Matching Feeding to Activity Level

Show season is winding down, vacations over, kids back in school, holidays on the horizon and many horses are getting less work as a result.   It’s important to scale back calories, and in some instances type of calories.  It’s equally important not to short change the horse on other nutrients that don’t have as wide a variation in requirements as calories do.

Squig 1

Arabians in endurance work burn tremendous amounts of calories but when let down can become overweight and insulin resistant in short order if diet is not adjusted.

A horse that was in medium work going to no regular work will need a 25 to 30% drop in calories to avoid weight gain. To figure out how to do this, convert the whole diet to “grass hay calorie equivalents”.

One pound high quality oats = 2 lbs grass hay.  One pound alfalfa = 1.25 lbs grass hay.  One pound no or low added fat (up to 6% fat) sweet feed = 2.5 lbs of grass hay.  One pound high fat added feed = up to 3 lbs of grass hay.  One pound of fat/oil = 3.5 lbs of grass hay.  These numbers are approximations but will work well as a starting point.

If your horse was getting 5 lbs of a no added fat feed and 15 lbs of hay/day that’s a total amount of calories equivalent to 27.5 lbs of grass hay.  To reduce for inactivity, you could for example either cut both components of the diet by 25% giving you 3.75 lbs of grain and 11.25 pounds of hay or you could drop grain entirely and feed 20.6 pounds of hay.  You might think your horse would really miss his grain but I can guarantee you the horse would rather have all that extra hay to munch on!

If your hay is 10% protein (not all of them are that high) and the grain 12% protein you will meet minimum maintenance protein requirements on the reduced grain and hay diet, but without much to spare.  If you go with the high hay only diet the protein will be met even if it contains just a little over 6% protein simply because you can feed so much more.

Protein quality (amino acids) is another issue.  Both diets should be supplemented with lysine, with exact amounts depending on protein in the hay and whether the grain was fortified with lysine, but the reduced hay and grain diet is probably going to need more lysine than the hay only diet.  Adding 4 to 6 oz of ground flax or ground flax and Chia will improve amino acid variety while supplying correct proportions of essential fatty acids.

What about vitamins and minerals?  B vitamins and vitamins C, D and K rarely need much supplementation but vitamin A may be needed as hay ages and vitamin E is always required on hay based diets (1 to 2 IU/lb of body weight daily).  This is best added separately at time of feeding to avoid interactions with other elements of the diet which can inactivate the vitamin E.

Minerals are another story. Hays are actually a good source of minerals but usually have  deficiencies and imbalances.  Feeding the full recommended amount of supplemented grains can help with deficiencies but does not fix imbalances and is a calorie-expensive way to supplement.  As you reduce the amount of grain, you also reduce the level of vitamin and mineral supplementation.  A better choice for an inactive horse is a protein/vitamin/mineral “balancer” or a multivitamin, amino acid and mineral pelleted supplement which will add minimal calories (the base of balancers does add calories to the diet).  The mineral profile should then be checked for imbalances by hay analysis or use of regional hay mineral profiles.

Horses getting no formal work benefit from reduced calories. The best way to do this is to remove high calorie concentrates and substitute the correct amount of hay. Protein/amino acids, vitamins and minerals can be added from a “balancer” or pelleted supplement. This will avoid undesirable weight gain without the horse having a sizeable reduction in the amount of food.

Photo: Omani Mr. Squiggles and Carol Layton of Australia

Eleanor Kellon, VMD







About Dr. Kellon

Graduate of University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School. Owner of Equine Nutritional Solutions,, industry and private nutritional consultations, online nutritional courses. Staff Veterinary Expert at Uckele Health and Nutrition .
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