With eye catching packaging featuring beautiful horses, it is easy to choose a feed based on looks alone, but do we really know what is going into our horses diet?
The back of a feedbag contains a wealth of knowledge, telling you not only how to feed and the recommended weights, but also the exact composition and formulation of the product. Many of us are drawn in by design or select feeds we have always used (or know friends that do), but how many owners actually take the time to compare the levels of protein, sugar and starch printed on the label?
What you feed your horse has a direct impact on his weight and energy level, both of which further influence his health and behaviour. Understanding the information on the back of feedbags will allow you to make informed decisions when choosing feed, as well as highlight ingredients that may be causing issues, such as weight gain or excitability.
Every UK produced feed by law, has to have the ‘Statutory Statement’ displayed on its packaging. This includes:
- The name of the feed, and highlights what type of horse or pony the feed is suitable for.
- A description of the feed. This is usually either complete, meaning nothing else is required, or complementary, which is designed to be fed alongside forage but as the sole source of concentrates.
- Analytical Constituents or Nutrient Analysis. The law states that manufacturers print Protein, Crude Fibre, Oil, Ash, Copper and Vitamins A, D and E levels as a minimum.
- The composition or ingredients are listed with the feed material of the highest amount put first.
You will also find the best before date and batch number or date of manufacture. It is wise to tear off this information and keep it safe, just in case you find an issue with the feed and need to contact the manufacturer.
Mostly found in mixes, cereal grains were the foundation of traditional feeds but since our understanding of how starch and sugar (which cereals contain in high levels) has improved, very few people now feed them straight. The starch in some cereals, such as oats, is more easily digested than cereals such as maize, barley and wheat, all of which should be cooked to improve its digestibility. Oats are high in fibre compared to other cereals, and have a long, thin shape. Barley is fatter and shorter than oats, and the high energy level is useful for horses in hard or intense work. Wheat is flatter and has a brown colour, while maize has the highest level of starch of all the cereals, but low fibre value, making it energy dense. The process in which a cereal has been cooked is an important area to understand if you have worries about excitability, laminitis and colic. Micronised or extruded feeds have improved digestibility in comparison to straight cereals, so should be the first choice for most owners.
Ash: most people think ash is the useless part of a feed, but in fact, the ash content denotes all the inorganic minerals in the feed, such as calcium and magnesium.
Some feeds have added molasses, which taste very sweet and are used to increase palatability. A product of sugar extraction from sugarbeet or sugar cane, feeds containing molasses aren’t suitable for horses prone to laminitis or Cushing’s disease.
Fibre ought to make up the majority of a horse’s diet as it takes longer for the horse to digest in the hind gut, providing slow release energy. Beans and peas (part of the legume family) have reasonable levels of fibre, and are high in energy as well as starch. Legumes are a great source of high quality protein, and include essential amino acids, which horses cannot produce themselves. Alfalfa is becoming an increasingly common ingredient as it contributes great source of protein and minerals, and is naturally low in sugar.
To understand the level of energy a feed will provide, look for the Digestible Energy (DE MJ/kg). This provides an estimated value, which is vital for comparing a set of feeds or addressing feeding issues with excitable horses.
Another source of protein is grass, but check sugar levels before feeding to a laminitis prone animal. Oat straw is a very common source of fibre, which has good palatability and is often ‘nutritionally improved’ through a chemical or cooking process to boost digestibility. Sugarbeet pulp is the dried remains of the root once all the sugar has been extracted. An excellent source of fibre, the unmolassed version has a high calorie count but is low in starch and sugars. However, it must be soaked before feeding.
The addition of oil to a feed is a useful source of non-heating, slow release energy. Oil provides two-and-a-half times more energy than a similar quantity of carbohydrates, but without any negative impact on behaviour. Promoting good skin and coat condition, oil contains fatty acids that determine the quality of the oil. Look out for Omega 3 and 6, which are essential for the diet. For horses that need to avoid starch, such as those suffering from muscle disorders or laminitis, oil is a safe way to provide energy, free from starch. Rich in protein, linseed is naturally high in Omega 3, while soya is rich in Omega 6.
Usually, providing your horse a diet made up of forage and compound feeds will its entire vitamin and mineral needs. However, if you are feeding individual ingredients or a much lower than the recommended ration, also provide a broad spectrum vitamin and mineral supplement to cover any shortfalls. Herbs are also added to some feeds to increase palatability or offer health benefits.
Cube or mix?
Some horses prefer cubes or pellets, while other prefer mixes. As with most food stuffs, the brown, basic looking item is the healthiest, and this is generally the case with horse feed. Cubes offer consistent feeding, with the same nutrients and ingredients in every cube, meaning a horse can’t be fussy and avoid the parts he doesn’t like. On the other hand, mixes are usually more colourful and inviting, but the ingredients often have a light coating of sugar and horses can pick out the best bits. While each product varies, cubes and pellets are usually higher in fibre, while mixes have higher starch levels.
Look for logos
For horses competing in FEI competition or racing, focus primarily on feeds that carry the BETA NOPS logo, which signifies that the manufacturer abides by a code to minimise the risk of Naturally Occurring Prohibited Substances getting into the feed. Those prone to equine gastric ulcer syndrome (EGUS), feeds carrying the BETA EGUS mark are useful for managing the condition, and feeds endorsed by the Laminitis Trust approval mark are more suitable for laminitics. The Vegetarian Society Approved trademark only appears on feeds that are free from animal constituents and don’t contain any GM ingredients.