Oh, the nutritionists will tell you it’s science, give you formulas and analyses and ratios and recommendations. And they’ll be right.
But not entirely.
“Every horse is an individual,” the trainers make a point of saying, and so do the people in charge of keeping those horses fed. It’s not just a matter of size, weight and work level. There are so many other factors involved that by the time the barn manager is done, keeping each horse properly fed and nourished owes as much to gut feeling as it does to nutritional analysis.
The basics are fairly straightforward. Some form of roughage–grass or hay preferably, but location or economics may make either of these difficult or impossible to find. Then there are various types of substitutes: pellets, hay cubes, chopped fodder or haylage, certain so-called complete feeds, and so on.
Horses evolved to get their nutrition from grass, of which hay is the dried, cured version, but every pasture and every load of hay is different, in every respect from carb and sugar content to moisture levels to nutritional balance. Especially if it’s commercially farmed, it may be deficient in various nutrients, which have to be replaced somehow.
Usually that replacement is some form of grain or supplement–a concentrated feed that can be fed in smaller amounts than ten to twenty or more pounds per day. The exact type and composition required of that supplement will vary from region to region and even from barn to barn, depending on the nutritional content of the basic forage.
It will also vary from season to season. A horse on moisture-rich, sugar-rich spring grass will need a different balancer than a horse on year-old, barn-stored, nutritionally minimal hay (which still provides the fiber essential for keeping the horse’s gut moving–in fact, some barns or areas will feed straw, which is basically nutrition-free, for this purpose). Temperature and climate are major factors, too: cold weather needs significantly more calories (and possibly fat and starch) than hot, and hot weather needs notably more water, whether in the bucket or barrel or in the feed bin via soaked hay or feed.
And that’s just the very broad brush–the bare basics of keeping the herd or barn fed. Each horse will have a different menu and set of requirements. That big Thoroughbred in race or event training, already a high-metabolism animal and in work that uses major quantities of calories, will eat more in a day than the sedate, chunky, easy-keeping Quarter Horse who mostly does trails on weekends may eat in a week.
And then there’s the air fern down the aisle for whom a handful of hay and a waft of supplement under the nose is enough to keep more than enough weight on even when being ridden for an hour a day five days a week, along with the very small pony who can’t have grass because if she gets into even a little bit, she’ll overload her metabolism and founder.
Underfeeding has obvious consequences: loss of weight and condition, depressed immune system, weakness and eventual death. But so does overfeeding, and not just in terms of excess weight. A horse fed incorrectly–too much or too fast or too much variety in too short a period of time, or too rich or too concentrated for his particular needs–can colic or founder with devastating and all too often fatal results.
Even a horse on its own on the range can get into toxic weeds or overdo it in a rich patch of delicious fodder, and get sick or die. Horses are not all that sensible about what they eat; they’re designed to graze constantly, and they do like feed that tastes sweet. They may stay away from fodder that tastes bitter (may be toxic) or that is decayed or moldy (also toxic to their digestive systems), but if they’re hungry, they’ll eat whatever they can get. They’ll fatten up in spring and summer, and thin down in fall and winter as available forage becomes both less nutritious and harder to find.
Horses in domesticated situations are an ongoing challenge for the people in charge of keeping them fed. They’ll eat differently when very young and still growing than when they’re mature, and seniors eat differently again: teeth wear down, metabolisms become less efficient, nutritional needs change. Horses in work need different feeding regimens than horses on stall rest for illness or injury; horses on pasture may not need supplementation, but if their pasture gets grazed down or the nutritional value of the grass decreases, they’ll start to show the effects in loss of weight or condition.
It’s an art. The barn manager learns to observe each horse in her care, take note of changes in attitude as well as weight or condition, and adjust the feed accordingly. A poor batch of hay will pull everyone down; a really good one will have them all round and glossy, and require a reduced ration before someone tips over into too much of a good thing. This horse may need a little something–extra supplements, different supplements, a little of this and a pinch of that–whereas that horse may be just fine with a handful of hay and a little grain on top for seasoning.
Horse people are always conferring about feed. Trying new brands and varieties, sharing tips on where to find the best hay, scoping out the vast range of supplements. Here’s the horse with arthritis who needs a joint supplement, but which? There’s one in the last trimester of pregnancy who needs a big shot of extra nutrients since she’s eating for two. And how about the ancient campaigner who needs extra fat in his diet, to help keep weight on his bones–and how are his teeth? Does he need to have his hay soaked? Or should he have cubes or pellets, since he can’t chew the raw article any longer? What about bulk replacers, such as beet pulp? Will that help keep him on his feet and thriving?
And above all that–will he eat what you feed him? Does he like the taste? The texture? Even the quantity? Is he a hoover, or is he picky? Do you have to constantly change his diet to keep him eating what he needs, or does he adamantly refuse to eat anything but one particular brand of feed? And what if that brand goes off the market? Or is “improved” and therefore different? What if he won’t eat the latest load of hay, or turns up his nose at whatever you can find to substitute for it?
The answers to all these questions are constantly evolving, and constantly needing revision. That’s the art and the challenge. It’s also what makes it all so interesting.