Feeding a horse sounds easy but working out the exact balance of nutrients it requires can be a complicated process. Whether you have a racing horse or a domestic one, you must be aware of their nutrition needs.
What factors do you need to take into account?
The Amount They Can Eat
These animals are grazers who happily spend the best part of the day eating grass if left to their own devices. Horses have a fairly small stomach, taking into account their size. This means that an average horse will only be able to hold up to maybe four gallons maximum.
A horse will typically receive two or three meals a day. This is mainly made up of oats, but other types of grain can be used. During the day, the horse can choose to eat the hay that is left next to them. This is vital, as the animal’s digestive system is designed to deal with constant grazing throughout the day.
Racehorses need to eat more, to keep up their energy levels. This could mean as much as 35,000 calories every day for an animal that will complete in an American Triple Crown event like the Kentucky Derby, which is about twice what a horse that doesn’t race would eat.
You can read all about the Triple Crown events here: TwinSpires.com/triple-crown
A daily ration of some 14 quarts is often quoted, with some horses eating more or less than that.
Typically, racehorses will eat their first meal very early, such as 3am. This will give them time to eat and digest the food before they start training. Their next meal will come an hour or two before mid-day, with the biggest meal of the day around perhaps 5pm.
The Types of Nutrients Needed
Horses need some fat but can’t digest large amounts of it, so they typically eat food that contains no more than 4% of fat. The reason for this is that they don’t have a gall bladder, meaning that they can’t break down the fats to use them.
Apart from a small amount of fat, a horse needs a variety of other things in their diet. Perhaps the most important is water, with a couple of quarts consumed for every pound of hay that they eat during the day. This amount can increase substantially in warm weather.
Carbohydrates are mainly obtained through starch and sugar, with the likes of corn and oats containing good sources of it. It is important that a horse’s carbohydrate consumption doesn’t increase suddenly, as this can cause health problems.
Protein is needed for the horse’s muscles to develop. This is obtained through the likes of alfalfa and soybeans. Around 10% protein in their meals is normally enough, although this can vary according to their age and other factors.
Normally, a horse will receive all the vitamins they need from their forage, but more may have to be added, in the form of a vitamin supplement, if the hay is of poor quality or it is a high-grain diet that they consume.
One of the big concerns for racehorse owners is that their animals might not be eating enough. To counter this, they will often add supplements to the feed. One of the most interesting approaches taken by horse owners is to add some Guinness beer to the feed, with some trainers believing that this gives them more energy.
Zenyatta is a retired racehorse that was known to drink Guinness, and the Irish brewery even offered her a trip to Ireland if she won the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2010. Sadly, she trailed to Blame in what was the only loss in her 20-race career.
Others add sweet potatoes, seeds, or raw eggs as part of their daily diet. Some horses have even been known to enjoy the likes of cakes and doughnuts without it harming them. New horse owners will probably prefer to stick to commercial supplements at first, though.
Differences Around the World
The ideas that we have just looked at are those that are largely used in North America. However, if we look around the world, we can see how owners approach the question of nutrition in varying ways, especially when it comes to looking after racehorses.
For instance, in Saudi Arabia, barley, carrots, and cilantro are the base of the horse’s diet. In Australia, the amount of grain is reduced but a large amount of wheat and oat chaff is added.