With so many advancements in equine nutrition, it seems there is a horse feed for almost any situation. Yet, this has led to much confusion on choosing the right feed. Especially when it comes to what we call a “complete feed.”

A true complete feed is one in which the bagged feed can be used as a hay replacer and be given as the total diet for the horse.

First, it is very important to remember that total hay replacement for any horse is generally not recommended. Hay will always be the most critical component of any equine diet. However, there are situations where a complete feed would be warranted. While there are many feeds available to owners, there are generally three categories of feed to consider:

  • Ration balancer. A feed dense in nutrients that is used to fortify a horse’s hay portion of the diet. An ideal feed for easy keepers and is fed at a low rate (i.e., 1-2 lb per day). Examples would include Essential K® or Wholesome Blends™ Balancer.
  • Full intake feeds. These are the most common horse feeds that will vary on many components. They are higher in calories and fed at a larger volume (i.e., 4+ lb per day). Which feed to choose will depend on your horse’s needs. Some examples would include Kalm Performer®,  Kalm Ultra®, and Kalm ‘N EZ®.  
  • Complete Feeds. These are feeds that are greater than 15% crude fiber (CF) and can act as hay replacers, which means they can be fed as a complete diet without the need to feed hay, if necessary. When replacing forages, complete feeds are fed in much higher amounts (i.e., 15-20 lb per day). Examples would include Senior Sport™Seniority™ line of feeds, and even Kalm ‘N EZ®.

It is important to note that when looking for high fiber (>15% CF) feeds, you should always identify the source of fiber off the feed tag under its list of ingredients. Owners should ensure they are from highly digestible fiber sources like soy hulls, beet pulp and alfalfa meal. Many feeds may be listed as high in fiber but are from less digestible sources like peanut hulls, oat hulls or rice hulls; while the feed can be listed as “high in fiber,” these sources are indigestible for the horse and can potentially lead to digestive upset.

A complete feed is most often used for senior horses when they are having difficulty chewing and swallowing their long-stem forage. As horses age, their teeth wear down or some may lose teeth. This results in the horse losing its ability to break down long-stem forage into smaller particle sizes for swallowing and digestion. In these instances, hay can be removed from the diet and a complete feed can be given via the manufacturer’s recommendations.

Another common use of complete feeds is for horses that suffer from heaves. This is also known as recurrent airway obstruction (RAO) or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This is respiratory inflammation caused by mold, dust, or pollens. Dusty hay or pollens in hay can be difficult to remove and thus, a complete feed may be warranted in these circumstances.

Another situation where a complete feed may be needed is when hay is either not available, is in short supply, or of poor quality. Complete feeds can be used as either an emergency feed, can help stretch a limited hay supply, or complement poor quality hay. For example, if a horse is normally fed 15 pounds of hay per day and an owner needs to stretch their hay supply, theoretically, they could feed 7.5 pounds of hay and 7.5 pounds of a complete feed per day.

An additional consideration when choosing a complete feed is feeding management. Because horses are meant to forage for most of the day and constantly having feed passing through their digestive tract, complete feeds need to be fed more often throughout the day. In addition, like any horse feed, a complete feed should not be fed at a rate of more than 5 pounds at any one meal for the average size horse. Thus, it is usually recommended to feed a complete feed 3 times per day, at minimum, but optimally 4 to 5 times per day.

It is also important to remember that when feeding a complete feed, you are losing other digestive functions that horses receive when consuming long-stem forage. For example:

  • When horses chew hay, they produce saliva which helps buffer the stomach. This happens much less with a complete feed and can lead to ulcers for some horses. This would be a good situation to add the Constant Comfort™ Total Gut Health System to their diet to help buffer the stomach and support the horse’s entire digestive tract.
  • Long-stem forage has a “scratch factor” that helps hind gut health. Feeds with added pre- and probiotics help maintain hind gut health and overall digestion.

All in all, complete feeds help give owners more options when it comes to meeting their horse’s dietary needs. If you have any questions about your horse’s diet, please feel free to contact us for a personalized feeding plan tailored to your horse’s specific needs!

Chris J. Mortensen, Ph.D.