On feeding horses – 3

The Nokota horse, being a wild horse breed, has needs that differ slightly from domesticated horse breeds. For centuries they have been adapted to a life on open range in the Little Missouri Badlands rugged terrain and the northern prairies of North Dakota. The wild horses in the southwest are often referred to as being easy feeders, meaning they are adapted to a more desert-like climate where grazing, roughly speaking, is poor all year-round. The wild horses of the northern plains are adapted to a different climate with very significant differences between each season.

The winters in North Dakota are beyond doubt an endurance test for every wild horse as they sometimes have to paw thru deep snow and scratch holes in the snow crust to find whatever is left underneath. This season is basically about plain survival.

Then springtime comes with increasing temperatures and melting snow, which offers water for new fresh grasses full of nourishment. This is the time for the horses to regain their strength, grow and give birth to new colts and fillies. It may well be that the horse’s bodies react to the smell and taste of new fresh grass, as well as the sunlight and the longer days, which triggers an enhanced metabolism.

Later in the summer the heat dries up everything and the grasses literally turns into hay. The supply of grass diminishes as the drought of summer advances and horses has to cover larger areas to fill their need of food. After that comes the autumn with storms and chilled winds warning about the winter to come, which triggers the biological clock it’s time to set the winter coat.

Since these horses needs varies so much over the seasons it takes some afterthought and careful monitoring when it comes to feeding. Here in Sweden our three Nokota mares fed on dried hay their first winter here in Sweden, with some complements of vitamins, minerals, salt and small amounts of extra proteins for the fillies. Living outdoors here on the 58th Latitude Swedish west coast 24-7 with an open walk-in-stable, they kept their condition perfectly during the winter.

The spring rushed by and turned into summer very early, but we gave the grass in the summer pasture some extra time to get a good start. The horses began grazing the summer pasture the 27th of May and  have been eating a lot ever since, but it was actually more difficult to keep up the weight of our one-year-old and two-year-old fillies during the early summer and we had to carefully add some extra proteins, minerals, and vitamins. This shows the natural force of the spring and early summer these young horses has in their genes. You can almost see them grow from one day to another; if you listen closely I bet you can even hear the sound of the cells as they divide. 😉

July has two different faces in this part of Sweden; it can be dry and warm and it can be wet and chilly, depending on the prevailing winds. The usual western winds that rolls in from the North Sea brings rain and low temperatures, but sometimes a southern jet stream of winds runs up from southern Europe to hold back the low pressures from the sea. Warm dry eastern winds from the Russian inland can also sweep over the Baltic Sea to warm up the southern Scandinavia. The ancient Swedish holiday Midsummer (solstice), when the northern hemisphere of the earth is tilted towards the sun at its maximum, preparing to slowly begin to turn away from the sun, it is also sometimes a turning point in the weather systems; it can switch to dry and hot, or cool and wet.

When we take a horse to live with us we want the horse to see in us, everything that is good and important to her; protection, warmth, comfort and most of all; one that knows where to find the best places for grazing, the foremost not in power but in example, the “Otancan”. If we let the horse find her own places to graze all year and give free access to hay we give the horse freedom and self esteem, but we lose one advantage of being an important person in the horses life; the food provider.

A mix seemed like the best way to go, “lagom” as we say. So even if the horses graze free in the pasture all summer we regularly give them some hay and sometimes we add something extra, like carrots, apples and small amounts of a build up mix with minerals and vitamins, served regularly at the porch of the walk-in-stable. Even if the horses have a field with fresh growing grass, they usually walk up to the stable at the right time and wait for the extra treat, and for us.

Horses have learned by their parents for endless generations that it is important to remember when and where to find the best and safest feed sources. So when they combine us humans with food and shelter, we become important persons to them, the Otancan.  They know they have a choice; they can graze in the field and they can walk up to the stable to meet their humans, for some hay and a good rest. It will stimulate them to think and make their own decisions.

The grazing season is different when it comes to feeding horses, because free grazing means you have little or no control of the amounts your horses eat. So at last let’s get down to business and deal with the question; How, what and how much should we feed our horses?

Giving a horse a correct diet is a controversial subject. You love your horses and you are afraid of doing it wrong, because advises are often contradictory and imprecise. Determining the correct diet for a horse can be just as complicated as you make it.

There are countless methods to calculate the correct diet, but what they all have in common is that there are a number of factors to consider, like for instance:

  • The weight of the horse
  • The amount of work done, in a five degree scale
  • The type and breed
  • The temperament
  • The condition
  • Pregnancy and lactation
  • Outdoor temperature
  • The age

How exact can we determine the effect of these factors? Let’s make a simple probability calculation. Presume that we use the above eight factors and determine the probable fault to 10% each on average.

Then there are the different types of feed a horse needs and their specified content of energy, protein, vitamins and minerals. The way the actual sample is 1:taken, 2:analysed and 3:the way we measure the feed, is not perfect, so let’s say there are each a fault of 10% even here.

Now let’s calculate the maximum fault: 1-0,911 = 0,69 which means ±69%

So what seems like a very precise way to determine the amount of feed to give to your horse is actually a useless method. It is true that all these factors affect the amount of feed your horse needs, but it is very, very difficult to determine how much with sufficient accuracy. Unless you can determine the prevailing factors with the best NASA precision, no computer program or manual calculation can tell you exactly how much to feed your horse. This is an important insight!

There is however a better method.

The absolute minimum is to give a horse 1% of its body weight in well balanced forage (dry substance) each day. For a normal healthy young horse, start with 1.5 times that amount. Then the important part comes; Check on your horse regularly by applying pressure with your hand and drawing it over the ribs; if you can’t feel the ribs your horse is too fat, if you can see the ribs your horse is too skinny. Then adjust the amounts accordingly. It is okay for your horse to be a bit fat by the end of the summer and it is okay for your horse to be a bit skinny early in the spring. Never trust a calculated amount blindly, watch and check on your horse daily, know your horse and trust your feel, it’s as simple as that.

This was some information and thoughts about the AMOUNT of forage your horses needs and that was the easy part, there is however much more to consider.

The next part in this series will deal with the important elements like Calcium, Phosphorus, Magnesium and more, as well as the important balance between Protein and Energy content. We will try to explain more about grasses and legumes, and we will comment on different types of feed and how they affect the horse.



2 thoughts on “On feeding horses – 3

  1. We are eagerly awaiting your next installment 🙂 And i just wanted to add that for whatever reason, i really find it helpful to check over the whithers for body condition, too, especially on pregnant mares, as this seems to be an early indication area where the extra layer of fat seems to melt away first. And of course we are all different, too, so maybe this is more of a Nokota thing as that is where most of my experience stems from… and some individuals by nature are designed to be a little more bony and others a little more padded… diversity is a beautiful strength in all its myriad forms 😀


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