As we become more plugged in around the world, new online tools are being created all the time for consumers. One of these tools that is growing in popularity for horse owners is online horse nutrition calculators. While these are interesting tools and may provide some useful information, in general, these should be used with caution.
What is a Horse Nutrition Calculator?
A horse nutrition calculator is a tool that is designed to help horse owners determine the nutritional requirements of their horses. These requirements are usually suggested based on a horse’s age, activity level, and weight. However, the input requirements may vary with the tool used.
A well-designed horse nutrition calculator will consider the horse’s energy (calorie) requirements, protein needs, mineral and vitamin requirements. Most calculators will also take into consideration your current feeding plan. With properly designed calculators, this information is then used to create a balanced diet for the horse that meets all of their nutritional needs.
You can usually find horse nutrition calculators offered as an online tool. More advanced feed calculators are offered as standalone software programs. These are usually used by equine nutritionists and are usually never needed to be purchased by a horse owner. You may also find horse nutrition calculators in equine management software packages.
Are Horse Nutrition Calculators Accurate?
Horse nutrition calculators can provide a fairly accurate estimate of a horse’s nutritional needs, but their accuracy can depend on several factors. The accuracy, or precision, of a horse nutrition calculator will always depend on the quality and accuracy of the information entered by the horse owner. This means you will need to have an accurate measurement of your horse’s age, weight, and activity level.
Well-designed horse nutrition calculators should also take into consideration the horse’s body condition score and health conditions. Unfortunately, most free online tools do not take this data into consideration. They usually ask for the most basic information to make broad feeding recommendations.
The accuracy of a horse nutrition calculator will also depend on the quality of the formulas and algorithms used in the program. They should be based on the NRC recommendations for feeding horses and follow scientific research. However, the formulas and algorithms are usually not advertised or shown to the horse owner.
The Negatives of Using Horse Feed Calculators
Probably the most glaring issue with online horse nutrition calculators is that they do not take into consideration the specifics of any individual horse. Most calculators ask for the most basic information and make very broad feeding recommendations. Many calculators will also make very broad claims, such as your diet is “calorie deficient,” and then push some of that company’s feed to make up that “deficiency.” They usually will not offer any real explanation on why your horse may be deficient in that nutrient and how that feed will help fill those gaps.
The other major issue with online horse nutrition calculators is that they often will not ask for more specific details on your individual horse(s). For example, most do not ask for a current body condition score or topline score. They usually do not take into consideration if your horse is suffering from any health issues, like equine metabolic disease. This is all critical information needed to make decisions when formulating diets for horses.
The quality of the inputs into the program can also vary. Many will offer “average” hay values, which may not represent the quality of the forage that you are feeding. The nutrient inputs for commercial horse feeds may or may not match the product’s nutrient guarantee. Errors in these inputs can dramatically alter the outputs and create unfounded concern about the horse’s diet.
Finally, even with well-designed horse nutrition calculators, like the one published by the National Research Council (NRC), it comes down to how horse owners interpret the outputs. For example, If the calculator tells you that your horse needs 16.65 Mcal per day in Digestible Energy (DE), what does that mean to you? This is where too much data or information can be confusing and lead to misinformed decision making.
The Positives of Using a Horse Nutrition Calculator
The most reliable and accurate horse nutrition calculator would be the one made and published by the NRC. The NRC is a conglomerate of equine nutritionists from around the world who published the Nutrient Requirements of the Horse in 2007. While this calculator is a bit dated, it is still a very useful tool. It is based on actual nutrient requirements of the horse, with no bias. It can be found via this link HERE.
A reason you may want to use a horse nutrition calculator like the one published by the NRC is to learn more about what your horse(s) may need in their diets. These online calculators can teach us much about horse dietary requirements. Thus, as education tools, horse nutrition calculators are an excellent source of basic nutritional information.
For example, according to the NRC online tool, a 1,100-pound adult horse on a maintenance diet will need about 16.65 Mcal DE per day. If you change the input for that same horse to a moderate exercise program, their DE needs jump up to 23.31 Mcal DE per day. This means you will need to provide that horse with more energy in their diet.
Take Home Message
The most important point to remember is to use any horse nutrition calculator as a guide. Your best option, if you have any concerns about your horse’s diet, is to speak with a qualified equine nutritionist or nutrition specialist. They can more accurately determine your horse’s nutritional needs and consider your individual circumstances. Once all the information needed is assessed, they should be able to help you with a feeding plan for your horse. For example, Tribute® has a qualified team of nutrition specialists who are always available to you for consultation. Please feel free to contact them with any of your questions about what you are feeding your horse.
National Research Council. (2007). Nutrient requirement of horses. 6th rev. ed. National Academies Press.