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You Might Be Spending Too Much on Your Feeding Program

Newsflash! Horses, as much as we love them, are a money pit. If you have a horse, then you know what it's like to watch the money fly right out out the ol' bank account each month.

Of course, most horse owners would argue that horses are a really super cute and rewarding money pit, which is why people continue to pour their hard-earned pennies into their horses year after year. 

But what makes horses so costly? I mean, they really only eat and sleep and poop right?

RIGHT!?  Some folks would say it is the vet bills that get you. Others might say that the travel costs and entry fees for shows are where the high expenses come in.

I say, if you own horses, most of the costs associated with your four-legged friends come straight from feeding and maintaining the health of those horses.

Why? Well, firstly, it isn't optional.  After all, our sweet bundles of joy MUST eat...and eat they do! Entry fees, tack, and even travel costs can be dwindled down by creating a reasonable budget and finding creative ways to save.  Vet bills, while expensive, are often times preventable through education, common sense and preventative measures for your horse. (Think "prehabilitation" and being proactive).

The average horse owner spends nearly one half of all horse care expenses on feed each year.  Our consumer driven society paired with the commercialism seen in the modern feed and livestock industry results in over-buying of many man-made feeds including grain based, grain-free, and new-age concoctions. Many of these feeds have had little time on the actual market. It's actually quite scary when you stop and read the ingredients in some of these feeds, and when you consider what a horse actually needs in order to be healthy versus what humans are actually feeding their horses.

Regardless of whether or not your horse is in work, out of work, young or old, the basic dietary needs of horses have been the same since their beginning. Sure, horses have been domesticated, and some would say that they've even been "sissified" over time, but at the end of the day all horses share the same basic digestive qualities and dietary needs. They need grass. They need salt. They need water. Horses back in early America weren't being fed highly processed soy, corn, sugar-filled bi-products and mystery ingredients.

In the 1800's the early settlers were feeding their horses and livestock turnips, potatoes, parsnips, sugar beet, linseed, hempseed, oats and barley during long, harsh winters when grass was scarce. But these highly organic plant based feed options of the 1800s were pure in nature, and generally farmed by the horse owner. Imagine growing your own horse food! What a chore that would be.

Consider the difference in quality. The oats and beets used in the 1800s are not the same as the feeds we are sold by livestock feed companies in modern times. They weren't genetically modified. They were hand sewn and not treated with chemicals. The digestibility and overall nutritional value was quite different and then there is the science.

Modern research has taught us that horses thrive on a diet that mirrors what nature intended, yet horse owners tend to have an average of six (SIX?!) different feeds/supplements in their feed room used to "nourish" the average horse in addition to grass/hay. But what if I told you that most of these feeds and supplements are just creating expensive poop and even programming your horse for health problems later on? Just as humans experience better health, longevity, vitality, and overall energy when eating a clean, organic diet without processed foods and high sugar/starch content, horses thrive with a "less is more" feed regimen.

When was the last time you actually read the ingredients on all of the feeds you give to your horses? Do you know what the various grains, supplements, weight builders, and so on contain? If not, the next time you visit the barn, have a look at the label and you may be shocked. Or, perhaps you won't see anything wrong with what you're feeding at all. 

Let's go back to the basics for a moment and consider what a horse NEEDS to survive in his natural habitat. Let's go back to....GRASS.


Dry-land pasture grass, orchard, brome, alfalfa, Timothy, Bermuda, fescue, buffalo grass, Kentucky blue grass and the list goes on.  Grass straight from the ground constitutes the majority of the horse's feed consumption in his natural habitat.  Ever considered why modern day horse keepers are often feeding less grass and more processed feeds? Well, the truth is that many people just do. It's a way of doing things now. It has become the norm.  But why? Like all changes in society and in the world around us, something instigated a change in the feed industry and in the way we manage animals.  That something is quite simple in fact.  That something's name is "money".

You see, the feed industry wants to shove a bunch of processed feeds down your horse's gullet in order to turn a profit. Now, now don't get too upset just yet.  I didn't say that all feed companies are bad and in fact I am going to highlight some of the feed companies out there that still have integrity, that still produce quality feeds for our animals.

Unfortunately, and not so different from the human food industry, the majority of horse feed producers have gravitated toward low cost, low quality ingredients that reap the high profits they are seeking...which brings us back to GRASS.

Grass or grass hay, is an all natural food source.  Quality hay is high in nutrients, and contains nearly everything that a horse requires to survive happily.  Grass isn't typically profitable. It doesn't have a great shelf life.  It doesn't come in pretty bags with easy-to-store promises. It is heavy, takes up tons of space, spoils easily, and attracts rodents. Thus, humans in our infinite wisdom decided to create our own feeds, to supplement our horses, reduce the amount of grass required, and cut costs.

You may be asking, "if modern horses can thrive on grass alone, then how do you explain my foundering pony, or skinny old horse, or ulcer-ridden performance stud?". The explanation for these issues is quite simply, really.  These conditions are not the results of feeding strictly grass-hay.  They are the result of a variety of interference in the horse's life:

- Genetically predisposed to disease or insulin resistance (genetics)

- Human intervention that causes stressors on the horse. (people problems) - Climate change - Work routine - Lifestyle - Unnatural interference

- And yes, even unnatural feed routine - feeding the horse things that aren't actually good for him

That's a list of causes that lead to the effects described earlier. Barring being prone to equine metabolic disease or insulin resistance, the foundering domesticated pony (grass founder) typically founders due to being left on grass that is too rich for his body's ability to metabolize it efficiently. But consider that perhaps the foundering pony would not have foundered in the first place, had he been raised on the same, consistent diet, the same pasture grazing routine for his entire life. His body arguably could have adapted and evolved to his original (organic) environment, and processed the rich grass efficiently if his digestive system was accustomed to that environment. This is a primary factor in why wild ponies do just fine in the wild.  What happened to your typical modern day foundered ponies, is that throughout their lives, humans have interfered, feeding them man-made processed feeds, and dried grass hay, and moved them from pasture to pasture, barn to barn, and so on.  These changes impact the horse just as significant changes in the human diet and environment, greatly impact our overall health and well being.

Think of humans who are diabetic. Yes, genetics can play a factor, but dietary habits play a massive role in a person's risks for developing insulin resistance such as Type 2 Diabetes. The same concept applies to the skinny older horse mentioned earlier.  The older horse has been domesticated a great deal from his wild ancestors, and often times is not adept to grazing in his natural state, nor used to being fed a raw and natural diet.  Older horses are pumped full of man-made grain products and what's more, often times horses as young as 7 are being started on "senior feeds"! Is it really any wonder that by the time the horse is elderly he has lost many of his teeth, and his metabolism is completely out of whack due to the over-consumption of processed feeds or a lack of natural habitat? Some senior horses are "hard keepers" simply because we as humans keep mature equines longer than they would have been kept in past generations, and in the wild, elderly horses simply die of natural causes (such as not being able to maintain weight, avoid predators, or keep up with the herd). Our domesticated equine friends generally live longer lives because we keep them alive longer. (We often treat them as pets, family members whereas in generations past many years ago horses were used as working animals who had to "earn their keep".)

Consider humans in a similar scenario.  If we consume large amounts of sugar and processed food over time, we are bound to encounter health issues.  For humans the results are often weight issues, diabetes and heart disease.  Is it so outrageous that horses are not so very different? It brings me to that old adage, "you are what you eat". This concept is not new by any means, yet we continue to pour unhealthy, unfruitful feeds into our animals everyday and we continue to keep horses in man-made, un-natural living quarters like heated box stalls, and exercise only several times a week.

What about the ulcer-ridden horse? How does he come to have pain, weight, and performance issues? This also can be attributed to human interference, lifestyle, and climate change.  Did you know that nearly 70% of all domesticated horses have or will have gastric ulcers in their lifetimes?  That's A LOT of ulcers and a lot of sad horses. Would you believe me if I told you that nearly all gastric ulcer cases are preventable through proper diet, healthy lifestyle, and preventative care?  I promise, it is true.  Horses typically get gastric ulcers, hind gut acidosis, or other gastric related health issues due to stress, inconsistencies in environment, poor feeding programs with high sugar, soy, and corn intake, and through being over-worked.  Ulcers are preventable.  There is however, a lack of education among the horse community regarding this under-studied condition. What does everyone do when they are trying to help the ulcer-ridden horse? They go straight back to grass hay and a very basic, cleansing diet to cure the horse's condition OR they mask the condition with pain killers and often treat with antacids (omeprazole). Imagine that! 

I'm not saying that there aren't exceptions to the rule.  There certainly are.  There are plenty of horses who have genetic disorders, poor breeding, and incurable diseases or conditions that may cause issues with keeping on weight with strictly grass hay.  There are certainly good supplements and feeds on the market.  I am not saying that every horse should only eat grass.  I'm not saying that supplements are unnecessary.  I'm simply pointing out that the majority of normal, healthy horses can be happier and healthier (and less costly) if the horse community at large would invest in nutritional education and go back to the basics.


1. Start by analyzing your feeding program.  What are you feeding? Why do you feed it? What are the ingredients? A great rule of thumb is if you read the label and cannot pronounce the ingredients on the list or have never heard of them, then it's very likely your feed isn't going to be good for your horse. Educate yourself. Read books on the horse's digestive system and anatomy and familiarize yourself with general horse health.

2. Buy products from only reputable producers who guarantee quality and give full disclosure on how their feed is produced.  Stay away from man-made feeds that contain preservatives, additives or ingredients that a horse would not typically eat in the wild. For example, take a look at the levels of sugar, soy and corn in your feeds and study the real effects of corn on your horse's body.  3. Make sure that you're not overfeeding processed feeds and underfeeding hay.  Your horse needs mostly quality grass hay or pasture grass.* Food that comes out of a bag in your barn should be carefully analyzed and shouldn't be over-fed. 90% of your horse's diet should be natural and raw.  *For elderly horses that are not able to eat the grass hay/pasture, try soaked hay, soaked alfalfa, or soaked hay-pellet/cube, and soaked beet pulp products from a quality producer. See also Dr. Depaolo's website for some excellent advice on gut-health and feeding the underweight horse (who likely has other underlying issues). Feeding your skinny horse brans, mashes, and bagged feeds may very well keep the weight on, but it isn't always prolonging his life nor improving his quality of life. Just because he's fat, doesn't mean he's healthy.

4. Talk to a holistic equine nutritionist.  Seriously.  Most vets are not nutritionists and you would be amazed at what you learn (and terrified of what these feed plants are putting in processed feeds).  If your horse needs a supplement, consider one that has only all natural, proven and quality ingredients such as Silver Lining Herbs, Equipride, or Animal Element.  Quality may be one of the most important aspects of your supplements, as many manufacturers use cheap, poor quality ingredients.  Additionally, consider not feeding a supplement at all if your horse does not absolutely need it.  See Doctor David Ramey, DVM's articles on the unnecessary over-consumption of equine supplements in the horse industry. 

5. Stop buying junk and throw out the additives! If your horse doesn't really need it, don't feed it.  See Dr. Mark Depaolo's research and commentary on the topic of natural equine nutrition. Stick to high quality hay, clean water, and a regular preventative care regime. If your horse is doing heavy work, is elderly, or lives in an unforgiving climate, consider using Equipride or a supplement mentioned above.  For a horse recovering from ulcers or the elderly underweight horse, supplement with high fat, low energy natural oils that are loaded in omega 3s.  Just don't over-do it.  

I'll close by saying that our horses are excellent at telling us things.  They show us how they are feeling, and what they need so often, yet so often humans fail to listen to them. A mathematician places great importance on studying mathematics.  A race car driver puts significant research and effort into his car and studies the course.  Perhaps all that is needed to improve our equine diets and overall quality of life is for horse enthusiasts to place more importance on listening to their horses. Besides, you can go on vacation with all that money you save by not buying crummy feed!

*I receive no incentive nor compensation of any kind by promoting the products or research mentioned herein. I am simply sharing what has worked for my horses and the multitude of horses I've worked with over many years.


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