Up until this point I have very purposefully avoided writing about the subject of equine nutrition. The equine industry is full of fancy marketing tactics by feed manufacturers and it seems a lot of people have been brainwashed into thinking that they must feed their horse a specific bagged "grain" in order for their horse to be healthy and thrive. A question I hear often in my trimming practice from horse owners is what type grains they should be feeding their horse. My answer is always why do you need to feed grain? Its sort of a loaded question, some horses have high nutritional requirements and can benefit from added grains, but others don't need them at all so its never a cut and dry answer.
By now if you have read my writings or followed me on social media you should know that I like to encompass a holistic approach when it comes to my horses. This naturally carries through for me when it comes to feeding them. I prefer a forage based diet with as little processed food as possible. Horses by nature are grazers, they should spend 16 or so hours a day browsing around for food a bite here and a bite there - a constant stream of forage into the digestive system. But what we need to understand about that is that they are not grazers in the sense that they should be grazing lush grass pastures for 16 hours a day, mouthful after mouthful of lush sugar laden green grass.
The equine digestive system requires a delicate balance. Too many carbohydrates (sugars) and you can end up with systemic issues such as insulin disregulation and laminitis. Too little forage and you can cause irritation in the stomach and create ulcers and imbalances with the healthy digestive bacteria. Too little protein and you will see muscle wastage and protein deficiency, too much protein and you could cause damage to the horse's kidneys and liver. By now you might be able to see why I have avoided writing about nutrition.
What happens in domestication is that we commonly overgraze our pastures, either by having too small of a space of the number of horses we have or by not rotating the horses in order to give the grass a break. This cycle usually sees the pastures with tall dense green grass in the springtime and early summer and then as the summers goes on this grass becomes overgrazed creating high stress levels in the grass and root systems, even worse then the tall lush grass of spring. The horses often favor this short grass because it is higher in sugar and more palatable. If you have ever walked through a horse pasture you will have seen clumps of tall grass that the horses will avoid, instead they tend to prefer the very short grass with the root systems exposed. This is because the tall grass, still full of carbohydrates, is usually significantly less carb laden then the short grass and exposed root.
Horses don't always know what food is good for them as they exist on a very primitive level when it comes to eating in comparison to humans. Their brains are telling them that winter is coming and they need to build has much body fat as possible to protect themselves from the harsh cold weather. Their brain doesn't know that they will be wearing three rugs and fed warm mash twice a day as our human brain does. Horses in nature have a very natural cycle of weight gain and loss throughout the year. They build up body fat all spring, summer and fall in order to make it through the harsher winter foraging beneath the snow. This is how the ancestors of our domestic horse are programmed and this programming has been passed down to our domestic horses. They don't understand that they are now living in Florida and won't require those extra calories, they just exist as they are designed to, using those biological instincts to guide them.
So it is then up to us as the caretakers for our horses to provide them with the best possible diet suited to their individual needs. So what does that mean? To me it means keep things simple. Natural is simple for me. I feed my horses forage, good quality hay low in sugar, higher in protein with a balanced mineral makeup and in quantities that keep their body condition in an optimal state for each individual horse. It might sound primitive but if one of my horse starts to look underweight I add more forage, if the are looking overweight I decrease forage. There is no preset percentage of body weight feed ratio that I follow, I visually interpret the results of my feeding program and adjust accordingly. This works well for me for a horse with no health complications who may be in mild to moderate work schedule. Where things can start to get complicated is the horses with compromised health, horses who are performance athletes, old horses, young horses and injured horses. It is also difficult if your hay is not balanced in mineral makeup or may be high in sugar and lacking protein or vice versa. These are challenges we all face and this is where feed companies have found their market.
So what can we do to make up for a deficit in our hay? To help our aging horse or our compromised horse? Stay tuned for my next blog post to answer those questions and more!
Kristi Luehr is a barefoot trimmer, author, and founder of the Okanagan School of Natural Hoof Care. She is certified by the Canadian Farrier School as well as the Oregon School of Natural Hoof Care, and also has certification in equine massage and dentistry. Her focus is to educate owners about hoof anatomy, function and proper barefoot trimming that supports and grows healthy and functional hooves specific to each horse's individual needs. She is the author of two online courses specific to hoof care and is always striving to create more educational content for students to learn from.