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Illinois Country Living

Providing a horse-healthy diet

By Chynna Schreyer


Equine Specialist

Kirk Dailey, Equine Specialist for Land O’ Lakes Purina Feed, tells Rural Electric Convenience Cooperative member Chynna Schryer switching grains or hay abruptly can cause colic, founder and laminitis. Dailey says, “Start with good quality forage as your base and then depending on the need and what you are doing with your horses, get hooked up with a reputable feed company.” Go to for more information including a nutrition calculator and dealer locator.

Maintaining a healthy horse can sometimes be challenging. How do you know your horse is getting the right nutrition? Is your horse too fat or too thin? The changing of seasons adds to the challenge. Horses rely on us and their health, performance and lifespan are in part dependent on good nutrition.

Kevin Kline, Professor of Animal Science at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, explains that it is essential to consider the amount of carbohydrates your horse is consuming in the early spring.

You might be tempted to throw open the stall door and let your horse enjoy the tender new grass of spring. But Kline says that can be a mistake.

“For some horses it is not going to be a big deal,” he says. “The ones that you worry about are the ones that gain weight easily, the easy keepers. Those are also the ones that are prone to what is generally called equine metabolic syndrome.”

This is similar to Type 2 diabetes in humans. It is when a horse is insulin resistant and has more than normal fat distributions in areas such as the neck, shoulder, loin, tail, head and the fat pads above its eyes.

For this type of horse Kline says, “You should start out letting them graze for maybe an hour at a time and gradually increase that over a period of weeks. During that period of time you are also going to get your grass more course and then eventually they can be out full time.”

Letting your horses out too fast on the rich grass is hard on your pasture, too. The ground is still wet from spring rains and horses hooves compact the soil. Also, when horses graze early in the spring they tend to rip the grass up by the roots.

Kirk Dailey, Equine Specialist for Land O’ Lakes Purina Feed, says that if possible, the ideal time to turn your horses out on the grass for the first time is when the grass is approximately six inches tall. Though this would be ideal, not everybody can keep their pastures clear for this long, so alternating them on and off at the beginning of the season would be best.

The quality of your grass can also affect how much hay, grain and supplements to feed. If you have a high quality pasture with great grass, then low quality hay is acceptable. But if your grazing options are limited, it may be necessary to provide high quality hay, grain and supplements if your horse is burning calories, growing or lactating.

Dailey’s job is to sell horse feed, but he says, “The number one thing that is killing horses is obesity. If you just have a pasture pet and you are just maintaining the horse, they can stay healthy on good grass or forage. The problem is most people see a fat horse as a healthy horse and that is just not true.”

So how do you know your horse is in good condition? Kline says the traditional horse body condition scoring system is called the Henneke system. “Dr. Henneke is actually a rough old cowboy/scientist that is out of Tarleton State University in Texas. Years ago he came up with this scoring system from one to nine. Basically one is a rack of bones and nine is as fat as a tick. Five is in the middle and ideal.”

The original purpose of the Henneke Body Scoring Condition Chart was to determine the fertility of thin mares. To find out more, one site you can go to is

A good quality feed mix, and possibly supplements, may be necessary for some horses. Kline says, “It really depends on the horse. If you have a fat old gelding that gets fat on air, if he is turned outside and the hay is of reasonable quality, that’s fine for that fat old guy. But if it is a lactating brood mare, a young growing horse or a high performance horse, that is not going to cut it.”

Kline says horse owners should avoid finds from shelled corn that may have been wet and developed mycotoxins from mold. “Probably if it isn’t from a major feed company that has really looked at the quality and done mycotoxin testing you are just playing roulette,” he says.

For an unbiased source on feed and feed supplements Kline says to go to Illini HorseNET. It is on the Illinois Livestock Trail Web site – “There are other good places like eXtension ( There is HorseQuest under that umbrella of extension. This Web site eXtension, is from a consortium of land grant universities across the country,” he says.

For hay resources Kline says to go to the Illinois Hay and Straw Directory at

Dailey says quality feed and supplements can’t make a plow horse a Kentucky Derby winner, but without it you can undermine the genetic potential of a working horse.

You need to take into consideration your horse’s job. If you have a high performing athlete then supplements and a regular supply of grain should be used to maintain optimum performance.

You may wonder if what you are feeding your horse is enough, or whether it is sufficient for your horse’s weight and body type. Purina Mills, headquartered in St. Louis and owned by the farmer-owned cooperative Land O’ Lakes, has a feeding calculator on its Web site - Here you can plug in your horses weight and body type. Whether you have a jumper, western pleasure horse, or even your typical backyard ornament used for the occasional trail ride, it will give you nutritional options for your horse.

Maintaining a healthy horse may sound difficult, but in reality it is common sense. Horses used to live off of grass before we existed, but because it is hard to maintain a good quality pasture, and we often have limited space and acreage, high quality hay, grain and supplements may be necessary.

Kline says, “The bottom line is to start with good quality forage and monitor their body condition. If they don’t need extra grain and supplements don’t give it to them. Keep it simple.”

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