Determining what the best feed for your horse is can be daunting. There are a lot of product options and even more opinions from friends, trainers, anonymous internet boards and others on what is the right or “best” feed.

To further complicate matters, there is no single product that will be the “best” option for all horses or even for a single horse over the course of its life. There are multiple variables that change over time and impact a horse’s nutritional needs. Stage of life, level of work, forage access and quality, underlying medical conditions, horse disposition and variation in basic energy needs (hard keeper vs easy keeper) all make individual horse needs very different.

As part of your research into feeds, you will likely look at feed tags. Feed tags are required for all horse feeds and there is specific information that must be included on each tag.

Required Information: 

  • Product name and brand name (if any) 
  • Purpose statement - species and animal classes for which the feed is intended 
  • Guaranteed Analysis 
    • Minimum percent Crude Protein (CP) 
    • Minimum percent Crude Fat (Fat) 
    • Maximum percent Crude Fiber (CF) 
    • Maximum percent Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF)
    • Maximum percent Acid Detergent Fiber (ADF)
    • Minimum and maximum percent Calcium (Ca) 
    • Minimum percent Phosphorous (P) 
    • Minimum Copper (Cu) in parts per million (PPM) 
    • Minimum Selenium (Se) in parts per million (PPM) 
    • Minimum Zinc (Zn) in parts per million (PPM) 
    • Minimum Vitamin A (International Units (IU) per pound)
  • Feed Ingredients

Fixed Formulation Horse Feeds:

The manufacturer may list exact ingredients; for example, soybean meal, oats, or barley. These are considered fixed formulations and typically do not change with ingredient prices. The consumer can make reasonable assessments as to the feed’s digestibility and nutrient quality knowing the feedstuffs in the mixture (though the exact quality of these ingredients may still be suspect). To make matters more complicated, though, a tag listing actual ingredients does not guarantee that a feed is fixed formulated. Reach out to the manufacturer to confirm if a feed is truly a fixed formula.

Least-Cost Formulation Horse Feeds:

The manufacturer may use collective terms for ingredients; for example, grain by-products, grain, plant protein products, animal protein products, etc. These are least-cost formulations. Such formulations can vary from batch-to-batch depending on ingredient costs. Should the price of oats go up, the manufacturer can substitute corn in the mixture without changing the labeling. Use of collective terms makes it difficult to know what ingredients are used, which makes it nearly impossible to assess the feed’s true digestibility and quality. 

  • Directions for use and precautionary statements 
  • Name and principal mailing address of the manufacturer or person responsible for distributing the feed 
  • Quantity Statement (how much is in the bag??)

What can we learn when comparing tags?

The guaranteed analysis gives us a starting point to understand the composition of a feed. The list of required nutrients is fairly short. At Tribute® Superior Equine Nutrition, we list a number of nutrients that are not required, but are of interest to the horse owner. It is important to note that a number of ingredients can be used to achieve these specifications, see the note on digestibility below. Also, for some nutrients, it is assumed that because it is not listed, that the feed would not include that nutrient. A common example of this misconception is with iron. All horse feed will contain some level of iron from the base ingredients and added iron is often found in the ingredient list.

Assess quality and digestibility by analyzing the list of ingredients – this can only be done with feeds using “fixed” formulas that list actual ingredients. Least-cost formulas using collective terminology do not allow you to assess digestibility and quality. Many least-cost formulas are cheaper per pound than fixed formulas (hence the least-cost label) because they use cheaper ingredients. 

Remember, NONE of the values listed in the guaranteed analysis tell us about the digestibility or quality of the feed. You can only assess these attributes by knowing what ingredients were used in making the feed. Even if the crude protein or crude fiber are the same, it does not mean the feed will perform as you expect.

More is not always better – know the horse’s requirements and risks of exceeding them. Also, for certain ingredients, like probiotics, the quality and selection of specific strains are much more meaningful than the total number added to the feed when it comes to truly supporting the horse’s digestive tract.

Pay attention to feeding rate – if you find yourself feeding below the minimum recommended feeding rate, your horse will not receive all of the nutrients the feed is designed to deliver to complement the forage portion of the diet.

Learn about the manufacturer – feed that is both nutritionally balanced and produced in a safe facility is paramount.

While comparing tags is a good place to gather information, there are many variables that impact feed choice. At Tribute® Superior Equine Nutrition, we offer personalized nutrition plans to help you determine the best program for your individual horse!

Nicole Rambo, Ph.D.