Understanding the Feeding of Young Horses
Is there anything more beautiful than watching a group of young horses running together out in a field on a crisp spring morning? Since the beginning of time of raising horses, the question that has been asked is: “what do we need to do to allow these majestic animals to grow to their optimal potential?” Our job as their nutritional stewards is to develop the best feeding program we can, and that boils down to a three-phase plan. Part one is determining the nutritional needs of each individual horse based on their size and activity level. Part two is understanding the type and quality of forages each horse is consuming. Part three is finding a high-quality Hubbard feed that compliments the forages being fed, ensuring each horse gets everything they need without wasting money on things they do not.
Luckily, part one is fairly easy to accomplish. There are hundreds of research projects that have been performed over the years to determine the nutrient requirements of any horse (usually based on their weight and activity). This information can be found in many printed books (e.g., The NRC for Horses) and in numerous equine nutrition software balancing programs.
The next stage is determining what nutrients each forage being fed to the horse contains. In the wintertime, that part is easy for all you need to do is have the hay analyzed. Most feed companies will take several small samples in a mow of hay and have them analyzed for little to no cost. There will be some variations between each load and field, but it will provide you with a good average. Springtime brings a little more of a challenge. Pastures, as they start to grow, will have limited amounts of actual material to eat. We also must remember that there are micro-organisms (MO) in the hind gut that digest the actual fiber in the hay and grass. Each MO mostly eats one thing, so if the horse has been on dry legume mixed hay and you put them directly on a fresh wet grass pasture, then those bugs that ate the hay will starve, and there will not be enough bugs to digest the new grass coming into the digestive tract.
This situation will create a digestive upset, which is something we can prevent with YOUR management. When you first let the horses on pasture, limit their time, and fill their stomachs with hay prior to turning them out. This practice will slow down how fast the new grass can pass through the hind gut. Limiting your horses this way will also allow the MO’s that digest the hay to still have something to eat and not die off, while giving the new MO’s needed for digesting pasture grasses the opportunity to start to grow. Transitioning horses to pasture may take a week or two but keep an eye on the shape of their stool. We want to see nicely shaped “road apples” rather than “little soft piles.” The next question should be what nutrients are in the pasture? Just like with hay, we need to get a sample and evaluate it. Take a regular one-gallon zip lock bag and take many small samples of grass in various places throughout your horse’s pasture. Again, the sample will have some variety, but it will provide a good average.
Once we have an idea of the forage quality, we can start looking at the various feeds available to ensure we complement the forage to supply what the horse needs. Usually, a growing horse needs higher protein, mineral, and vitamin levels due to the large amount of nutrients required for maximum growth. For example, a muscle can grow to a potential genetic size, but if the supply of a particular nutrient, like the amino acid Lysine, is low, then the muscle will not grow. Think about building a brick wall; an amino acid would be like a brick and the protein would be the wall. If you needed a particular type of brick for a door and are missing it, you cannot keep making the rest of the wall, same thing for a muscle. Or if you do not have enough cement for the cement mix, then it will be weak mix, and you do not want weak “cement” when building a leg bone. Thus, most young horse feeds, like Hubbard’s Summit Active 14%, are made with a 14% protein and higher levels of key vitamins and minerals. You can also take a maintenance feed that would be fed to many of the other horses in the barn, like the Hubbard Summit Classic Plus, and then top dress a “supplement” feed, like Hubbard’s Cool Command 30% Balancer, to add the extra nutrients needed.
But also look for the innovative technologies in feeds to help give the horses a little more edge. A yeast like Alltech YeaSac will allow the horse’s gut to work more efficiently and digest the forages better. Organic minerals, like Alltech’s BioPlex’s and Selplex, will allow better mineral absorption and thus better utilization to prevent a shortage needed with rapidly growing tissues. A “MOS” product, like Alltech’s BioMos, will prevent the “bad” bacteria from adhering to the gut wall and creating a digestive problem. Taking advantage of these innovative technologies will allow each animal to better utilize the feedstuffs they are given and help grow a stronger animal more efficiently.
So, with a little testing, a little investigating, and a little planning, you can watch your young horses have a fun time frolicking in the crisp mornings while knowing you have an optimally growing horse.