How do you know what feed is best for your horse?
With so many different types of horse feed available, it is important to understand not only how to feed your horse, but what to feed it. Each horse has its own individual requirements, and depending on its life stage and activity levels, it will require a different balance of nutrients to sustain its diet.
The needs of domestic horses should generally be met by forage, and only supplemented with other feeds when it’s necessary to maintain higher activity levels. Every horse is different, so it is important to understand the different types of horse feed that are available.
The three main types of feeds are:
- Grain Mixes
- Sweet Feeds
- And Pellets.
Grain mixes are a blend of specially selected grains formulated to suit the varying needs of horses as their nutrition requirements change. Some grain mixes are coated in molasses to make them more palatable, which provides an extra source of energy and potassium while binding the grains together.
- Minimal processing means the nutritional value of the grain is not compromised. Most grains will be rolled, cracked or crushed to break the kernels into smaller sizes and release more nutrients.
- Know exactly what you’re feeding your animals. You can easily determine the quality and ingredients of a grain mix by its appearance. This makes it much easier to monitor the levels of nutrients and minerals that your horse eats.
- Grain mixes are cheaper than pellets, due to lower manufacturing costs.
- Fewer limitations on additives, as compared to pellets. When manufacturing pellets, minerals and vitamins can be negatively affected by the heat processing.
- Horses can sort and separate grain mixes, leaving supplements and less appealing components in the feed bucket.
- Grain mixes are considered more difficult to digest than pellets as the ingredients have not been finely ground in processing.
As each horse has individual nutritional requirements, many owners make their own feeds using a mix of straight grains and supplements. For more information on the value of straight grains refer this guide.
Please keep in mind when feeding your horse that though grains are a traditional horse food, they are not a ‘natural’ food for horses. Is it easy to feed too much grain to horses, which can result in health issues such as ulcers or colic.
Textured feeds include a variety of whole and/or processed grains which are clearly discernable in the mix. Supplements are also included, generally in the form of crushed pellets, and the entire mix is coated in molasses.
Depending on whether the molasses is added in dry or liquid form will change the effectiveness of the feed. Wet molasses will make the feed sticky, helping to prevent horses from sorting the grain and avoiding the supplements.
- Due to the molasses coating, textured feeds are highly palatable and popular for picky or fussy horses.
- Sweet feeds are more appealing to horses, which means weanlings or horses recovering from illness will be more likely to start eating textured feed rather than pellets.
- In general, horses take longer to chew textured feeds than pelleted feeds.
- When adding supplements or medications to your horses feed, the textured grains and molasses make it easier to hide them and prevent your horse from leaving them in the feed bucket.
- Higher in fats, so great for horses that need to put on weight. Textured feeds usually contain protein levels between 12-16%
- Even with wet molasses the grains and supplements can separate, allowing the horse to leave unwanted components in the feed bucket.
- Short shelf life, prone to spoiling in humidity, freezing in winter and attracting flies.
- Foods containing molasses are eaten more quickly, resulting in lower digestibility.
Though textured feeds are known for their high palatability and sugar content, the physical form of the feed doesn’t actually make a significant difference to it’s nutritional contents. A study conducted in 2015 showed that there is minimal difference between the amount of sugar in textured feeds compared to pellets (as seen in the table below).
|Starch + ESC, %
|1st three ingredients
|Feed 1 (growth)
Wheat middlings, corn mean, soybean hulls
Wheat middlings, corn meal, soybean hulls
|Feed 2 (low starch)
Soybean hulls, wheat middlings, oat products
Soybean hulls, wheat middlings, oat products
|Feed 3 (growth)
Oats, corn, grain by-products
Oats, corn, rice bran
Table 1. Ingredients, starch, and soluble carbohydrate concentrations in pelleted and textured forms of the same feed product. Source: University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment.
As shown in the table, both feeds contain molasses to improve palatability, and the average difference in sugar is less than 1.5%. This equates to around 20 grams of extra sugar consumed in a textured sweet feed compared to a pellet.
So, it is not the physical form but rather the ingredients used to formulate the feed that influence how much sugar and starch it contains.
Pellets & Extruded Feeds
Extruded feeds are less common, but very similar to pellets. They are processed at a much higher temperature and pressure than standard pellets which causes them to expand or puff up. This makes them softer, and easier to chew. Extruded feeds generally have less dust than pellets, and are higher in fats.
- Pellets are considered to be more digestible than other feeds because the ingredients are finely ground, increasing access to the nutrients inside grains and other components.
- Where supplements are included in the pellet, the horse is unable to separate them from the grain.
- Pellets have a longer shelf life due to added preservatives, and are easier to handle than textured feeds.
- Depending on the quality, pellets can be more economical for the nutrients they provide.
- When soaked, pellets form a mash that is great for horses who have difficulty chewing.
- It is very hard to determine the quality of pellets, as you cannot see what ingredients have been included in the mix.
- Pellets are easy to eat, which often results in ‘bolting’ where the horse consumes its meal very quickly and can choke.
- If extra supplements are added to the pellets, they are hard to disguise and can be left in the feed bucket.
- Many pellets contain preservatives that can cause allergies in some horses
- Due to increased processing pellets are more expensive than other forms of feed.
So, what horse feed is best?
When trying to choose from all the different types of horse feed, it’s best to first determine the specific needs of your horse. Each horse should be treated as an individual, as their personality and life stage will affect which type of feed they like to eat.
- Grain mixes are a more traditional type of horse feed, having been popular since the 1800’s. Each mix is specially formulated with added minerals and vitamins to meet the requirements of different types of horses. They are a trusted alternative to pellets if you need a cheaper feed that is less manufactured.
- Textured or sweet feeds are practically a grain mix with supplements added in the form of crushed pellets. They are more palatable for fussy eaters due to the higher levels of molasses, but they do have a short shelf life.
- Pelleted feeds are generally considered to be more digestible for horses, containing both grain, vitamins and minerals. They are a uniform shape, preventing horses from sorting the ingredients and leaving supplements in the feed bucket.
Always ensure that your horse feeds are supplied by a reputable manufacturer who is known for consistency and quality. Remember to only use these feeds as a supplement to forage, and try to feed little and often.