Howdy and welcome! I’m Dr. Devan Catalano, Director of Nutrition for Woody’s Horse Nutrition. My goal for this blog is to talk to you in a laid back way, while still keeping it scientifically based.
To kick things off, I want to start by taking it back to the basics. I love a good idiom, and I realized the other day that many horse puns and idioms are actually rooted in some truth. So, without further fanfare and scrolling (human food bloggers, I love you but…), here are my five favorite horse related sayings and what they actually mean for caring for your horse!
You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink
Water is the number one nutrient that horses need. It is essential for so many bodily functions, including digestive function and gastrointestinal health. ALWAYS provide clean, fresh water for your horse.
How much water should a horse drink per day? The average sized horse (about 1,100-pounds) drinks about 5 to 10 gallons of water per day!
What affects water intake?
- What your horse eats. Fresh pasture contains more water than hay, so a horse eating pasture may not drink as much “liquid water” (this phrase is how we differentiate between the water they drink, the water that’s naturally in food, and the water that is produced from body processes) as a horse eating hay.
- Horses tend to drink more during warmer months than cooler ones. It seems like a no brainer to pay attention and make sure tanks are full in the summer, but it’s just as important to pay attention to how much your horse is drinking during the colder months. Always check to ensure the water source isn’t frozen over, and if you’re using a heating element, ensure there aren’t stray voltages which could cause your horse to get shocked when they drink.
- Horses that are exercising and sweating will consume more water than their idle counter parts.
- Life stage. Lactating mares will consume significantly more water to support milk production. On the flip side, nursing foals get most of their water needs met through milk from their dam. They do drink water outside of this, so always make sure they can access the water.
Concerned about your horse’s water intake? Aside from veterinary intervention, we truly can’t make a horse drink, but there are a few tricks to help entice them to drink more, voluntarily.
- Top dress feed with loose salt. If a horse isn’t getting enough salt from their diet or a salt block, add 1 to 2 tablespoons of plain table salt to their grain. You may need to start with a smaller amount and work up to the full amount if you have a picky horse!
- Try flavoring water with a handful of sweet feed or a splash of molasses. Some people even use sports drinks. This can be particularly helpful when you are traveling, to help disguise a different taste or smell from an unfamiliar water source.
- Research has shown that horses prefer lukewarm water over cold or excessively warm water, especially when they are housed in cool temperatures. Do I lose sleep over making sure my gelding, Tio, has access to lukewarm water all winter? Certainly not, but if you are worried that your horse isn’t drinking enough during a cold period, try offering them a bucket of slightly warmer water.
Hay is for Horses
We’ve all heard this phrase before but WHY is hay for horses? Horses digest their food a little differently than we do. This is because they are hindgut fermenters—meaning that the bulk of digestion of their food happens in the hindgut! How is this possible? The hindgut is home to an entire population of microbes that have the ability to breakdown fiber.
When our doctors tell us to eat more fiber, it’s really to keep our digestive system moving. However, because of their mutually beneficial relationship with their hindgut microbiome, horses actually meet the bulk of their energy requirements just from eating hay.
On average, horses need about 1.5 to 2.5% of their weight in food on a daily basis. A minimum of 1.5% of their weight and half of their ration should be a forage source (hay, pasture, etc.), in order to maintain proper gut function. This works out to about 15 to 20 pounds of hay per day for an average sized horse.
The ideal feeding situation is to keep forage in front of your horse as much as possible. Some horses can have 24/7 access to forage (keep in mind they aren’t eating for all of those hours) and maintain an ideal weight. Others would become obese with this unfettered access, and depending on where you live, this may not be economically feasible. If you are in the latter group, I suggest utilizing hay nets. Hay nets are available for round bales, large square bales, small square bales, and beyond. Depending on your horse’s needs, you can get nets with a variety of hole sizes. I’d recommend one-inch openings if you are looking to minimize waste and stretch out how long your horse is eating or even smaller if they are on a diet.
She’s feeling her oats
One of the most common topics I am asked about revolves around grain. However, grain is bad for horses! Understanding this will help you choose the right feed for your horse.
Let me define a few terms to help you get the gist.
Cereal grain. The edible seed from a specific family of grasses. The most well-known cereal grains that horses eat include oats, corn, wheat, and barley. Other examples include rice, sorghum, rye, millet, and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye).
Grain. A catch-all term used to describe anything other than forage. The reason this term is so prevalent is because back in the day, “grain” really did mean “cereal grains”—working horses were commonly fed oats, corn, or other grains to provide additional calories beyond what they got from hay.
Concentrate feed. A more modern catch-all term used to describe feed formulated to compliment the hay portion of a horse’s diet. Concentrate is used to indicate the product is given with hay or pasture.
Complete feed. If a product is labeled as a complete feed, this means it contains plenty of fiber to be used as the sole ration for a horse. This is most commonly used for senior horses and other horses with dental issues that cannot chew traditional hay properly.
Hard feed. This is used a little less frequently than the other terms, but again, this is a catch-all term used to describe anything other than forage. It is a little ambiguous, so I prefer to avoid it when possible.
Nearly all forage sources will require some sort of balancer product to make sure your horse gets all of their required nutrients in the right amounts and ratios. Some horses maintain their weight with just forage—for these horses, a ration balancer is the appropriate choice. Other horses expend more energy than they can consume with just forage. For these horses, a concentrate with a higher feeding rate is the appropriate choice. Some horses do well, and need, a grain-based concentrate (i.e., a product with oats in it) to do the work they are asked to perform. Other horses have metabolic disorders such as insulin resistance and need a grain-free diet.
Selecting the right feed for your horse will depend on a multitude of factors including workload, life stage, and your feeding management preferences. If you need help selecting the right feed, check out our product selector page or reach out to us here!
Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth
Horses need to digest their food properly in order to function. The first step of digestion begins in the mouth as horses chew their food. Proper dental care is one of the most important preventive measures you should do in order to ensure a healthy life for your horse. For most adult horses, a yearly exam is appropriate. As horses age, or if dental issues arise, you should have them evaluated twice a year.
What are signs that your horse is having dental issues?
- The earliest sign usually comes when you notice that your horse isn’t maintaining their weight as easily as they used to. Often, this is seen in the winter when feeding hay. This isn’t always the result of dental issues, but a thorough evaluation can reveal changes in your horse’s dentition that affect how well hay is being chewed.
- Another big age-related tell is if your horse starts quidding. Quids are half-chewed wads of hay that got spit out. Quidding and inadequate chewing can happen because of something fixable—like pain from a sharp hook on a tooth—or it can be the result of your horse’s teeth reaching the end of their effective life. If this happens, don’t fret! There are many methods to feed a horse without traditional long stem hay! Your best bet is to work with a PhD equine nutritionist to ensure your horse gets exactly what they need in a form that works for them (and you).
- Another non age-related sign is if you start noticing a bad odor coming from your horse’s mouth. This could be due to a number of problems including an abscessed tooth or infected sinus, but no matter what, if the smell persists, call your veterinarian.
A Horse is a Horse/ Of Course, Of Course
Okay, this one is a lyric not an idiom. I’m still willing to bet a stall cleaning or two that you recognize it! This just means that each horse is an individual.
Differences in breed, age, workload, barn management, geographic location, and more, all have an effect on your horse. What works for your Thoroughbred probably won’t work for the Shetland pony across the barn aisle. What works for the full sister of your horse that lives across the country may not work for your management style.
Another way to say the same thing is this: while it’s true that there is such a thing as the wrong way to feed a horse, it’s also true that that is more than one right way to feed a horse.
So, what can you do? Seek out guidance from the professionals who can create a program that works for your horse AND you!
Pay attention to your horse—know what’s normal for them and keep track of their body condition and weight. Correcting a weight change (in either direction) is easier the earlier you notice it happening. Need help determining your horse’s weight? Our friends at the University of Minnesota developed an app called “Healthy Horse”. With no math required on your end, the Healthy Horse app tells you how much your horse currently weighs, and how much they should weigh! You can find it on the app store for both Apple and Android devices, or for more information, click here.
Now get off your computer and get on your horse! I’ll see you at the barn!