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Back in the 70s we used to feed horses with whatever the grain store had to offer. I remember feeding our show palominos a mixture of straight oats, wheat germ oil, and bananas to keep their coats shiny and gold. The rest of the gang got sweet feed. That was about the extent of the choices back then. You will hear some old-schoolers brag about doing the same feed thing for forty years and it’s the best thing for them. That is when I say, “Ya, but they used to wrap pipes in asbestos and thought it was OK, too.”
Feeding horses has moved up the ranks from a requirement of daily care to a science. Knowing how a horse uses its feed and what body score they have is as important as what they will do for a job. Go to today’s feed store and get a gander on how many choices there are in just one brand! It boggles the mind. Getting the advice from a good independent feed analyst is quite often the best approach to deciding which feed schedule is the best for your horse.
One of the most overlooked and overfed horse groups in the country are the easy keepers. Air ferns, Amoeba eaters, Guppies, I’ve heard a lot of names for horses that really, truly, do not need grain products in their diet. We add grain to the diets of horses that are asked to do unnatural things. Not grazing all day, being stuck in a stall, riding for hours at a time, jumping, etc. These are things that horses don’t do in the wild. Thereby answering the question, “Why do wild horses do just fine with no grain?” Easy keepers don’t have the metabolism or job description to burn the excess calories and carbs that a grain diet affords.
BUT, and it’s a big one. They DO need vitamins and minerals to keep them on an even metabolic keel. I cannot count how many times I ask, “How much grain are you feeding this little footstool?” The answer invariably will be, “Just a hand full of the other horse’s grain.” I’m going to explain how grain works and see if it helps you decide if your horse needs grain or one of the wonder ration balancers available from all the major brands.
My two test horses are Bevis the Thoroughbred eventer and Butthead, the mini gal pal to Beavis. They share a dry lot turnout paddock and are fed three times a day. Bevis is a hard-worker and Butthead is the cheering section. Butthead has put a lot of weight on lately and the signs of Insulin Resistance are starting to show in the crest of the neck, and the fats pads on the tail head and shoulders. Beavis gets a calorie-rich grain in addition to plentiful amounts of hay that Butthead makes a go of throughout the day once her hay is done. Because they eat at different speeds, Butthead gets more than her share of calories from hay. They feed first-cut grass hay at about 800 calories per day. A mini is in the 2-3 pounds a day category. Butthead helps herself to about five pounds a day and has no job to burn it off. On top of that, the owners feel bad about not including Butthead in the daily grain delivery so they offer a half-cup of grain twice a day to make Butthead feel better.
Beavis seems to be thriving on his diet and jumping cross-country like a pro. His body conditioning score is a perfect, athletic 5 on the Henneke system chart. Butthead is a solid 8, which would be great sticking a landing in gymnastics but not so great for a 250-lb. mini. The grain Beavis gets is fully packed with daily vitamins and minerals and is meant to be distributed in ½% of body weight. So, being a svelte 1200 pounds, Beavis will get all of his daily's in 6 pounds of grain. He happily eats it up and uses it all in his system because he is worked 5-6 times a week. Butthead, on the other hand, is getting about 50 calories in the grain but is missing her important vitamins because according to the bag tag, she should get 1.25 pounds per day! Yikes, she would die if you fed her that much. So how do you get the right vitamin/mineral balance when you cannot safely feed the right amount of your grain? Ration balancer.
Ration balancers are a fairly recent addition to the horse feed community. They have perfected them over the last ten years and couldn’t be any easier to feed. They are usually little pellets that have the right amount of vitamins and minerals in a super-concentrated amount. Butthead now gets about a ¼ cup A DAY, of balancer and they separate the two until Beavis is done eating hay. This has improved Buttheads body score of 6 and when they get this gal a job driving a cart around, she should drop to a 5 in no time.
To tell if your horse is an air fern, read the bag tag and calculate how much grain you are SUPPOSED to feed. If you get goose bumps thinking about how that would overfeed them, your horse is a candidate for a ration balancer. Don’t feel bad because the size of the portion is so small. It packs a punch. Also, don’t be blown away by the protein count (most are around 32 percent.) That is due to concentration. High protein is often confused with making a horse “hot.” It’s not the protein that does that, it’s the non-structural carbs, read about that later.
Sometimes, a horse needs both grain and a balancer. The grain they are on seems to be holding their weight but they aren’t “blooming” the way you want. Adding a ration balancer is the right choice as it will add those extra vitamins that the hay may be lacking. All the major manufacturers carry a balancer so ask at the counter for the feed company representative to give you a call. They will quite often come out and do a work up for your horses. Purina Enrich 32, Buckeye Gro-N-Win, Legends CarbCare, Nutrena Empower are just some of the brands available at your feed store. Other companies have joined the ranks of balancer providers as well. Farrier’s Formula Barn Bag, KER All-Phase and even Smart Pak has thrown their hat in the ring for better nutrition for our beloved air ferns. We are fortunate here in Aiken, SC to have an independent feed analyst for horses. I recommend him as he doesn’t work for any particular grain company and can give you an unbiased approach to a choice. He’s called The Feed Geek and we are lucky to have him! You can reach him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/