Whole Food Nutrition for Horses
Eating whole foods is not a novel idea, just one that is coming back around again. In our modern age of pre-packaged, easy-to-use, commercialized food products, we’ve forgotten that there is actually another, better way to eat. And that’s eating whole foods. The same goes for our horses.
Now, I’d like to state that I’m not completely against commercial feeds and supplements–my two seniors probably wouldn’t make it through the winters now if it weren’t for senior feed. But I’m also a proponent of feeding whole foods whenever you can. And I do believe whole foods can make up the majority, if not 100% of your horse’s feed ration.
The ideal situation would be for a horse to live on a large, diverse pasture and be able to pick and choose which plants he needs at the time, but of course, this isn’t a reality for most horses. So we can make up the difference by choosing some appropriate whole foods for them instead.
The basis of any equine diet should be good quality forage, and when pasture is not available (or not appropriate, such as for IR horses) mixed grass hay is preferable. Mixed grass ensures variety, and variety is always a good thing to have in the horse’s diet. I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: Good quality pasture or grass hay CAN be the sole food source for your horse. People often think horses need high-protein feeds and all sorts of supplements, but this isn’t often the case. Pasture and grass hay can actually cover protein needs, calories, and most minerals. Both will usually be lacking or unbalanced in a few trace minerals (like zinc and copper, sodium/ chloride, and possibly selenium), and hay is lacking in some vitamins, but other than that, horses CAN survive on forage alone! The best way to know what’s lacking in your hay or pasture is to have it tested–then you can supplement from there.
But with that said, if you’d like to incorporate more whole foods into your horse’s diet, here are some ideas on supplementing certain dietary components:
Additional Fiber: (often helpful for older horses or when you need to stretch your hay ration) alfalfa pellets or cubes, timothy pellets (soaking is advised to avoid choke). While technically not a whole food, molasses-free beet pulp (soaked) can also be used as an additional fiber source for seniors or thin horses.
Protein: Soaked alfalfa pellets or cubes (15-17% protein), split peas (23% protein). Note: Peas are high in NSC’s and may not be a good choice for horses with metabolic issues.
Carbohydrates: While most horses don’t need additional carbohydrates, both oats and split peas can be a good source of extra carbohydrates for horses in hard work.
Essential Fatty Acids: ground flaxseed, chia seeds, camelina oil, flaxseed oil, hempseed oil, coconut oil, coconut meal
Calcium: Alfalfa hay, pellets or cubes (soaked)
Magnesium: Shelled pumpkin seeds (1200 mg per cup), flax or chia seeds (660 mg per cup), sesame seeds (500 mg per cup), almonds (400 mg per cup). Note: You may want to grind your seeds/ nuts to avoid choke.
Sodium Chloride: (salt) All horses will need salt supplemented and the best way to supplement this is with a free choice natural salt. Or you can simply add a tablespoon or two into your horse’s feed bucket.
Vitamins/ Mineral Supplementation: For additional vitamins and minerals, your best bet is a whole foods-based supplement such as Optimum EQ from Biostar, the Iron Horse All-In-One from Wild Horse Products, or the free-choice minerals from Advanced Biological Concepts. If your horse is on solely hay (no fresh pasture), both vitamin AND minerals (especially trace minerals) are needed. For horses on good pasture, individual minerals such as copper, zinc, selenium or a multi-mineral supplement are usually sufficient.
Another great way to incorporate whole food nutrition for your horses (or yourself!) is sprouting seeds. See this post by equine herbalist Rachel Kelly for more information on that.
Sources and Further Reading: