Horses derive nutrients from the feed they eat. Nutrients are grouped into five categories: water, vitamins/minerals, carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids. When we understand the functions of each nutrient and where to find them, it will be easy to be sure your horse is receiving a balanced, nutritious diet.
Water is the most important nutrient in your horse’s diet. Water is the largest component in your horse’s body. A 20 per cent loss in hydration can result in death. Water carries nutrients around the body, regulates body temperature, acts as a lubricant, quenches thirst and helps in the removal of waste and toxins.
Vitamins are organic substances that are essential to health. They are found in feed or are produced by the body. Although they are required in such tiny amounts, vitamin supplements are often added to diets to ensure the provision of these nutrients. Deficiencies will result in specific disorders. Vitamins are either fat soluble or water soluble.
Fat soluble vitamins are carried in liquid fat. These include vitamins A, D, E and K. They can be stored in the liver and in body fat to be called up for use when the body needs them. Feeding excessive fat soluble vitamins can lead to toxicities.
Water soluble vitamins include vitamin C and the B complex. They are produced in the intestine from natural plant sources and cannot be stored in the body. They are provided by good quality hay or pasture and synthesized by bacteria in the intestines. Feeding excess water soluble vitamins cause added stress on the body, which excretes the unused vitamins.
Minerals are inorganic substances that are also essential to the health of your horse. These are very important in its structural components. Salt is the number one mineral required by a horse. A horse requires more salt than any other animal. Other important examples are calcium and phosphorus, they play critical roles as components in healthy bones. Minerals are found in the food your horse eats or the supplements we provide.
Carbohydrates are found in just about everything your horse eats including grass, hay and grains. Grains provide energy; this comes mostly from the starch and simple sugars. Forages (hay and grass) provide the fiber. Carbohydrates provide energy for all body functions: the fuel for growth & body development, activity & warmth.
Horses need a minimum of 1 per cent of their body weight/day in forage to maintain a healthy digestive tract; this value is normally closer to 2.5 per cent. Forage traditionally includes hay and grass but there are other options. Hay cubes (often a mixture of alfalfa and grass) and sugar beet pulp are excellent sources of forage. Alfalfa pellets do not qualify as forage because they are not providing the size of material required to be long-stem forage.
Lipids are composed of fats and oils. Lipids are the most energy dense feed available-they provide more than twice the energy of carbohydrates. Calories are provided as fatty acids, not starch so there is less risk of colic and laminitis. As little as two tablespoons daily will help produce a shiny coat but up to one cup can be fed each day. Be aware that oil can suppress your horse’s appetite.
Lipids provide a concentrated source of slow-acting energy, producing a subcutaneous (under the skin) layer which helps to regulate body temperature and keeps the skin/ coat in good condition. They improve the digestibility of fat soluble vitamins.
Corn or wheat germ oils seem to be the most readily accepted forms to feed. The digestibility of corn oil is over 90 per cent. Many commercial high fat feeds are available to provide additional fats into a horse’s diet however it is important to store them carefully to prevent spoilage.
Proteins are the building blocks of your horse’s diet. They are required for body development and tissue repair. Protein is made up of 24 amino acids, some of which are formed in the body, while the 10 essential amino acids must be supplied by the diet. Soy bean meal and alfalfa hay are excellent sources of protein.
A lack of protein can result in growth/development problems, weak athletic performance, a lack of appetite & poor condition. Excess protein is dangerous. It causes body and mental stress, over works the horse’s kidneys and can poison the whole system.
Mature horses require between 8-12% protein in their diet. Hard working athletes require more than pleasure mounts. Young horses require more than mature horses, 14 per cent for weanlings, 12 per cent for yearlings, and 10 per cent for two year olds.
Supplying adequate nutrition is critical to the health of your horse. Look at what your horse is eating and hopefully you will see representation from all the groups I have mentioned above.
Shelly Graham is a local rider, trainer, horse breeder and Equine Canada certified coach.