Tag Archives: Feeding horses

When it comes to horse food, being cheap can be expensive! -Hannah Botha (MSC Equine Science, Royal Agricultural College, UK)

When a bag of feed is R10 more expensive than an alternative brand it does raise eyebrows. When the price difference is R20 or more, most horse owners will query whether this is value for money. Interestingly, however, even discrepancies greater than these can become savings!

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When it comes to choosing a concentrate for your horse, opting for the bag with the budget price can turn out to be the expensive decision in the long run!

Not only does it often cost more in terms of Rands per month to feed cheap concentrates, but the negatives

also add up in terms of poor performance, poor condition, the cost of additional supplements, greater quantities fed and the possibility of additional veterinary bills which completely tip the scales.


When selecting your horse feed, you should do so in the manner you would select a veterinarian for your horse. Most horse owners choose a veterinarian based on the quality of service provided, not the price charged for this highly professional work. Your horse’s nutrition should be no less important.

There are many different feeds available on the market today and, without exception, cheaper feeds tend to contain a lot more fillers and less of the better quality ingredients. This is possibly even more relevant in todays climate, with raw materials increasing in price, and some companies may even swop out previously used ingredients for cheaper options.

The differences in nutritional value between different feeds are significant and, generally, the aid old adage

“You get what you pay for” is true.

Contrary to popular belief, the most expensive component of horse feed is not protein but rather the total energy value. Other important factors which add to the end price of better quality concentrates are:


  • the amount and type of oils used
  • the quality of the vitamins and minerals added
  • the selection of starches incorporated- to provide useable energy sources
  • the addition of a live yeast culture
  • The quality if proteins and amino acids used
  • the quality and quantity of the fibres used in the composition.


The correct inclusion of essential Vitamin B and E alone can easily add R4-00 per bag, a live yeast culture up to R8-00/bag and the inclusion of good quality oils can bump the cost up to more than R10-00 per bag. Just these 3 ingredients alone can account for more than R20-00 per bag but in the long run, however, can help you save money, improve performance and ensure that riding, breeding, training or any other equine activity can be fully enjoyed.

Horses are no longer kept for transportation, but rather, because we are passionate about them and equine related sports. Attempting to save R2.00 per day, thus, only to have a horse contract, tying up, laminitis or dangerous colic, all related to the choice of feed, becomes nonsensical.

It must be noted that where a horse is fed, for example, 4kg per day, the difference in feeding costs between a budget feed at R200/40kg compared to a much higher quality product priced at R220/40kg (ie.R20 more per bag) will be R2.00 per day. This becomes a negligible amount when compared to the cost of treating a bad colic, not to mention the costs of adding masses of additional supplements to “make your feed work”, impaired performance and the additional quantity required for feeding which is often required.




Always study the information!

Choice of concentrate has a major cost implication on the upkeep of your horse, hence the importance of studying the bag tag and also of researching all further information provided on the website of any product you use.

Do not make the mistake of stopping your research at the advertised protein level as the protein level per se does not tell the whole story. When comparing products it is important to study factors such as energy value, yeast addition, the amount of fibre, specified vitamin/ mineral levels, the use of organic minerals, fat percentage, the type of oils added and specified amino acids such as lysine.

You will usually notice a vast difference in values across brands, as well as the amount of information offered on the top end products as compared to budget lines which tend to specify only the minimum values as required by law. Keep in mind that this law was passed way back in 1947 and requires the declaration of certain minimum percentages of Protein, Moisture, Fat, Calcium, Phosphorous and Fibre only.

When comparing feeds ensure you are comparing apples with apples. Some companies may display their nutrient values “as added ”, so it will only tell you the amounts put in not what your horse is actually receiving, where as others will give a better picture by detailing “as fed”, this will give a better picture of the actual nutrients your horse is receiving.


EVALUATING AND CHOOSING YOUR HAY -Hannah Botha (MSC Equine Science, Royal Agricultural College, UK)

When choosing the type of hay to purchase, it is always wise, not only to choose the type your horse prefers, but also one that   matches his nutritional needs.

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The most economical feeding programs maximize forage intake and then add concentrate feeds to meet any unfulfilled requirements. High grain intakes have been implicated as a risk factor in equine colic, which is a good reason to feed as much hay as possible. Diets with low levels of hay have also been related to an increased incidence of stall vices such as cribbing and wood chewing.

All horses should have a minimum of 1.5% of body weight per day in roughage. As a rough guide a horse needing a restricted diet because of being either overweight or simply a good doer could be reduced to an absolute minimum of 1% per day.


Points to consider- Leaf to Stem Ratio

 The leaves have a higher level of digestible nutrients than the stems and thus a larger leaf content is desirable. If the hay has a higher proportion of rough, thick stems and a very low leaf content, it generally points towards a less nutritious batch.



 The biggest variable affecting nutrient content is the stage of maturity at harvest (cut). Very early cut hay often has a soft texture, is very leafy, and has a high nutrient density and palatability. Mid maturity hays are the most suitable for the average horse as they contain a good combination of leaf and stems while still being palatable. Mature cut hays tend to have a low nutrient value and palatability, meaning fussy eaters may not take well to this cut. However, this type of hay can be a more desirable for horses needing a low calorie diet


Types of Hay


Lucerne generally has a higher nutritional value than most hays and is thus more suitable for horses with higher needs such as those in hard work, mares in foal or those who are lactating. Lucerne typically has a good ratio of stems to leaves, and provides a good level of calcium, quality fibre as well as other valuable nutrients. Mid cut Lucerne hay has a lower content of NSC and sugar making it suitable for those from conditions such as Laminitics, Insulin Resistance and Cushings.

Lucerne can be high in energy and protein which can be advantageous however it could cause excesses if the energy and protein amounts are not adjusted in the concentrate food of the average horse. Ideally no more than 50% of the daily roughage portion should be Lucerne.

It has been shown in many research studies that Lucerne, can assist in reducing the stomach ph of horses which may be desirable in gastric ulcer situations.

Oat Hay

Cereal grain hays, such as oaten, barley, or rye hay are all high in NSCs during their growth phase. When cut at the optimum pre bloom stage (before flowering) for hay, they can contain in excess of 30% NSC and sugars. This makes cereal hays less ideal for sensitive horses. Once they seed (mature cute) however, the sugars are transferred to the seed head to form starch in the grain, leaving the stems with less sugar content. Good quality oaten hay is likely to be the most dangerous for sensitive horses as it is often cut and cured before or at milk seed stage.

Teff and Eragrostis curvula

Teff and Eragrostis are the two most widely used varieties in SA. They are palatable and provide a good amount of fibre without providing too high an energy value. This makes them suitable for the majority of horses. The major disadvantage of these hays is that the nutritional value can range hugely from good to extremely poor quality. Always select these types of hay carefully, looking for optimum harvesting stage, colour and leaf to stem ratio. Studies have shown Teff hay can have a low NSC averaging around 10% or less. This makes it a suitable grass for those with issues such as laminitis, Cushings and Insulin resistance.


Selecting Hay

Local availability often influences the popularity of a particular variety of hay in a geographical area. If you can’t guarantee a regular supply of particular hay in your area then rather choose one you know will be readily available.

Most important of all, however, is that the hay is clean and free of weeds and field contaminations (such as tin cans, twine etc). Hay that is mouldy or dusty should not be fed to horses. Any hay that contains dust or mould can inflame the respiratory tract and impair breathing ability. Hay should be green in colour, with a pleasant aroma. A very sickly smell can indicate overheating, a “straw” like colour can indicate excessive sun exposure and Brown hay can indicate rain damage.

Ideally before buying hay, a sample should be tested in order to get idea of the nutritional value, to assist your nutritionist in assessing the horse’s total diet.