Feeding Horses on a Budget (Part 1)

The following article (which I will break into 3 separate blog posts) is written by Dr. Christine King, an Australian vet now based in North Carolina.  I have been a fan of Dr. King’s for a while now and always enjoy reading her holistic-based articles on horse health.  I think you will find the following information very useful.  For more articles or to contact Dr. King, please visit her website.

Feeding Horses on a Tight Budget
(on economising without compromising)
by Dr. Christine King


For me, there has been at least one silver lining to this latest economic collapse: It has prompted me to live more simply, tread more lightly on the earth, live more in balance 
with the natural flow and order of things.

Along these lines, there has never been a better time to review your horse’s diet and see where you can improve on quality as well as on economy. Feeding your horse during these tough times need not compromise goodness for the sake of thriftiness.

“Eat simply, live well” is the central theme here. This article is about feeding a great, nature-inspired diet that fits the budget without short-changing the horse. To get right down to it, here is where your money is best spent:

1. Spend first and most on good quality grass hays.

Here’s why: Horses do best when fed a diet that is as close as possible to what nature 
has provided for them. That means a wide variety of plants that changes with the season; mostly grasses but also some legumes and various other meadow and woodland plants.
 [More info. on the natural diet in Part 2]

Hay is much more than fibre or filler. For herbivores such as horses, hay is food. And the truth is that good quality forages alone can meet almost all of the daily nutrient needs of the average non-pregnant adult horse—provided that enough is fed. 
[More info. on hay in Part 3]

When buying hay:

* buy the best quality available

Be sure to buy the best quality hay you can find. Buying inferior quality hay is false economy. The horse will need to eat more of it to meet even his basic needs for calories and protein, yet he’ll still not get all that he needs in the way of other nutrients. Also, there tends to be more wastage than with good quality hay. Furthermore, feeding inferior quality hay increases the risk for colic.

It is far better overall to buy the best quality hay available and tailor the amount fed to the individual horse’s needs: more for the thin ones, less for the fat ones. For carb-sensitive horses, either have the hay analyzed for its nonstructural carbohydrate (NSC) content 
or soak the hay well before feeding. (Contact me or your primary-care vet for more info.)

* buy as much variety as available

Buy as many different types of hay as you can. The more variety there is in the horse’s diet, the more likely it is that these forages will meet the horse’s nutrient needs, and the less you’ll need to spend on supplements. After all, one of the characteristics of the horse’s natural diet is variety.

Along those lines, buy some alfalfa while you’re at it. Not only does it add to the “variety quotient,” it is rich in nutrients, particularly digestible fiber, protein, and minerals. A general guideline for most nonpregnant adult horses is to feed a ratio of 80:20 grass to alfalfa, or 80% grass hay and 20% alfalfa hay.
[See Part 3 for tips on calculating how much hay to buy.]

However, no matter how good the hay and how many varieties you buy, any hay-based 
diet will be deficient in four things: salt, some trace minerals, some vitamins, and essential fatty acids.

The first one is easily addressed by making sure the horse has free access to a natural salt, such as Himalayan pink salt (my favorite), Redmond salt, or unprocessed sea salt. These natural salts are easy to find at natural food stores and on-line. The other three items are addressed below.

2. Spend next on a good quality, natural-source trace mineral supplement.

Here’s why: Although needed in only tiny (trace) amounts, these minerals are essential for health. A hay-based diet will be marginal or frankly deficient in some trace minerals, unless the hay was grown in very well-tended soil. The same goes for a pasture-based diet, unless the soil has been regularly tended to replenish the minerals depleted through plant growth and grazing.

There are literally dozens of trace mineral supplements on the market. For the most part, they are man-made and comprise inorganic or, at best, chelated minerals. In general, the bioavailability of these forms of minerals is poor to moderate, which means that more may be pooped out than gets absorbed and used by the horse’s body.

My preference is to feed a natural-source trace mineral supplement in which the minerals are primarily supplied in ionic, colloidal, or colloid-possible form. Here are two options:

* powdered clays

These natural mineral deposits contain trace minerals in concentrations and forms that appear to be highly bioavailable and well utilized by both plants and animals. (I suspect, but have yet to confirm, that they also benefit horses by feeding their gut microbes.)
Options include azomite, bentonite, montmorillonite, and zeolite, to name just a few. 
My preference is micronized (finely powdered) azomite.

* mineral-rich herbs

Plants are meant to be the primary source of readily available minerals for horses and other herbivores, so feeding supplemental minerals in plant-form makes the most sense 
to me. (In fact, that is the basis for several of the herbal blends I make.)

Both of these trace mineral sources (clays and herbs) are natural, inexpensive, and well received by horses. But if you have a commercial trace mineral supplement already on hand, then use it up first. “Waste not, want not,” as my mother would say.

3. Add a natural source of vitamins and essential fatty acids (EFAs) if the horse has little 
or no access to pasture.

Here’s why: These essential yet sensitive nutrients are found in abundance in fresh plant material, but they are progressively lost or inactivated during hay making and storage. 
The antioxidant nutrients, in particular, are oxidized over time.

Here are my preferences for supplementing these nutrients:

* fresh plants from uncultivated meadows and/or woodlands

This is the best, and least expensive, option. If your horse cannot be turned out to graze, then hand-graze him among the “weeds” each day. Even in built-up areas, you should be able to find some uncultivated places where your horse can browse. Note: for carb-sensitive individuals, time spent browsing may need to be limited.
 [More feeding tips in Part 3]

* sunflower seeds (organic if possible)

Flax and hemp seeds are both excellent sources of EFAs for horses, as are walnuts. However, they are more expensive and less practical to feed than sunflower seeds.

* a variety-rich blend of dried herbs

Once again, plants are the best source of nutrients for horses. I make various herbal blends for this purpose, such as the Spring-Summer and Autumn-Winter Meadow Blends, and a powdered micronutrient blend called Vitality. The recipes for these blends are now available in my herbal recipe book, so you can make them yourself if you feel so inclined.

Copyright 2010 Christine M. King. All rights reserved.


Stay tuned for Part 2, which will focus on the horse’s natural diet, and Part 3, which will discuss hay statistics, coming very soon.



Hi! My name is Casie Bazay. I'm a mom, a freelance writer, and a certified equine acupressure practitioner.

You may also like...

2 Responses

  1. Billy says:

    i have my hay tested then add only the nutrients needed. Why add a commerical mineral supplement while will contain minerals you don’t need.

    • Casie says:

      Hi Billy,

      I, too, have done this for several years. I’ve been dealing with one horse in particular that doesn’t seem to be ‘absorbing’ all of his nutrients for whatever reason. I’m going to give free choice feeding a try. It might work and it might not!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *