VMC Equine Feeding Blog 3 – What Type of Feed?

So, you’ve researched the grain company, looked at the labels and you are more confused! Which is better for my horse- the low starch and sugar feed, the high fat feed, the ration balancer, the 12%, the 10%, the organic feed?  Argh – how do I choose??

Take a deep breath.

Let’s start with the most important thing, which is: What type of forage is your horse eating?

Forage is the most important part of the horse’s diet and your concentrate should complement the type of forage that you are feeding.  For instance, you might have great pasture in the summer, but in the winter you are feeding so/so hay. You might need to change what concentrate you feed between the winter and summer from a higher calorie, more fortified feed to a ration balancer.  A change from an alfalfa mix hay to a low-quality hay might mean a change in concentrate as well.

Does this feed meet my horse’s age and use requirements?

The feed requirements for a 10 year old pasture puff and a growing 6 month old weanling are completely different. Geriatric horses are another special population. There is no one feed that will meet the needs of all age and use, despite what you see in the ads!

Does this feed meet my horse’s metabolic needs?

Just like people, horses can vary in their individual needs for calories.  We all know people who can eat all day and never gain weight and the opposite.  Horses are no different. Every horse is an individual and you may need to increase the calorie content of the diet for some, and reduce it for others.  Higher fat feeds supply more calories without supplying more starch and sugar, which is healthier for the horse in general.

Is the feed lower in starch and sugar?

The higher the starch and sugar (NSC), the more the risk associated with metabolic problems, such as laminitis.  The NSC is especially important in feeding horses with equine metabolic syndrome, laminitis, Cushings, or history of colic. Unfortunately, some manufacturers are very reluctant to share this vital piece of information.  Also, just like with human foods, the definition of “low” varies from one company to another. Low doesn’t always mean low. Another thing to consider is the volume of feed that you are feeding.  If the label directions are for 6# of a 12% NSC, it might actually be higher in total starch and sugar than 1.5# of a 16%NSC. Another reason to read the label and the feeding directions!

Can I feed it according to the label?

As we discussed in blog 1 and 2, if you are not feeding in the amounts on the feeding direction label, you are not supplying the horse with the minimum requirements of nutrients needed in the diet. So, feeding 1# of feed, when the minimum is 5, or feeding 20# when the maximum is 10, is not optimal for your horse.  I see this all the time when people are feeding a pound of low starch feed to their 1000# horse, because he is already too fat.  If you can’t feed according to the label amounts, you need to change feeds!


The take home message is that you need to take your horse’s needs into consideration when choosing a feed and you can change feeds as those needs change.  It’s ok to change feeds seasonally or if the horse’s energy or growth requirements change.   Just do so gradually over a period of 1-2 weeks. If you are not sure, ask your vet or contact a nutritionist. Most feed companies have nutritionists available to answer questions at no charge.

Dr. Elizabeth Callahan