Are you feeding your horse a balanced diet?


As horse-owners we all know that the bulk of our horse’s diet needs to be forage – hay, haylage and grass.  Hay bought in from our local trusted farmer may look the right colour and smell lovely, but what is its nutritional and mineral content?  Horse owners spend many hours agonising over which bagged feed to buy and looking at levels of Digestible Energy, Protein and Minerals that it contains, as well as various vitamin and mineral supplements.  The bagged feed may be balanced in its own right but doesn’t take into account the nutritional and mineral profile of the vast majority, and most important part, of our horse’s diet – the Forage!

This raises many questions:

Does the hay provide the correct nutrition?   What are the levels of starch and sugar in the hay (these are very important if managing laminitics, or those with metabolic issues? Does it provide adequate levels of digestible energy, protein and a full range of important minerals sufficient for the horse and the work it does?  Will it provide too much digestible energy (if management is aimed towards weight loss)?  What is Forage Analysis and why is this important?

Forage analysis is the scientific analysis of the nutritional and mineral profile of forage. It is carried out in an Accredited Laboratory under strict guidelines and test conditions. The laboratory produces a table of results identifying the values of the sample submitted – Digestible Energy (MJ/kg), Protein, Starch, Sugars, and a full range of Minerals – Phosphorus, Magnesium, Calcium, Sodium, Potassium, Chloride, Manganese, Copper, Zinc, Selenium, Cobalt, Iodine, Iron, Aluminium, Molybdenum, Sulphur, and Lead.


Generally, within the UK, our soil, and by default – our hay, is depleted in trace minerals essential for healthy soil.  Some hay will be produced by fields that have been either completely neglected or even over-fertilised (with rich cattle fertilisers which force quick growth to ensure several cuts over the season) resulting in a mineral profile which is completely unbalanced.  This sadly is reflected in the hay produced.

Having studied hundreds of forage analysis results from all over the UK and which are held on our database, the most common problems are low levels of Protein, very low levels of Zinc, Copper, Magnesium and Selenium, combined with very high levels of Iron and Manganese.   Feeding hay that contains particularly high levels of Iron (and/or high levels of Manganese) can restrict the horses’ nutritional uptake of minerals such as Zinc and Copper.  Zinc is essential for the healing processes, blood clotting, insulin production, energy metabolism, nerve function, strong hooves and a healthy coat.  Meanwhile, Copper is essential for the repair, maintenance and development of hooves, joints, bones and connective tissue. Hence, by balancing and supplementing the Zinc and Copper in the correct ratios to Iron and Manganese, the horse can receive the optimum amount of these minerals to boost health.  Magnesium is essential for healthy nerve and muscle function, and to improve hoof quality.  It is the primary ingredient in many of the equine calming products on the market but is important for the growth and repair of tissues, for regulating blood sugar levels and for the absorption of vitamins.  Magnesium to Calcium, and Calcium to Phosphorus levels should be balanced for optimum absorption and benefit too using Mineral Balancing Ratios.


The levels of Sugar and Starch are important when managing laminitics, determining if the hay would need rinsing or not.  Rinsing reduces the levels of minerals present in the hay further and quite often as Laminitic horses are on reduced diets, they are missing out on essential minerals necessary to ensure hoof and overall good health.

Retired or Leisure horses may receive sufficient Digestible Energy in their hay, so may not require a bucket feed to provide more calories, however, it would be unlikely that their daily Protein and Mineral requirements would be met by this alone.  A token feed may be necessary as a carrier for any vitamin and mineral supplementation identified.

Regarding Hard Working and Performance Horses – their daily requirements of Digestible Energy, Protein, Amino Acids, and Minerals are much higher than leisure horses due to the increased demands made on their bodies to perform, but the same principle applies – start with analysing the Forage and build the diet from there.   It also cannot be assumed that by feeding haylage, this is automatically providing higher levels of DE, Protein and Minerals as this is not necessarily the case!



What about Soil Analysis?  If you are fortunate enough to own your own land, then you may wish to consider Soil Analysis to identify any imbalances (excesses or deficiencies) in the Mineral profile of the soil within your grazing paddocks at grass root-zone level.  Following Soil Analysis, applying a Bespoke Trace Mineral Paddock Dressing based on the results, will improve the health of the soil and grass consumed benefitting horse health.  General “off the shelf” fertiliser or those designed for cattle (containing Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium) would encourage rich growth and cause further imbalances within the soil which is detrimental to grass suitable for grazing horses, so it is important to use a Bespoke Trace Mineral Dressing designed specifically for horse grazing paddocks and tailored to your soil’s needs.


As a qualified and experienced Equine Nutrition Consultant, Sally specialises in this area and provides a range of Analysis Services.  She can give advice on interpreting the results of your Hay, Haylage, Grass and Soil Analysis.   Sally also offers a comprehensive Feed Plan Service which provides owners and trainers with a full report to ensure that any bucket feed and vitamin/mineral supplementation compliments the hay profile through Mineral Balancing, and also provides sufficient Digestible Energy (DE = MJ/kg), Protein and Amino Acid levels to ensure a completely balanced and improved diet related to your horse’s individual needs and requirements. This can bring about health benefits for the horse – improved top-line, improved stamina, improved hoof, skin and coat, reduced anxiety, better concentration, improved digestion, strong tendons, ligaments, joints and muscles, strong immune system, improved management of laminitics and those with metabolic issues.   An additional (and always welcome) benefit to horse owners using a Forage Analysis approach to their horse’s diets is that they may save money on their feed bills as they can provide their horse with an appropriate bucket feed and supplementation targeted to correct any deficiencies or imbalances.


Sally Tobin

Equine Nutrition Consultant,

Pro Dip Equine Nutrition, MCMI.

Copyright © The Healthy Horse Company September 2021


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