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Calories in the Horse World

We’re all used to the concept of counting calories for people…but have you ever thought about counting the calories for your horse?  The amount of calories you give your horse depends on its size and activity level…just like it does with humans.  Let’s dig in to what you need to worry about as far as the information you might be receiving about calories you should give to your hose.


So like I stated above, the appropriate calorie count for you horse will depend on how big the horse is and what exercise it does on a regular basis.  For example, take a 1,000 lb horse in maintenance, its caloric needs are probably around 15,000 calories, moderate work would be 25,000 calories, and heavy work would be about 33,000 calories.  But what is a Mcal?? A Mcal is just a unit of measurement…one Mcal is equal to 1,000 calories.  If you run into this when looking at feeding guides for your horse…just know it is another unit of measurement and apply the conversion appropriately if needed.


Now that you know an estimated calorie range for your horse, what can you feed to get there?  Some of the highest calorie options for grain you can give your horse are rice bran, corn, and oats.  Some of the lowest calorie options you can give your horse include pasture and grass hay.  Take note however, that not all hays are created equal.  It is wise to get your hay tested so that you know the nutrients and energy level that it contains.  On your hay analysis, the energy content is defined as digestible energy (DE) with units of mcal/lb.  This gives you an idea on the calories your horse is consuming from this hay.  Hay doesn’t ‘come with a tag telling you that this product is suited for horses needing extra calories or not needing extra calories like feed does.  Contact your feed company to see if they offer the service of coming out to take a core sample from hay and then sending if off to be analyzed.


What if you’re feeding the appropriate feed for your horse with high quality hay, and your horse is still not gaining weight?  Adding oil can be a safe way to help solve this.  Don’t go over 2 cups a day of oil unless you want extremely loose manure in your horse’s stall.  Also, don’t simply give more grain…make sure you are feeding the right amount for your horse’s size and activity level. If you are feeding the correct amount, increase the hay you are feeding, add some extra flakes of alfalfa, or add oil instead.  A large amount of concentrate will most likely cause problems with your horse’s digestive tract.  Opting for increasing the forage, the kind of forage, or a fat like rice bran to the ration will give you much safer results than adding more feed to the diet.


Ok so we are good on amount of calories…but are there good calories versus bad calories?  I have had people ask me this question in the past. A calorie is a calorie…meaning you can get the same amount of calories by eating cups of sugar all day or you can get the same amount eating lean meats and veggies…which do you think is the better option?? Don’t make this more complicated than it has to be.  “Good calorie” foods would essentially be “nutrient dense foods.” Look at the nutrient composition in any ingredient to determine if it is nutrient dense or nutrient empty. For example, 500 calories from alfalfa hay would be different nutritionally than 500 calories from grass hay.  Calories from soybean hulls would provide drastically different results nutritionally than peanut hulls.  See what I mean??


So what is the take home message? Look at your feed’s quality from a nutritional point of view versus just simply how many calories you can get into them.  Make sure you are feeding a quality feed, good hay, and if you need to supplement for more calories, add high quality products like alfalfa hay or fat supplements like vegetable oil or rice bran.


If you have any further questions or comments, leave us a note…we would love to hear from you!