What do you Feed?

Feed, amiright? It's a whole can of worms, and I'm gonna go ahead and open it. I want to know what you feed your horses (or what the barn where you board feeds them), and why. It's a topic I want to be better educated on, because to be perfectly honest I am a long-time boarder who has been lucky enough to keep my horses at barns over the years where the BO was very knowledgable and on-top-of-it when it came to feed, so I just relied on their expertise and never really did my own research.

I have also always had the luxury of owning relatively easy keepers, so while we had other things to worry about (like how my old TB's feet would literally crumble beneath him without shoes...), maintaining healthy weight was never a problem. Clay is no exception–being Morgan and Welsh basically means he stays round on air–but I have noticed other feed-related things about him...

Sass. I love me a little sass, which is why I own a pony, but too much sugar in his feed seems to bring out the inner Mother (Father? Uenuch?) of Dragons, and we don't need that. 

Skin issues. I don't totally know if it was environmental or if it was feed related, but for about a year Clay had the worst dry-skin and was very prone to scratches, sweat-itch and rain-rot. His mane and tail were so dry and itchy that he was rubbing them relentlessly in turnout. I tried just about every skin/coat topical product and supplement out there and nothing fixed the issue. Then I switched feeds (from Smartpaks + oats to Crypto Aero), and put him on a heavy-duty live probiotic (Equibrew) for a few months. His mane grew back, he stopped itching, the huge dandruff flakes disappeared, and we had ZERO issue with sweat-itch and rain rot this summer even though it has been one of the wettest summers I can remember! 

Dapples/gut heath. He has dapples, mostly on his midsection right where the saddle pad goes, but they seem to disappear after I deworm him. This indicates that his dappling is connected to gut-health, rather than being a coat "pattern" he was born with.

It's no secret that dewormers wreak havoc on the good bacteria in the digestive track, so to help him rebuild his flora after a deworming, I give him a month of Equibrew. There are tons of powdered probiotic options out there, but the benefit of Equibrew is that the cultures are alive, not freeze-dried, and therefore more potent. And if you're wondering if horses like the taste of the fizzy liquid, Clay freaking gobbles his dinner up when it's soaked in Equibrew. It probably tastes similar to hard cider, and who doesn't like that?! So far I have been happy with the changes I made. I'm saving money since I cancelled my Smartpaks subscription, and the new feed seems to be working great for Clay.

A little fluffy after a winter of reduced work...Enjoying a treat of early spring grass.

A little fluffy after a winter of reduced work...Enjoying a treat of early spring grass.

Then there's the very important factor of forage/hay...The barn where I board makes all their own hay, and feeds mostly round-bales. I like the round-bale system for my horse–it seems more natural for horses to be able to eat hay at will rather than on a feeding schedule, and here in the north where the winters are bitter cold, eating constantly helps keep them warm.

We have horses of all breeds and ages and on various work-loads (from none at all to Prelim-level eventing condition) at this barn and none of them are obese from eating off a round-bale (there is one plump TB mare, but she tends to sneak some of her pregnant pasture mate's preggo feed...) Even though they have 24/7 access to hay, they also live outside and are moving around a lot, keeping away from flies in the summer, burning major calories staying warm in the winter, etc. So I don't know that I buy into the idea of limiting forage in order to manage weight, but I suppose there are some extreme easy-keepers out there that you might need to be careful with, or perhaps your hay is really nutrient dense and rich, in which case you might need to ration it. 

The one thing I don't like much about round-bales is the horses tend to stand with their heads down inside the bale, breathing in the hay particles. This is bad news for horses with any respiratory issues or sensitivities, especially if the bales are at all musty/moldy. We have a couple horses on the farm who can't handle it, and they get fed square bales exclusively. 

Clay showing off some winter dapples.

Clay showing off some winter dapples.

While I've been very happy with the round-bale system at my barn, I haven't been quite as impressed with the quality of the hay. Hay quality varies so much, from region to region, field to field and season to season. The fields around here have been taken from for many, many years and the landowners don't do much if anything to add nutrients back into the soil, let alone re-seed every so often with new grass. The result is a pretty weedy mixture, which the horses pick through, not rich in essential minerals and vitamins because it's coming from depleted soil. It takes thousands of dollars to lime and reseed a field, so I think we're stuck with mediocre hay for now.

However, my husband and I recently purchased one of the fields that my BO hays, with the hope to one day build a small farm out there. I'm on a mission now to figure out what the ideal hay mixture would be for most horses, and what the soil in our area needs in order to be the right Ph, supply the right minerals, etc. so that I can hopefully someday grow AWESOME hay.

Our field, right after it was hayed this summer. Pehr loved climbing on the bales. 

Our field, right after it was hayed this summer. Pehr loved climbing on the bales. 

Our local Ag Extension has been a huge help in this department. They came out and did a soil sample on our land and gave me a rundown of exactly what we need to do over time to rejuvenate the soil in that field. Unfortunately, there is a very robust weed seed-bank already established, so we cannot simply till the field and plant new grasses...the weeds would absolutely take over if we did that.

What most people would do is to use a glyphosate product, like RoundUp, to knock back the weeds at a couple key times a year. I need to do more research, but my initial reaction is a pretty strong NO to using that stuff. Then again, without it, it will take at least five years to really rehab the soil and start growing better hay, and even then it will still be very weedy. Our field is very close to a contributing watershed to Lake Superior, the Sioux River, and I'm also not keen on my horse eating trace amounts of a pretty heavy-hitting poison, or my kid running around in it. So, I have work to do in the form of research, talking to other local hay farmers, etc. 

Future hay farmer?

Future hay farmer?

I'm curious–what type of forage do you provide your horses...Pasture? Grass hay? Alfalfa? Do you care if the fields your hay is coming from has been sprayed with RoundUp or the likes? What ration-balancers, supplements or feeds does your horse get?