One of the most exciting things that I look forward to each spring and fall, is receiving my primary forage analysis’ back (pasture and hay). I get it, I’m a nerd. And the truth is, our posts about equine nutrition notoriously receive the lowest engagement out of everything we talk about.
It’s true, and it mystifies me! I could throw in the towel, listen to the analytics, and move on to posts that y’all seem to care more about – but I won’t! That’s because I believe balanced nutrition is a highly undervalued core requirement of horse husbandry. And I don’t mean people don’t care, in fact, equine supplementation is a billion-dollar industry in North America. Horse-folk LOVE to supplement their horses (guilty as charged over here for sure). BUT – prioritizing ailment-specific supplementation before considering the balance of primary forage through the building blocks of basic nutrition – is a miss.
You’d never see a professional (human) athlete slacking on their diet and expecting supplements to bridge the gap to competition placings, so why do we expect horses to? Furthermore, there is a good chance that without a properly balanced base diet, the supplements being fed are not being properly absorbed, meaning your hard-earned $$$ is heading to the manure pile. We get an E for effort and intention here, but horses are expensive enough!
Now, equine nutrition is a rabbit-hole of a topic, which makes it a favorite of mine. Dr. Elenor Kellon puts it best by saying “equine nutrition is as much an art as it is a science,” but – there are really good foundational pieces that the average horse owner can incorporate into their base of knowledge.
Here are my top three reasons above all else in the advocacy of testing your forage:
1. NSC levels. All horses benefit from their base diet being low in non-structural-carbohydrates. For all the equine-athlete owners out there, a low NSC base diet means, you guessed it – you get to supplement! But for all us casual competitors, weekend warriors, pony parents, senior horse owners – a low NSC diet is our friend. Under 10% is ideal, and definitely below 12%. Forage that is above these ratios is unsuitable for ponies, donkeys, Cushings or insulin-resistant horses. It’s kind of like the average person. We do not need high starch diets in order to get through our day of moderate activity, and neither do most horses.
2. Iron levels. The iron in horses’ diets is excessive. In all the hay I have tested over the years – it is always high. If your horses are on well water, they get even more iron there. Worse yet – is that SO MANY supplements have added iron too! It is the most over-supplemented mineral on the market. Lucky for us, many supplement brands are beginning to recognize this and cutting out the added iron. #bravo High iron can contribute to things like poor mane, tail, coat and hoof quality, insulin resistance, and even hot/nervous behaviour. Excess iron cannot be expelled by the horse and builds up in the liver. There is no proven effective iron chelator either. At the minimum, if you do refuse or are unable to test your hay – at least assume that it’s high in iron and skip the supps that have added it in.
3. Selenium levels. Selenium is absolutely essential to the horse’s diet but also has a very low toxicity rate. Adult horses require approximately 1-3mg per day, athletes up to 5mg/day. Toxicity can be seen in as low as 7mg/day, and all horses are individuals so horses in a herd on the same diet may be affected differently. Signs of selenium toxicity are similar to iron overload – poor mane, tail, coat, and hoof quality. Often when horses exhibit these symptoms, owners begin to supplement biotin when the first stop should be to check selenium and iron levels in your hay or pasture (and ideally - via bloodwork with your vet).
If these top three reasons still aren’t enough, here’s the next layer of the rabbit hole, and that is a balance of minerals in the equine diet. Minerals play off each other, and correct ratios are pinnacle for each of them being able to interact and do their job (like properly absorbing those expensive supplements we are giving them). Here are a few of the most important ratios, and their jobs:
Calcium and Phosphorus. CA/PH have an important relationship in the overall structure of our horse. These minerals feed the health of bone, tendon, ligament and muscle, their appropriate ratio is 2:1. In the dozens of hay tests I’ve seen over the years – Calcium has always been excessively high, usually in the range of 4:1 to 6:1. Excessive calcium in the diet can turn soft tissue into bone-like tissue, and on the flip side, too much Phosphorus leads to decreased bone density. In growing horses and young equine athletes, the balance of these two minerals is paramount, but it’s not as simple as adding in a “ration balancer.” You’ve likely heard me say before, there is no such thing as a “ration balancer” – these pre-packaged bag feeds are more accurately named “balanced rations.” That is, they will have a 2:1 ratio of CA:PH, but you likely don’t need that added Calcium, and feeding those pre-mixed feeds will only further skew your balancing of these two minerals.
Calcium and Magnesium. CA/Mag should also be in a 2:1 ratio, and magnesium is also usually low. Essential for the recovery of muscle health, proper amounts of magnesium should not be ignored. Before jumping to joint supplements containing MSM (which is also toted to relieve muscle pain and strain), ensure that your magnesium levels are in appropriate levels to calcium.
Copper, Zinc & Manganese. Trace minerals, but essential minerals. These minerals work together, and what is finally becoming more commonplace knowledge is that these three amigos are highly responsible for hoof health. So before you reach for the Biotin, check out these levels in your primary forage. Horses who suffer from thrush, white line disease, abscesses, and overall foot pain, have demonstrated marked improvement through a balanced diet and especially the balancing of these minerals. What is that balance you ask? 1:3:3, and even more ideally in a ratio with iron of 4:1:3:3 (to a max of 10:1:3:3). In forage tests, I typically always find Copper Zinc and Manganese to be lacking in hay and require supplementation, Zinc usually requires the most supplementation out of the three.
Whew. Have I lost you yet? For the sake of sanity – we’re going to leave vitamins for a whole other rabbit hole.
On to the whole point behind this article – so what am I feeding my horses this winter? It actually is one of the simplest years that I’ve ever had when it comes to balancing my hay. I am able to do it with two products. Wheat Bran, and Purica’s Dr. Reeds 3.0.
True to the statements above, I badly needed a lot of added Phosphorus to balance my hay. Although you can purchase straight Phosphorus from a few select feed brands, it is notoriously one of the most difficult supplements to get a horse to accept (and I’ve tried). So, I needed to seek out an alternative, and the first thing I thought of, was good old-fashioned Wheat Bran.
Before you come for me, hear me out. Wheat Bran over the recent decades has been given a bad rap. It was responsible for “Big Head Syndrome” in foals mid last century, and also has been touted as a vanity-based “weekend treat” for horses or something to “clean them out." Used in appropriate moderation, that old info is hogwash. It is true, that wheat bran is high in Phosphorus. And in my case, that’s great! Even better bonus – horses LOVE the taste. One drawback of wheat bran is that it is starchy (about 26% NSC). However – keep in mind that oats are over 46% NSC, and corn is even higher than that. Plus, wheat bran is so high in phosphorus, I only need 150g per day for a 900 lb horse. That equates to just 6.5g of starch per day, which really isn’t much being that the limits of grain-based meals are suggested to be at 150-200g per 100kg of body weight per meal.
So, it’s official – 150g of wheat bran is now the base of my horse’s daily mash, replacing previously fed beet pulp or alfalfa pellets (which are both much higher in calcium than phosphorus, so when fed further throws balances out of whack). The double bonus to wheat bran – is it only needs to be soaked for about 10 minutes before you feed it, so I pour a kettle of hot water on it and carry it with me out to the barn, and by the time the horses are in, it’s ready!
Now, I’m still down some necessary phosphorus and need a whole whack of copper, zinc and manganese. Enter – Purica’s Dr. Reeds 3.0! New in 2021, I am IN LOVE with this ration. The best part about it – is that it’s not a balanced ration! Purica knows that our horse’s forage is high in calcium, so they did not make Dr. Reeds a 2:1 ratio of CA:PH – yay! It is closer to a 1:1 ratio, and it, combined with wheat bran, provides the perfect solution to my high calcium hay!
Another resounding feature of Dr. Reeds 3.0, is their copper, zinc, and manganese ratios – provided for in abundance in this formula. This mix is so powerful, I actually only need to feed a half serving of their recommended daily dose, making it go twice as far, on top of it being crazy affordable in the first place!
Triple bonus of Dr. Reeds – is that it also provides a number of vitamins including E & B, as well as Omega 3’s in the form of flax! With the high doses of phosphorus, copper and zinc, my biggest concern was that my horses wouldn’t eat it. But to my surprise, this ration mixed with wheat bran – has been the easiest feed to introduce to my horses… EVER!
That’s it! With everything I’ve touted so far in terms of the dangers of an unbalanced primary forage diet in horses, I’ve been able to correct it with two simple products. Now I’ll be honest – not every year has been this easy, and for those years, I have had custom blends made – and custom blends based on your forage analysis are equally comparable in price as an off-the-shelf bagged feed. My go-to for custom blends is Mad Barn, but I've had trouble getting my horses to eat their mix.
Now that I know my horse's base diet is balanced, I am able to scale back the add-on supplements that we *crazy horse girls* love to buy. I do still add supplements to my good saddle horses, but am able to have them on maintenance doses, which helps those products go farther and easier on my bank account. My go-to additional supplements for my athletes are:
1. Salt. Always. 1-2oz loose salt per day
2. Joint support – My preference is Purica’s Recovery EQ with HA
3. Gut support – Galozyme Equine Sport by Technavet
4. Milk Thistle – for liver support and regeneration due to high iron in the diet
I may add other supplements throughout the year depending on my horse’s condition (like respiratory support), but above all, allowing a balanced equine diet to do its job as nature intended – is my first priority.
Forage analysis is a very affordable test and results are often back within 7-10 days. If you aren’t a nutrition-nerd like me, we further take the guesswork away from you through our forage calculator available HERE.
If you want to dive further into equine nutrition, here are a few of my favorite books:
And if you are interested in Dr Reeds 3.0, Recovery EQ, or Galozyme Equine, shop here!
Happy Horsing Around -
Adelle at Prime Equine
Helping the average horse owner become exceptional!