How to feed the correct calories

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Feed for need — not want

A calorie is a unit of energy and therefore calories and energy are the same thing. This is why, when dealing with an overweight horse who requires more energy, just feeding a higher-energy feed is not helpful as he’ll be getting more calories. Instead, supporting weight loss and working on fitness levels is more useful.

When thinking about calories in horses, it’s very similar to in humans. Take an adult woman, for example. If she did very little exercise and had a low metabolism, she would require fewer calories than her friend who works out at the gym every day. Horses require more calories than humans due to their size, but the basic principles still apply. 

Your horse uses energy (calories) expressed as megajoules (MJ) for day to day maintenance and exercise. Calories not used for these purposes get stored as fat, ready 
for a time when your horse doesn’t have enough to eat. The trouble is, for domestic horses this day seldom comes and weight gain inevitably becomes an issue. 

A weighty issue

Body condition scoring will help you identify if your horse is the right weight and it’s the best way for you to gauge whether his calorie intake is right for him. Many feed companies and some equine charities produce condition scoring guides to help with this, and it’s worth checking your horse weekly so you spot changes quickly. 

If your horse is overweight, you need to reduce the number of calories in his diet. If he’s underweight, you may need to increase them, but bear in mind that this does depend on the time of year. For instance, if your horse is slightly underweight at the end of winter, being out at grass in the spring will create an increase in calories naturally, possibly without you needing to make any changes. 

Calculating what he needs

There are various factors, including weight and workload, that impact on the amount of feed you need to give your horse. 

As a general rule you should feed a feed, depending on the condition he’s in. 

As a general rule, once you have body condition-scored your horse:

  • If he’s about the right weight he will need to be given 2% of his bodyweight in feed. 

  • If he needs to lose weight he’ll need 1.5% of his bodyweight in feed. 

  • If he’s underweight or in hard work he’ll need 2.5% of his bodyweight in feed.

Bear in mind that this percentage figure doesn’t just include hard feed, but forage and grazing too, so once you have a daily total figure you can decide how much of this will come from forage/grazing and how much from hard feed. 

Many horses will get away with a forage-only diet in conjunction with an appropriate balancer. For those working harder, or who struggle to keep weight on, you will also need to give hard feed to provide sufficient calories, while still maintaining a good forage intake. 

When choosing a hard feed be aware that calories are not the only thing you need to consider. Your horse’s temperament and clinical history will have a big impact on how you decide to supply those calories. For example, a horse with gastric ulcers would be best suited to having calories supplied from a feed with highly digestible fibres and oils with a controlled level of starch.

Totting up the calories

If you’re not sure how calorific a feed is, then look at how many megajoules per kg are being delivered from the feed as a guide. 

Typical amounts are:

  • Leisure feed: 8-10 MJ/Kg

  • Competition feed: 11-13 MJ/Kg

  • Conditioning feed: 12-13 MJ/Kg

However, while many people get hung up on the calories in their horse’s hard feed, they often tend to underestimate the value of their forage and grazing. Owners deliberate over how much chaff to feed — which makes up very little of the total diet — while not weighing out hay or properly assessing their grazing regime. If your horse is overweight, remember that grass is usually the largest contributor to excessive calorie intake.  

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