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Equine Nutrition Seminar At Halls Feed & Seed


By Nancy Brannon, Ph.D.

How well do you know your horse’s digestive system? How well do you know your horse’s nutritional needs? Do you know which feeds are best for your horse? How do you choose feeds to give your horse the optimum benefit?
These questions formed the basis for Tim May’s equine nutrition presentation at Hall’s Feed and Seed, Collierville, TN, October 8, 2013. Tim is the Cargill Equine Nutrition Specialist and his presentation began with a basic explanation of the horse’s digestive system, then moving on to the nutritional needs of the horse – protein, vitamins, minerals.

Even if you don’t remember all the details, it is important to have a basic understanding of the horse’s digestive system, because the structure and function of the system determine what and how to feed your horse.

The horse’s foregut includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach and small intestine. As with humans and other animals, digestion begins in the mouth where forages and feeds are chewed and wetted with saliva.

The horse’s stomach is small, relative to the total tract, and cannot accommodate large quantities of
food at any one time. Limited enzymatic digestion and some fermentive digestion from a small microbial population occurs in the stomach. But food remains in the stomach only about 15 minutes before it starts to pass into the small intestine.

The small intestine is the site for a major portion of nutrient absorption. Here soluble carbohydrates are digested to simple sugars and absorbed for use as energy. The small intes­tine is also the primary site for fat digestion and absorption. The fat soluble vita­mins A, D, E and K are also absorbed in the small intestine, along with B-vitamins, calcium and some phosphorus. Passage of feeds through the small intestine takes about 30 to 90 minutes.

The horse’s hindgut includes the cecum, large colon, small colon and rectum – collectively called the large intestine. The cecum hangs against the right side of the abdominal cavity at the juncture of the horse’s body trunk and hind leg.  During or immediately after a horse eats, gut sounds, which are mixing activities of the cecum, can be heard normally by placing an ear against the abdomi­nal wall in the area of the cecum. The horse’s hindgut contains an active population of bacteria and protozoa. Microbes break down fibrous feeds into short-chained volatile fatty acids. This microbial action allows the horse to efficiently utilize forages, either green or cured.

Microbes synthesize amino acids in the large intestine, but essential amino acids are not absorbed in any appreciable quantity from the hindgut. This means that the horse cannot eat low-quality protein feeds and then convert this protein into higher-quality protein for absorption and use in the body. Considerable amounts of B-vitamins are synthesized by the microbes in the hindgut and are absorbed. Thiamine is probably not absorbed in sufficient quantities to meet the require­ments of hard-working horses and, therefore, should be added to the rations of those horses classed as hard-working. Rate of passage through the cecum and large intestine is 36 to 72 hours.

Mays used a pie chart to explain how the feeds that we give horses are utilized. The majority of the feed is used for energy, with vitamins, minerals, and protein making up a considerably smaller portion.

How do you choose a feed for your horse? Four questions to answer in determining what feed is right for your horse:
What is you forage and hay like? What activities does your horse do? How old is your horse? What are your goals?
Mays went into detail explaining how to choose a feed, and how to balance your feed with hay and forage. First, test the protein level and nutritional quality of your hay. This will tell you what nutritional needs you should supplement.

Mays discussed the merits of pelleted feeds vis a vis texturized feeds (i.e., all grain feeds). He explained each of the Safe Choice feeds that Cargill has developed for the variety of nutritional needs of horses, based on the earlier questions and the horse’s body condition.

Attendees of the seminar were treated by Hall’s Feed and Seed owners Jimmy and Beverly Thompson to a Jason’s deli catered supper and many prizes. Folks could go home with a bag of feed, dog food samples, de-wormers, a portable scale, and many other horse “goodies.” If you were unable to attend the seminar and would like an individual consultation on how to feed your horse a nutritionally balanced diet, Brianna Langley, Cargill consultant, is available to make barn visits. She can also help you with a hay analysis. Call her at: 601-297-2435 or email:

Following are some questions and answers from Mays’ presentation to test your knowledge of your horse’s dietary needs.

1. What substance should make up the majority of the horse’s diet?
Answer: Forage and hay.

2. How many minerals does the horse need in his/her diet?
Answer: At least 15. Macro minerals, needed in larger amounts: Calcium, Phosphorous, Sodium, Potassium, Magnesium, and Chloride. Micro, aka trace minerals, needed in smaller amounts: Iron, Copper, Zinc, Manganese, Cobalt, Selenium, and Iodine. These minerals are essential in the horse’s diet, but when supplied in amounts exceeding your horse’s need for them, or in an imbalanced profile, can be toxic. The trace minerals are the key to peak performance.

3. What are two types of vitamins needed by horses?
Answer: water soluble and fat soluble. Water soluble vitamins are: Thiamin (B1), Riboflavin (B2) Pyridoxine (B6), Cyanocabalamin (B12), Pantothenic acid, Nicotinic acid Niacin), Folic acid, Biotin, Choline, Inositol, Paraaminobenzoic acid (PABA), and Vitamin C (Ascorbic acid). Fat soluble vitamins are: Vitamin A (for vision and maintenance of epithelial cells); Vitamin D (Ca and P absorption, storage, and metabolism); Vitamin E (metabolic antioxidant); Vitamin K (blood clotting).

4. What is the role of protein in the horse’s diet?
Answer: Building muscle and bone. It is generally how everybody identifies feed, but not necessarily the best way to evaluate feed. Availability is the most important factor. It should not be used as an energy source. It does not make your horse hyper!

5. What is the average % of protein that most horses need?
Answer: 8.5% in total diet.

6. Under what conditions do horses need higher percentages of protein, e.g., 14% or higher? 
Answer: (a) a mare in the last trimester of pregnancy, in which 75% of the growth of the foal occurs; (b) a lactating mare, who is rebuilding her own muscle, and the foal, who is building new muscle and bone; (c) a growing foal, up to 14 months; (d) stallions at high breeding programs.

7. What is the source of carbohydrates in most feeds?
Answer: Molasses. “Carbohydrates are the main energy source in most feeds, and the building block of carbohydrates is glucose. Soluble carbohydrates are found in nearly every feed source; corn has the highest amount, then barley and oats. Forages normally have around 6% to 8% starch, but under certain conditions, can have up to 30%. Sudden ingestion of large amounts of starch or high sugar feeds can cause colic or laminitis.” (source: Williams, Carey A., 2004, “The Basics of Equine Nutrition,” Rutgers University Equine Science Center)

8. What is the best source of energy for the horse? Fiber, Carbohydrates, Protein, or Fat?
Answer: fat. It is 2 ½ times more energy dense than other sources. It is the safest source of energy for your horse.
Additional Resources:
Additional information on the equine digestive process from the University of Arkansas Agriculture and Natural Resources: “Digestive System of the Horse and Feeding Management.”

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