by Heather Zorn, P.A.S

I get asked this question a lot!  Most people have become so used to giving their horses grain, thanks to the over effective advertising campaigns of major feed companies, that they never stop to think or ask “Why am I feeding this” or” does my horse need this?”

First, let me dispel  the major marketing claims.

1. “XYZ feeds provide your horses the vitamins and minerals lacking in their diet.”
 Really?  How do you know what is lacking in my horse’s diet?  How do you know I feed the same thing as my neighbor, horse friends, trainer, farrier, etc?  Major feed companies provide a one-size-fits-all formula.  They add a certain percentage of copper, zinc, phosphorus, calcium, selenium, and iron.  However, the big question is how much of these minerals does your horse consume on a daily basis through hay/pasture and does he need supplementation?
 Forage should be the bulk (if not all) of the diet.  The only way to tell what your horse is lacking or has in abundance in his forage is to test it.  It’s not expensive, and considering it comprises the majority of his diet day in and day out, isn’t it worth the money to find out?

2. “XYZ feed is a complete, nutritionally balanced feed”
 Balanced to what?  Certainly not your hay, which should be the majority of the diet.  The answer is that it is balanced only to itself.   In order to obtain maximum absorption, minerals must be balanced in a ratio.  Some minerals compete with others for uptake.  Take iron and copper for example.  The ideal ratio is 4:1.  Four times the amount of iron to 1 copper.  Unfortunately, many US states have an overwhelming iron load, with low copper.  In this case, the iron in your hay can be as high as 10x the amount of copper.  When I read a feed label, I always look for added iron because my horses do not need additional iron- I have too much already.  Small amounts of copper added to a feed is not going to come anywhere close to meeting the deficiency of copper in my horses’ diets.
 Sure, the bag of grain might have a 4:1 Iron:Copper ratio, but what good is that if I am only feeding a pound a day, while the 20 pounds of hay have a completely skewed ratio?

3. “Vitamins your horse needs”
 In reality, your horse can synthesize many of the vitamins he needs.  Unless your horse is kept inside a stall during daylight hours, he does not need Vitamin D supplementation.  Vitamin D is synthesized simply by exposure to the sunlight.  Vitamin C should not be supplemented in areas with a high iron content in the forage because it increases iron absorption.  If your hay is green in color, or if your horses have access to fresh pasture, they are getting all of the Vitamin A that they need.  Get the idea?
 Vitamin supplementation should be done with care, as toxicity can occur.

4. “Providing a shiny coat and healthy hooves”
 This refers to the addition of flax seed (omega 3’s) and a hoof supplement, usually in the form of biotin to the feed.  Unfortunately, the best Omega 3’s are the most unstable in terms of shelf life and handling.  After high temperature cooking, the majority (if not all) of the beneficial Omega 3’s will have been destroyed.
 Keep in mind that vegetable oils are very low in anti-inflammatory Omega 3’s and higher in inflammatory Omega 6’s, and are not a suitable source for the good types of fat.
 Since many of the major label feed companies do not list their ingredients online, it is nearly impossible to get an accurate description of what is added to the feed without all the hype.  To give you an idea, a brand I have a feed tag from, has so little added Biotin, that you would have to feed 10 pounds of it to get the minimum suggested dose to impact hoof growth at all.  However, this particular brand lists “for healthy hooves” right in the media campaign.

Be an educated consumer and learn to read feed labels.  Chances are good that the answer to the title question is: NO, in the amount of grain you are feeding, it is NOT giving your horse what he needs.  Get your hay analyzed to find out what is deficient in your particular forage, and supplement accordingly.  There is no benefit and it can actually be detrimental to throw excess vitamins and minerals at them without forethought.

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