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The Way of Horses: My Life is Complete

By Eleanor Blazer

“My life is so complete.” “Complete kit included.” “I feed my horse a complete feed.” What does the word “complete” actually mean?

According to Merriam-Webster the definition is “having all the necessary or normal parts, components or steps; entire.” Life may be complete until it changes…then it’s not. The kit may be complete until you discover it’s missing a crucial part…then it’s not. And “complete” horse feeds are not complete.

“Complete” feeds are advertised as containing all the needed nutrients and fiber required by the horse. But they cannot provide all the nutrients required by every horse, in every situation. “Complete” feeds do not provide the necessary long-stem fiber needed to maintain healthy hindgut function.

Reading the information on the feed tag can tell you if the product will come close to meeting your horse’s required dietary needs based on age, health and activity level. A product designed for a performance or young growing horse will contain a higher amount of grain – resulting in a higher energy level. This product will also be fortified with protein, vitamins and minerals.

A product designed for mature, idle horses will contain less grain (lower energy level) and not contain high levels of protein, vitamins and minerals. The fiber level will be higher. There are also “complete” feeds designed for older, mature horses. These formulas will be easier to digest. Many products will have higher levels of phosphorus and vitamin C when compared to other complete feeds. These two nutrients are thought to be hard for senior horses to utilize. More research needs to be conducted.

When reading the feed tag notice how much of the product must be fed per day. Because the product is intended to replace the forage and provide a balanced diet, the amount will be large. Most products will recommend approximately one and a half (1 ½) to two (2) percent of the body weight per day. A 1,000 pound horse would need 15 to 20 pounds of the product a day.

Feeding a complete feed twice a day is not going to work. The large amount needed for the horse must be divided into four (or more) small meals. The 1,000 pound horse will require four meals of three and three-quarters (3 ¾) to five (5) pounds at each feeding. It’s not going to take long for the horse to eat the allocated amount. So what does he do during the rest of his time?

Do not be surprised if the horse eating a complete feed develops vices and health problems. These may include weaving, cribbing, stall walking, eating manure, tail and wood chewing, colic, ulcers and other digestive problems. Horses are designed to utilize long-stem fiber – not pellets.

If a complete feed must be fed, try to provide at least one half (1/2) pound of long-stem fiber for every 100 pounds of body weight per day. The 1,000 pound horse will require five (5) pounds a day. Divide this amount into several small meals.

The healthiest way to feed the horse is to provide at least two (2) percent or more of the horse’s body weight in good quality forage. If the forage is lacking nutrients - based on the horse’s age, activity level and health, then a product that provides the missing nutrients must be provided. But there are times when a horse cannot or should not eat forage. For example: older horses may not be able to chew hay. A complete feed designed for senior horses can be a huge benefit.

It is possible a horse suffering from hyperkalemic periodic paralysis (HYPP) would benefit from a complete feed. These horses have trouble with potassium. Potassium must not exceed one (1) percent of the total diet. It is hard to control potassium levels when feeding forage. Offering a fixed formula complete commercial mix that is low in potassium may be the answer. A horse recovering from choke may benefit from a complete feed during the healing process. Offering a soaked complete feed will meet nutrient requirements while the esophagus heals. It is possible the choke prone horse will do better on a soaked complete product as his normal diet.

With the exception of the HYPP horse, all horses should be offered some type of long-stem fiber along with the complete product. If hay or pasture is not an option, soaked hay cubes can provide long-stem fiber for hindgut health and to fight boredom. The particles within the cube must be at least three quarters of an inch in length. Hay or alfalfa pellets, beet pulp or bran will not work.

Horses on a complete diet tend to get anxious at meal times. Meals are the “high-point” of every horse’s day, but these forage deprived horses may be more excited than normal. To slow down consumption and avoid choke, place several large rocks in the feeder. Research has also shown extruded pellets lessen the risk of choke. Extruded pellets are cooked under pressure and dissolve faster than harder counter-parts. The product can also be soaked to avoid choke. Be sure any uneaten material is removed. Fermented, spoiled feed will result in a sick horse. We are lucky to have so many options when caring for horses. This completes my column…or does it?

* Proper nutrition and management practices can prevent many problems associated with caring for horses. You can learn how to provide your horse with a better life-style by taking the online course “How to Feed for Maximum Performance” taught by Eleanor Blazer. Visit www.horsecoursesonline.com for more information and remember that CHA instructors get a discount on each course and the courses count towards continuing educational hours you need for your CHA recertification every three year.