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How equine veterinarians can help demystify horse nutrition

Owners may not know how to best feed their horses, so here’s how you can help

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For many horse owners, perhaps nothing is more confusing than trying to figure out the “best” way to feed their horse(s). They are confronted with a seemingly endless array of do’s, don’ts, can’ts and musts that can make feeding a confusing and expensive task. With solid knowledge, equine veterinarians can provide a valuable service to their clients and help allay their concerns about “proper” feeding.

Basically, It’s Easy 

Horses are wonderfully self-reliant, and meeting the nutritional needs of most is actually quite simple. Adequate forage, water and perhaps a salt block with added trace minerals are more than enough to satisfy all the nutritional needs of most horses in most circumstances.

As long as horses get enough fresh or stored forage featuring the color green, they will meet their caloric needs, as well as their vitamin A and E needs. Horses synthesize their own vitamin C and get B vitamins from the microbial population of their GI tract and plenty of vitamin D from just standing around outside. As for vitamin K … well, you can’t really make a horse deficient in that, even if you tried.

Minerals, too, generally are supplied in ample quantities in good-quality forage, but the trace mineral/salt block can provide an inexpensive and effective source of a few vital nutrients just in case.

The Most Common Problem

For most horses, the most common nutritional problems arise from calories—either too many or too few. Those left to graze free can become obese and develop such health issues as pasture-associated laminitis; horses that don’t receive adequate calories lose weight.

Weight loss can reflect the metabolic demands placed on an animal (e.g., a lactating mare), it may mean that the caloric demands of exercise exceed the calories being provided, or, in some sad cases, it belies an underlying welfare problem. Even so, it’s generally healthier for horses (and every other species) to be a little too thin than too fat.

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Veterinarians can provide valuable nutritional counseling for clients who have difficulty keeping their horses at an optimum weight, which has been described as being able to easily feel—but not see—a horse’s ribs. However, there is certainly plenty of variability among a population of healthy horses.

Simply providing more forage is a simple enough solution for many horses, but bulk limiting due to the relatively small size of the equine stomach may mean that the caloric demands exceed what forage can provide. In such cases, their primary sources of additional calories are grains and fats.

Oats long have been a staple of the equine diet, but many other grains are available. Under any circumstances, however, caution owners to avoid feeding excessive amounts of grain. Most nutritionists recommend that horses should not receive more than 5 pounds of grain daily and never more than 2.5 pounds at a single feeding.

Fats are provided most commonly in the form of oil. Canola oil is believed to have the best balance of fatty acids and may be preferred by some nutritionists. Fat also can be provided in the form of rice bran. While it contains less fat than oil (roughly 20 percent fat versus 100 percent), rice bran is less messy to measure and generally doesn’t have the palatability issues shown by some horses when fed oils.

Fat horses provide a somewhat different challenge. Many owners prefer that their horses be fatter than what is healthy. Some shows may reward the owners of obese horses with top prizes (e.g., quarterhorses shown at halter or show hunters). Similarly, horses kept in lush pasture feed freely and are only too happy to pass the time ingesting excessive amounts of feed. Veterinarians can play an important role in the health of these animals by counseling clients as to the health risks of obesity in horses (e.g., laminitis). Helping horse owners maintain a more ideal weight for their animal is more economical, as well. Feed scales can be very effective tools in helping owners save money while, at the same time, accurately measuring an appropriate amount of feed.

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Special Circumstances

Situations exist where a veterinarian can provide valuable nutritional counseling for particular metabolic circumstances. For example, in horses with insulin resistance/metabolic syndrome (sometimes known as “easy keepers”), veterinarians can intervene with specific advice on reducing starch in the horse’s diet, as well as by providing appropriate amounts of feed. Lactating mares have increased nutritional needs; horses with laminitis may benefit from decreasing the number of available calories. Of course, not every thin horse is merely suffering from a lack of calories. Here, too, veterinarians have an opportunity to provide valuable assistance with dental care or parasite control, for example.


In certain circumstances, supplementing with specific nutrients may be advisable, such as adding selenium to diets in regions that are deficient. However, horse owners are confronted with seemingly endless choices of attractively packaged products that may claim to provide “support” or “balance” to any number of the horse’s body systems, as well as to help modify, prevent or ameliorate certain disease conditions (e.g., osteoarthritis). Client demand for such products may be strong, and it may be tempting for veterinarians to go along with clients as sort of a therapeutic path of least resistance. Still, the fact is that the equine supplement industry is very loosely regulated, and there are issues with the claims many of them make. The benefit of most supplements sold to horse owners is unknown, but the cost is certain. Veterinarians can gain client loyalty by critically evaluating products and advocating for both the horse and the owner’s finances.

Dr. David W. Ramey is a Southern California equine practitioner who specializes in the care and treatment of pleasure horses. His website is doctorramey.com.

Originally published in the June 2017 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today! 

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