Proper nutrition for our rope horses is one of the most important factors in keeping our horses looking and feeling great. As horse owners we tend to get so wrapped up in perfecting our horse’s diets that we let these 5 basics fall to the wayside.
Mistake #1: Not making forage a priority
Forages (pasture and hay) are by far the most important part of our horse’s diets. Horses are designed to eat grass after all! We know that, but we are all guilty of spending way more time worrying about the feed concentrates that we are buying versus the hay and pasture our horses are getting. Whether you are putting up your own hay or purchasing from someone else, it is extremely important to know the quality. The only true way to know the quality of hay is having it tested. Forage tests are very cost effective and can be done by your county extension service as well as numerous other private companies.
The average horse needs to be eating a minimum of 1% of their body weight in forages a day. For a 1,000 pound horse that’s 10 pounds of hay per day, with closer to 20 pounds being preferred for horses that are working. It is important to remember that horses are designed to have a continuous intake of forage, not just eat hay twice a day for a couple hours. If your horses are stalled, consider a hay feeder designed to slow down the horse’s intake. Another route to consider is buying lower-quality hay (but still clean and free of mold/dust) that you can feed in conjunction with your higher quality hay. The horse will most likely eat the better hay quickly, then spend time picking on the lower quality hay throughout the day. Horses that have access to forage throughout the day tend to have fewer behavioral issues and have a lower risk for stomach ulcers and colic.
Mistake #2 Feeding by volume, not weight
If you ask most horse owners how much grain they feed their horses, they are likely to say something like, “A scoop and a half, morning and night.” They may be able to give you a good guess, but most likely they don’t know exactly how many pounds of feed their horses are getting on a daily basis. To properly feed concentrates you need to be feeding what’s recommended on the feed tag, which requires knowing how many pounds they are getting. Make sure you are weighing every type of feed that’s in your barn. Most every feed will have different weights per scoop because they have different densities. It’s also a great idea to weigh your horses daily hay intake. You may be surprised by how much you are over (or under) feeding your horse according to the recommendations!
Mistake #3 Over-feeding
We all love the looks of a big, thick rope horse, but in an effort to get the look we may be making our horses unable to perform to the best of their abilities. Our horses are athletes, so they need to have the body of an athlete. Think about Olympic track stars…you don’t see any of them carrying around extra pounds, so our horses don’t need to be either. Just like in people, having excessive weight is harder on joints, allows for the horse to fatigue more quickly, and can increase the likelihood of injury to the horse. If horses are continually overfed they can develop serious issues like equine metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, or founder. A great way to ensure that your horse is maintaining a healthy weight is to have and equine professional like a veterinarian or nutritionist determine your horse’s body condition score. They will be able to assess if your horse is over or under weight and can discuss options for keeping your horse at their healthiest weight.
Mistake #4 Changing feed types abruptly
We’ve all been there… you are getting settled into the roping for the weekend only to realize that you left the bag of feed at home. You head over to the local feed store and you find out that they don’t carry your horses feed. While it may be tempting to just buy the closest thing and rock on with it, that’s generally not a good idea. Our horse’s digestive systems are extremely sensitive to changes in feedstuffs, so it is recommended to have a week or more transition period from one feed to another. Something as simple as changing their feed too fast can cause issues ranging from loose stool to colic or founder. We also need to be sure that we are staying consistent with our feeding, both the amount of feed and time of feeding. Any changes to the amount being fed should also be done over time. While it is extremely difficult to keep your horses on a precise feeding schedule when you are hauling, it is important to keep the schedule as close to “normal” as possible.
Mistake #5 Over-supplementing
When it comes to supplements horse owners tend to think “If a little bit is good, a lot is better!” The problem with that logic is that over-supplementing our horses can actually be dangerous. Be sure to discuss any supplements that you are using with your veterinarian or equine nutritionist because you could be accidently feeding your horse toxic levels of some vitamins and minerals. Most commercially available “complete” feeds have all of the vitamins and minerals horses need already in them, so anything extra you are feeding could be too much. Two important minerals to pay attention to in your horse’s diets are selenium and phosphorus. Excess selenium in a horse’s diet can cause weight and hair loss, lameness due to hoof sensitivity, and in extreme cases sloughing off of the hoof wall. A mature horse requires a minimum of a 1:1 ratio of Calcium to Phosphorus in their diet, with a 2:1 ratio being preferred. If the ratio ever becomes inverted (1:2 or worse) the horse will become calcium deficient. Calcium deficiencies can cause bones and teeth to become brittle, lameness, weight loss, and the development of Big Head Syndrome. Grains such as oats, wheat and rice tend to be much higher in phosphorus than calcium. If you feed a grain high in phosphorus it may be necessary to supplement calcium into the diet.
Small changes can make a big difference in your horse’s demeanor and performance. If you think that your horse may benefit from a change to his feeding program or you just have questions, don’t hesitate to contact an equine nutritionist or veterinarian.