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Hey Cowboy Bob,

I'm from the Pacific Northwest and have always been confused about the proper grain to feed (or not to feed). I have a very healthy ten year old Arabian mare that became my first horse ever when she was one and I was 48 years old.

We trail ride only with a lot of mountain riding in the summer and do what we can in the winter as we both prefer not to ride in the rain (and we have a lot of that around here).

We have lots of good pasture in the summer and I feed grass hay in the winter, but as Sarah gets older I wonder if I should introduce a bit of grain along with her usual carrots.

I have visited the Purina web site and they have sent me info on a grain called Strategy, which they claim could be fed to any horse at any age, regardless of performance level. Then you talk to ten other people and they say, LMF, Land 'O Lakes, pelleted food, whole oats, crushed oats, cob, and lately someone recommended Dynamite.

Do you have an opinion or some recommendations for me? I would appreciate any suggestions you care to forward to me.

Thanks, and I enjoyed your web site.

- M. K.


Wow! Why don't you ask me an easy question - like what should you feed your family for supper next Thursday?! Giving a recommendation on feeding your horse is as tough as for me to tell you - sight unseen - how much of what you should eat!

When I was in ag. school (a few thousand years ago) livestock nutrition was one of the most difficult subjects we tackled. The size and health of the animal, how hard it's being worked, the quality and mix of feed stocks, and more all come into play. Our fundamental rule book was F.B. Morrison's Feeds and Feeding [it's now out-of-print, but you can still buy it through the Barnes and Noble link on the "Learning More" page]. Originally published in 1917, Feeds and Feeding is still a valuable tool for folks who want a balanced combination of scientific facts and common sense.

With that background, allow me to quote Dr. Morrison:

"A ration should be selected that will be as cheap as possible, yet entirely satisfactory for keeping the animals thrifty and efficient over a long period of usefulness.

"It is more important for horses than for other stock that the feeds be of sound quality and not moldy, spoiled, or extremely dusty. This is because horses are especially apt to be injured by damaged feeds...."

This gives us some basic rules for horse feeding:

1. Economy - the feed doesn't need to be costly in order to do the job.

2. Quality - The quality of the feed is potentially of life-or-death importance.

Some other crucial considerations are bulk, energy, and nutritional balance.

Horses need enough roughage to keep the digestive system working correctly - but too much bulk can cause colic.

We can think of energy in term of calories. the animal needs enough calories to do the work required of it. Give it too many calories and - just like a human - it gets fat.

Just as with any other athlete, a horse needs the right balance of nutients. And just as with most athletes, this tends to translate into carbo-loading. The problem is that most horses don't like spaghetti - and it would upset their stomachs if they did like it.

Fortunately, for most horses quality grass pasture or hay covers most of their nutritional needs - at a reasonable cost. As the work load increases, the horse may need more energy than plain grass can provide. That's where grain comes in.

Dr. Morrison put it this way: "Oats are such an excellent grain for horses that they are the standard with which other concentrates are compared. Due to the bulky hulls, oats are the safest of all grains for the horse. They form a loose mass in the stomach that can be easily digested, while such heavy feeds as corn, wheat, or barley tend to pack, sometimes causing colic.

"Oats contain sufficient protein so that merely oats and hay from timothy or other grasses make a balanced ration for mature horses, without adding any protein supplement."

What kind of oats? If the oats are new or musty, they can trigger colic. Crushing or grinding them increases the available nutrition a bit, especially for foals or critters with bad teeth.

How much to give? Well, Dr. Morrison prepared page after page of charts and tables for calculating dry matter, digestible nutrients, nutritive ratios, net energy and more. If you love playing with your calculator, feel free to sit down with Feeds and Feeding or the worksheet at the bottom of this page and figure to your heart's content. (Keep reading for a much easier approach!)

Me, I prefer a simpler approach. It's the same one I use for keeping myself in shape. Instead of counting calories, I just pay attention to my belt. If I have to let it out a notch, I cut back a bit on how much I eat - and also step up my exercise a bit. If I have to take it in a notch, I know that I've been running on short rations. (How well does this method work? I don't own a bathroom scale, but when I have access to one I'm rarely more than a couple of pounds from my target weight.)

A horse heart girth tape isn't perfectly accurate, but it's rarely off by more than five percent. (It's also handy for figurin' out how much wormer or other medication your critter needs.) If you don't have one, you can simply use a cloth tape measure and this conversion chart:

Girth in Inches:
Weight in Pounds:
Girth in Inches:
Weight in Pounds:

Once you decide what your horse's target weight should be, all you need do is pay attention to the latigo when you're cinching up. Is the cinch in the same position it was last month? If not, you may need to adjust the feed.

A couple of cautions: 1. If you need to change your horse's ration, do it slowly... let's say a couple of weeks. Sudden feeding changes can trigger things like colic and founder. 2. It's easy to forget that water is also an essential part of good equine nutrition. Ideally, horses should have free access to clean water at all times to avoid dehydration and keep the digestive tract working right.

How do you know if your horse is too fat or thin? Here's a little chart - courtesy of the good folks at Purdue University:

Horse Condition Scoring System.

Watch when your horse rolls in the pasture. Can it easily roll from one side to the other? If so, it's probably in reasonable shape. If it has to struggle a bit to roll over, you may want to cut back on the feed.

If you're still in doubt, ask your vet or an experienced horseperson for a second opinion.

Obviously, harder work or colder temperatures will increase the horse's energy requirements.

That's a very simplified answer to a complex and highly individualized question. How much of what should you feed your horse? Well, tell me, how many donuts can I eat next week?

If you are really want to work up a more precise answer, here's a feeding worksheet you can use - again courtesy of Purdue. (I've also included -- courtesy of Phillip Erickson from Idaho Falls, Idaho -- a free spreadsheet file to make the job a lot easier!)

P.S. Although my favorite riding weather is in the winter -- when the temperature is between zero and twenty above -- I also love riding in the rain (if there's no thunder or lightning). The rain adds another sensory dimension to the riding experience!

Happy Riding!

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