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Cost-Conscious Feeding of Horses

According to Clarissa Brown-Douglas, Ph.D., a nutritionist with Kentucky Equine Research, the first step in creating a high-quality, cost-conscious diet is to clearly define the scenario and the goals. Do you manage a herd of broodmares? Do you ride competitively; is the horse exercised lightly or intensely? Do you care for a single retired pony?

Once the feeding goals are clearly understood, a nutritionist should perform a thorough diet evaluation, carefully collecting information about forages and concentrates, and how much of each is fed to the horse. Moreover, the nutritionist should inventory the supplements that are fed, making note of why each is added to the diet. Other pertinent information may include turnout time, pasture quality, and palatability preferences.

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In addition to determining nutritional adequacy of diets, ration evaluations reveal any shortages or overages of specific nutrients. “Eliminating nutritional double-ups is the simplest way to shave off some expense,” said Brown-Douglas.

Optimizing forage intake is another source of potential cost savings. “Pasture can provide a lot of nutrition, sometimes year-round, so maximizing time on pasture is one way to reduce the use of other forages, such as hay or bagged forage products such as cubes, pellets, or chaff, all of which tend to be expensive,” she explained.

While it may be impractical to eliminate hay from a diet, sourcing local hay often reduces forage costs. Further savings may be achieved if a local grower can be identified and hay can be picked up from the field, as this reduces handling required by the grower. Transportation outlays can add considerably to the cost of hay.

When evaluating feed expenses, the nutritionist will often verify that horses are receiving the most appropriate forage for their age and lifestyle. While premium-quality hay engages the human senses favorably—imagine how beautifully cured alfalfa looks, smells, feels—few horses require it for optimal health. Mid-quality grass hay works well for many horses. For those prone to obesity, even this may be too rich, so owners should be on the lookout for mature hay that is free of dust, mold, and weeds.

“Be conscious of not wasting hay,” Brown-Douglas warned. “Some horses are clever at using hay as bedding, and this isn’t economical. To avoid this, get out the scale, and feed 1.25% to 2% of the horse’s optimal body weight per day in a haynet or feeder.”

Once forage costs have been streamlined, the concentrate portion of the diet can be addressed. Many horses, especially growing horses, performance horses, breeding stallions, and broodmares at certain stages of production, require a concentrated form of calories. While this is best accomplished through the provision of a well-formulated, fortified concentrate from a reputable manufacturer, sometimes a savings can be had by feeding a ration balancer, a feed that rounds out the protein, vitamin, and mineral requirements of a diet, at a lower intake.

Finally, careful evaluation of all supplements should be performed. Oversupplying certain nutrients frequently occurs unintentionally when multiple supplements are fed to horses. For some horses that require similar needs, an all-in-one supplement might be appropriate and provide cost savings. These supplements might include high-quality ingredients that address hoof, coat, joint, and antioxidant needs.

To keep feeding costs in perspective, Brown-Douglas encourages horse owners to look at the cost of feeding a horse per day, rather than relying on individual product prices. Certainly, she explained, some bagged feeds can be expensive, but that price is relative to how long the product will last. “Take a well-formulated ration balancer, for instance. If a 50-lb (23-kg) bag costs $25 and your horse eats 1 lb (0.45 kg) a day, then that single bag will last well over a month.”

Working with a nutritionist has many advantages. Nutritionists are certainly advocates for horses—after all, the goal is to ensure optimal nutrition—but routine diet evaluations also protect horse owners from needless expense.