This is the eighth article in the "Fix It With Feed " series.
Once upon a time, there weren’t a lot of options when it came to feeding horses. If a horse couldn’t maintain a healthy weight on grass and hay, then adding oats was one of the only choices.
Today, the variety of commercial feeds available makes choosing your horse’s diet seem quite complicated. Although you can still buy cereal grains such as oats, barley and corn, most feed companies produce various specialty-feed options, all nutritionally balanced for different types of horses in varying levels of work. But the fact of the matter is: There’s no absolute right way to feed.
“Every horse has different needs when it comes to calories and sources of energy,” said Olivia Martin of Performance Feeding  in Croton Falls, N.Y. “It is most important that the owner (or person managing the feeding program) has a clear understanding of appropriate body condition for the individual horse, the calories required to maintain that body condition as it relates to the fortification level of the total ration and any medical issues that may govern the decisions made for a single feeding program.”
The Scoop On Cereal Grains
The horse’s natural diet is composed of forage and forage alone, but since we ask our modern horses to perform a variety of unnatural things, we have to provide the additional calories they need.
“The reason we started using oats is because when horses were the main source of transportation, they needed the extra calories. They’re cheap, and horses like them,” said Juliet Getty, Ph.D., of Getty Equine Nutrition LLC  in Bayfield, Colo. “People often use the term ‘grain’ to talk about anything that comes in a bag. Grain is cereal grain.”
While cereal grain diets did, and still do, provide calories and energy, equine nutrition science has come a long way in deciphering exactly what horses need and how much of it. The newer commercially formulated concentrates take much of the guesswork out of trying to balance your horse’s ration.
“There seems to be a movement toward ‘natural’ horse feeding, which some people seem to think includes feeding unprocessed grains, and this could be construed as an advantage,” said Martin. “But generally, the advantages of feeding straight grains (without additional fortification) are few.”
The problem with just feeding cereal grains is that they vary in their nutrient profile. Some have adequate protein for a mature horse when paired with grass hay, but others do not. Cereal grains do not contain a balanced nutrient profile, and they must be paired with some type of additional fortification for the health and longevity of a performance horse.
Additional drawbacks of cereal grains include:
- In order to make grains digestible for the horse, they must be processed in some way such as crimping, rolling, steaming or micronizing (cooking).
- Cereal grains, depending on the rate of intake, represent a high starch meal. The horse’s digestive system doesn’t cope well with large starch meals, and digestive upset may result.
- There may not be a huge cost savings when choosing cereal grains over a commercial feed.
- Hard keeping horses may not be able to take in enough calories from a cereal grain ration; the use of fats and fibers in commercial feeds allow them to condense the number of calories per pound.
- Most horses with equine metabolic syndrome should not be fed cereal grains.
“If I had to feed whole grains, I would probably pair some oats with beet pulp, add some oil or other fat supplement, and a balancer pellet to fortify the ration with protein and minerals and vitamins my horse needs,” said Martin.
Oats – Oats are palatable and easy to chew, less susceptible to mold and are considered a safe grain since starch from oats is easily digested in the small intestine. However, they don’t offer all the nutrients needed, cannot be considered a complete feed, and processed oats have a short shelf life.
“There are times where oats can provide energy for a heavily exercised horse,” said Getty. “It’s not a bad thing for a horse that’s heavily exercised and needs the extra starch, but there are so many horses that are exercised on the weekends, occasional rides or pasture pets that don’t need to be fed oats. They don’t need those calories. Feeding oats to a horse that’s overweight will lead to laminitis.”
Corn – Most horses like the taste of corn. But it’s high in starch (70%), low in protein, may not be completely digestible in the small intestine in large amounts, and undigested starch can trigger colic or laminitis. Also, it molds easily if not stored properly.
Barley – Barley contains high energy, moderate protein and low fiber. Crude protein from barley is easier to digest than corn, and the energy is higher than oats, but barley starch has low digestibility in small intestine, it’s low in lysine and methionine, and it molds easily if not stored properly.
Why Concentrates Work
Concentrates, or commercial feeds, on the other hand, are formulated specifically for the needs of a modern horse. Sure, you could buy cracked corn at the feed store and feed it to your horse, but you’re likely better off saving it for your chickens.
If chosen and used properly, commercial feeds represent the total nutrition package beyond forage. Benefits of commercial feeds include:
- They’re easy to handle and portion out.
- They’re uniform and consistent.
- They’re generally easy to digest.
- They have an extended shelf life.
- They make use of some byproducts of the human food industry such as wheat middlings, soybean meal and hulls, rice bran and beet pulp.
- They guarantee a consistent intake of nutrients.
- They simplify ration balancing.
- They give the owner options for horses with problems such as poor teeth or respiratory tract disorders.
Complete commercial feeds can even be used to replace forage if necessary.
“The major difference between a regular commercial feed and one that is a ‘complete feed’ is the level of fiber in the feed,” said Martin. “A complete feed is designed to be fed without forage and offers the horse adequate nutrition and fiber levels to survive. There is also usually a higher level of fortification in a complete feed to account for the lack of nutrition from forage.”
Be A Knowledgeable Consumer
However, not all commercial feeds are created equal.
“With commercial feeds, you get what you pay for,” said Getty. “The less expensive feeds are generally high in oats, sugar and molasses. The more expensive feeds contain less starch, have more beet pulp, soybean meal, alfalfa meal and other byproducts. These feed sources are much more expensive, but much better for your horse.”
Different feed companies use different recipes for their concentrates. Some will used fixed formulas, while others do not. In a fixed-formula feed the ingredients will never change. No matter where you are in the country, that bag of feed will have the same ingredients all the time.
Other companies formulate their feeds based on least cost. They shop around for the ingredients that will allow them to offer a consistent nutrient profile, but in the cheapest way.
“That’s a huge distinction,” said Martin. “Typically I would consider fixed-formula feeds to be better quality because they’re far more consistent. With the national brands that you can buy anywhere, they tend to have feed mills that are located regionally. They’re going to have feed ingredients that are regional. The tag will be the same, it’ll look the same, but the ingredients will be slightly different.
“Commercial feeds have to be processed in a mill. Given different levels of quality control in local versus national mills, there is the possibility of poor quality ingredients or cross contamination between feeds for different species,” added Martin. “Least-cost formulas will occasionally have ingredient changes that may be a problem for horses that have feed allergies.”
Examine Your Feed Tag
One of the more important aspects of choosing the right feed for your horse involves knowing what you’re looking at when it comes to the feed tag.
“Law requires feed labels to include net weight, product name, guaranteed analysis, ingredient listing and manufacturer’s name. For commercial formula feeds, guarantees must be listed for minimum crude protein, minimum crude fat, maximum crude fiber, minimum and maximum calcium, minimum phosphorous, and minimum and maximum salt,” said Martin.
There should be a list of ingredients (in order of concentration) used to make the feed, but for least-cost formulas, there may be collective terms used to group ingredients rather than individual ingredients. This allows manufacturers to substitute ingredients within that defined group, such as grain byproducts, rather than changing the label every time there is a reformulation.
“If you’re ever in doubt, call the manufacturer,” said Getty. “Sometimes they’ll talk to you, sometimes they won’t. I prefer a company that has full disclosure. If you see things like ‘forage products,’ or ‘grain products,’ then no one knows what that means, and they don’t want you to know either. Make sure the label is specific.”
One of the most important pieces of information on the feed tag or bag is the feeding directions. These tell you how much to feed your horse based on his size and workload, and this information will help you choose the correct feed.
If the feeding directions or ingredient list is missing, then that’s probably a feed to avoid. “Lack of any of the required information on the label should be a red flag,” said Martin.
Read Part 1: You Don't Need A Ph.D. To Puzzle Out Protein
Read Part 2: Feeding A Hard Keeper Is All About Extra Calories And Patience
Read Part 3: Alfalfa Is More Helpful Friend Than Foe 
Read Part 4: Prevent Ulcers By Mimicking Nature
Read Part 5: Dealing With Allergies Can Be A Tricky Business 
Read Part 6: Trim Down To Help Prevent Metabolic Issues 
Read Part 7: High Fat Diets Can Solve More Than One Problem