding horses. The first would be to understand how the horse evolved on the plains and what it lived on. The second would be the old horseman’s term of "feeding by eye". Let me go into a bit on the "feeding by eye" first. If your horse has a "cresty neck", and quite a bit of fat built up along its back and croup, chances are it is an "easy keeper" and overweight. If you can see the ribs clearly defined and the hipbones and maybe even some of the spinal processes, then your horse is getting close to dangerously underweight.

The goal most owners should be seeking is something in between. The ribs should be able to be felt but have a good layer of tissue and muscle over them. The spinal colum should not be seen below the whithers other than a bit of a crease in the center of the back. The hips should be a bit rounded. Now comes the hard part! All horses are put together different so even these guidelines are not 100% accurate! Some horses tend to have what is called "well sprung ribs" which would mean even if this horse is in good weight the ribs will still be noticeable and appear to be "showing". Some horses have what is called a "roach back" and even when they are at a decent weight, some of the spinal processes toward the hips may be visible..especially on an older horse. What is important when looking at and evaluating your horse’s condition is to stand back and take an overall assessment of its general appearance. Are the eyes bright? Is the neck nicely filled and smooth appearing where it joins the shoulders? Do the whithers join the back and barrell in a smooth transition? Are the flanks sunken, or do they follow the path from the barrel to the buttocks in a nicely filled line? This can help you decide if your horse is carrying adequate weight. The "easy keepers" are often more difficult since they seem to subsist on air! I enjoy the humor of Dr. R. Oglesby on the "Horseman’s Advisor" and one of his guidelines to giving grain to these horses is as follows: take a very small container, and pour the grain onto the horse’s back, it can have what falls off!

Probably one of the most important issues that people tend to forget, is that the horse evolved as a GRAZING animal. This means forage. Horses are also not ruminants like cows, or goats or deer. They have only one small stomach and their digestion is done in a different manner than the ruminants. This digestion calls for a higher quality and more specific type of forage. They need a forage that has a minimal size to it and won’t do as well digesting a fiber that grossly exceeds this either. A good quality grass for grazing is the best case scenario. In winter, this translates into dried grass or hay. Grain is the seed from grasses. Horses rarely got a chance to eat much in the way of these seeds except when the grasses were mature enough to produce them. However, centuries ago, horsemen found that grains were a good source of concentrated and easy to store and transport feed. I am not a nutritionist so am not going to go into all the various forms of grains that are available to feed to your horses here. The wonderful book by Dr. Lon Lewis, "Feeding and Care of the Horse" will do that for you. I would just like to give some practical ideas and background for a decent, down to earth feeding approach. This should always start with a basis of good quality grazing material, either grass or hay. Hay that tends to be nice and green will be high in Vit A. A few grasses I am familiar with are "Timothy", "Brome" and "Orchard Grass". These are all very nice grasses for hay and the nutritional value in them is always better when they are cut before complete maturity, or when they have developed seeds. This nutritional value decreases once the seedheads have been produced.

It is important that you discuss with your Veterinarian or Veterinarian College in your area as to what hay is available and considered the best forage for horses. During this discussion, be sure and ask about all the good and bad issues involved with this hay.

I live in the midwest in a fairly humid area so I am also a fan of alfalfa. This is a legume, related to clover and beans. It is good for the soil as it releases nitrogen into it. If cut and baled correctly it too can be a good hay. The great things about alfalfa are the high concentration of nutrients, including Vit A, calcium, and protein. Unfortunately in some cases the protein and calcium levels can be too high sometimes which is why it is best mixed with a grass hay. If alfalfa is cut past maturity, the leaves tend to fall off the stalks, so the hay the horse is getting tends to be a bit to rough for their systems. In some areas of the U.S. the alfalfa hay is straight alfalfa with no other grass mixed in. This is fed as a "horse hay" and many horses do well on it. This can be very high in protein and calcium and if you are concerned, it is best to have it analysed for nutritional values. Adjustments to what is being fed to these horses may have to be made so as to not stresstheir systems with an overdose of specific nutrients like protein or calcium.

Speaking of protein, this often seems to be what horse owners base their idea of feeding on. Horses have fairly low protein requirements in comparison with say a dog or cat. Protein in the diet is used by the body to replace cells that have been lost or damaged. Young horses need a bit higher percentage of protein since they are experiencing rapid growth and are making a myriad of new cells daily. Mature horses tend to need feeds more for energy, thus it may be wiser to view the feeds you are planning on using as energy replacers. Even veiwing horse feeds in this method, it’s easy to do an overkill! Grains are viewed as concentrated energy, while forage or hay/grass is viewed as fiber. We think too often of how we utilize what we eat. Horses are different! They need and make use of the grasses and fiber they eat and this is the most important part of their diet. They lived for millions of years with no grains to speak of while they were wild on the plains. Whenever possible, it is beneficial to the horse’s physical and mental health to have access to hay or grass as close to 24 hours a day as you can get. Of course, those of you with "easy keepers" will have to be careful! In my experience in having an "easy keeper" for twenty something years, I found if I took her off grain completely and fed a grassy hay, she seemed to maintain a good wieght, neither gaining or losing. But, each horse is different and that’s where the "feeding by eye" comes into action!

When feeding both hay and grain, one should always get at least an idea of the weight of what you’re feeding. Grain since it is a concentrate, should be a bit more closely monitored for weight of what you are feeding than hay. However, I would like to include an example here. I remember a friend asking me one time if I could recommend a supplement for her horse. I am not a great fan of most supplements if the horse is generally healthy so I first asked her how much hay she was feeding. She told me six "flakes" in the morning and six at night. I suggested if he’s getting that much then she better get her vet out since it sounded like he had a problem. I happened to be there not too long after this conversation when she was feeding….each flake of hay she was giving to her horse was wafer thin and probably didn’t weigh much more than a half a pound! I suggested she get a "baby" scale and weigh her hay and try to increase the hay amount fed gradually until she was feeding more like 5 to 10 pounds twice a day. I also suggested she talk to her vet about this as he was coming out to check the general health of this horse. The horse was determined to be healthy and the vet agreed with increasing the amount of hay and feeding it by weight rather than "flake".

Free access to clean water is another issue one must take into account when attempting a safe feeding program. I have a full stock tank available to my horses 24 hours a day and in winter this contains a safely placed sunken stock tank heater. This tends to keep the water above freezing. Many horses will avoid drinking water in the winter that has ice floating in it. And do not go on the old "horseman’s tale" that they "can eat snow" to get water! Some horses will eat a little snow, I have one who likes to "dunk" his hay in water if it is close by and in winter he will take a bite of hay, then a bite of snow! But this is just not a safe way for horses to ingest the amount of water their systems need.

I would like to just briefly touch on pregnant mares. The feeding requirements for them are basically the same as for all horses except during the last trimester of their pregnancy. The nutritional demands are a bit higher here as the foal is experiencing rapid growth and the mare will pull the nutrients from her own body to supply the growing fetus. Here again it is almost easier for most of us to overdo this regimen. Make sure she’s getting what she needs without excess. And if you have "fescue" grass in your pasture, be sure she is not grazing on that for the last trimester or so of her pregnancy. I have also heard removing her from the "fescue" can be done as late as thirty days prior to foaling, but I guess, why take chances?

One final thought, it is very wise to discuss any and all feeding programs with your veterinarian! There are nutritional requirements that may be specific to your area you need to be aware of and your veterinarian or even a local veterinary college would be the best source of information for these things. For example, my area is deficient in Selenium. I have my horse’s blood checked occasionally for this to make sure they are getting what they need. Some areas have an excess of Selenium present in the soil and some plants concentrate this trace mineral. This can be extremely toxic! So always check with your veterinarian when trying to set up an effective feeding program.

I hope this help take some of the mystery out of feeding and how to judge your horse’s condition. There isn’t really alot of magic involved, mostly just understanding how the horse evolved and trying to follow those "blueprints"!

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