Animal science professor: Feed horses to meet needs

posted March 5, 2018 8:42 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Brooke Bechen, Regional Editor |

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BRISTOL — One size does not fit all, especially when it comes to feeding horses, Dr. Kevin Kline, an animal science professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said Feb. 24 at the 2018 Stateline Equine Education Program. Kline encouraged attendees to feed their animals to meet their needs — and depending on the stage of growth, performance and production of their horses, their needs could be drastically different.

Maintenance horses, or non-working and often pet horses, have the lowest requirements for nutrition. Horses in gestation have the highest requirements, with very young horses having similarly high requirements as they are growing. Their diet also should be high in minerals and essential amino acids, Kline said.

Lactating horses also have special nutrition requirements, especially in the first three months, he continued. And geriatric horses, which Kline considered horses over 20 years of age, need more highly processed feed as their teeth and gut often present issues as the animal gets older.

Depending on the level of activity for working horses, their nutritional needs may not differ much from a maintenance horse. For light work, horses may need little or no grain depending on the forage available to them.

“Horses can stay fat and healthy on forage,” Kline said.

Horses that complete moderate work would likely need concentrates to maintain a healthy body weight, he continued. This could mean high-fat, high-fiber – and not just grain.

Horses that are performing intense work, like race training, polo or cutting, may need up to 50 percent of their diet as concentrates, Kline said. But don’t go over half the horse’s diet, he advised, even if it is lactating or a high working horse. Think of your horse’s gut, he said.

A horse’s digestive tract is unique and not much like the tracts of other herbivores. It is very different than the digestive tract of cattle as most of the digestive functions happen in the back of the tract for a horse.

Because of this, horses require better forage and protein quality than cattle, Kline said. They are hind gut fermenters as opposed to ruminants, or fore gut fermenters.

Horse owners can use body conditioning scoring to inspect their animals and make sure they are getting the proper nutrition, Kline said. Scoring can also be useful in determining what to feed an animal — whether it needs more or less feed or a specific supplement added to their diet. For Kline, anything other than forage or water is considered a supplement.

There are several reasons why a horse may not be receiving the proper nutrition it needs, Kline said. Owners should inspect the amount of forage available to the animal and the quality of the forage. They should also consider the particle size as the feed may be ground too fine. Horses should also be fed frequently, with Kline stating that three times a day is better than two times.

“Feed them as often as you can,” he said.

When horses are fed should be considered too, as horses exercising on an empty or full stomach may experience discomfort. If owners feed their horses too close to exercise, it could lead to stomach ulcers, Kline said.

Always make sure there is plenty of water and minerals available for the horse. According to Kline, minerals are the most important supplement for horses. Also important are the top three amino acids: lysine, threonine and methionine, especially for growing horses and lactating mares. Soybean meal and milk-based proteins are the top proteins that have those three amino acids, he said.

Inspect the feed to make sure it is not old, dusty or moldy. And don’t feel like you need a lot of bagged feed as it often leads to overweight horses, Kline said. Horse owners should be feeding their animals more forage than grains.

“Understanding these basic ideas will help you better understand proper feeding management,” he concluded.

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