Frugal Horse Feeding | 4 changes you can make this week

Frugal horse feeding doesn’t have to be rocket science, but it does take some creative horse sense. And in the wake of the pandemic and rising fuel prices, we’re feeling the pinch at the feed store and hay farm. Whether you’re keeping your equine partner in your back yard, or boarding a barn filled with hay-burners, these 4 changes will help manage – and maybe even cut – your feed budget.

For frugal horse feeding, go back to the basics

Let me clear the air: this post is not a how-to guide regarding feeding percentages, nutrition tables, and exact requirements for the average horse. We’re all equestrians here, we know where to find that information. But I do want to stir you to make simple changes that will help with frugal horse feeding.

Ever since my first barn job at the age of thirteen, feeding horses inside commercial barns has felt a lot like cooking in a kitchen. I was always running through lists, measuring, mixing, and concocting the perfect ration for each meal.

Since each horse is individual, one can have very different dietary needs than another. This is where going back to the basics can help with frugal horse feeding. Take a hard look at your horses’ needs and brush up on equine nutrition. And here’s a pro-tip: buck what you think you know. It never hurts to start your research with a fresh set of eyes.

Here’s an example. Two years ago I finally realized my gelding Malcolm is a hard keeper (long story). I went back to the basics and made these four changes to his diet. Now we have a simpler, more effective feeding routine. Let me tell you how I did it.

4 changes you can make this week

Outside of the most rudimentary building blocks of equine nutrition, these four changes can help get you started on frugal horse feeding.

Weigh your feed

It’s one of the first things we learn about feeding horses: the only proper way to measure portions is by weight. And I ignored this advice for years. Why? Because it’s much easier to eyeball a portion of hay, chuck it into a big tub feeder, and be on our way. Weighing feed takes time and energy and possibly (ugh) math skills.

And here’s the big “but” in response to that: feeding your horse by weight is the only fool-proof method to make sure your horse is getting consistent rations every day.

Let me say it again: whether you’re calorie counting for your horse or not (which I find a useful skill to have), weighing feed is the only way to be consistent with your daily rations. And when your horse’s caloric needs differ, it’s a better way to keep track of your increases/decreases.

So after years of eyeball-and-chuck feeding, I bought a generic digital kitchen scale, put a one-gallon bucket on it, and started measuring. The result? My horses’ weight is more consistent, I can budget a load of hay better, and my feeds last longer because I’m not overfeeding.

Use a hay slow feeder

What’s the second thing we all learned about feeding horses? Forage should make up the majority of a horse’s diet. When pasture isn’t available, keeping hay in front of your horse throughout the day is the next best thing. All-day foraging has been linked to horses’ overall health, in every way from deterring boredom to preventing gastric ulcers.

But unless you have an unlimited budget to feed free-choice, how do you stretch your hay in frugal horse feeding? Cue the slow feeder.

If you haven’t heard, slow feeders are designed so a horse can pull out only a few blades of hay at a time. This slows down eating and can also help limit hay waste.

When I started using slow-feeder hay nets, I noticed a significant difference. Malcolm’s hay waste decreased drastically, and his attitude improved because he had something to munch on throughout the day.

And frugal hose feeding pro tip: try to buy hay locally and pick it up yourself. Save yourself the fuel cost of driving long distances for a “better price” or paying for delivery.

Swap concentrated feeds for ration balancer (or mineral supplement).

When I started riding and training years ago, concentrated feeds were popular and everyone was feeding them in droves. Now in more recent years, ration balancers have replaced a lot of concentrated feeds.

Concentrated feeds are designed to be complete feeds — meaning your horse can survive on them alone. And since they are designed this way, that means if you are not feeding the recommended amount, your horse is not getting its required dose of vitamins and minerals to supplement nutrition possibly missing from roughage.

Switching to a ration balancer (or a mineral supplement, if your horse doesn’t need more protein) can eliminate unnecessary ingredients found in concentrated feeds, and ensure your horse is getting the require nutritional supplementation that could be missing from their forage.

And quite frankly, I save money feeding ration balancer. Though the bag may cost more than a bag of concentrated feed, it lasts longer and the daily ration is, ultimately, a lot cheaper.

Consider ditching the supplements

It sounds harsh, but in frugal horse feeding, it is worth considering ditching those costly supplements.

Over the years I’ve gotten mixed advice from veterinarians about supplements — some advocate for them, others don’t. So I’ve done a bit of my own experimenting, and have spent seasons (six months or more at a time) feeding joint and gut supplements over the years. My experience? I’ve never seen enough of a change in my horse to justify continuing the routine.

The research supporting the effect of supplements is severely lacking. In addition, supplements are not regulated, so there is little guarantee your horse is getting what is on the label. So weigh the options, maybe conduct your own trial, and consider chucking the supplements.

Bonus tip especially for hard keepers

Like I mentioned above, I finally realized Malcolm is a hard keeper two years ago. Because I hadn’t been measuring his feed, I guessed he was getting a certain amount to maintain his weight. Once I started counting calories and weighing his feed, I realized I had to feed him a lot more than the “normal” horse his size. In fact, I had to feed him more than the typical hard keeper in light-to-moderate work, just to maintain his weight at rest.

Now I know what you’re thinking: I should add more grain or concentrated feed to his diet. And yes, that would work to keep the weight on. However, my research had led to concerns about adding more sugars and starches to his diet (a discussion for another day), and quite frankly, I’m committed to wise, effective, frugal horse feeding.

Thankfully, I had an old trick in my toolbox which I had learned years before: I could feed him oil.

Feeding oil to horses has been shown to not only add to their daily caloric intake but also help stabilize and maintain weight better (I’ll go into detail about this in another post).

In Malcolm’s case, I generally feed 1/4 cup of canola oil twice daily with his ration balancer and some alfalfa pellets. I know, the gears in your brain just screeched to a halt — did I just give you a double standard about grains?

Hear me out. Malcolm won’t eat his “grain” if it is too saturated in oil, so I had to get creative to increase his intake. A pound or two of alfalfa pellets — or other pelleted hay — creates a vehicle for the oil to stick to. And since alfalfa pellets are roughage, so they feed just like hay.

Try your hand at frugal horse feeding.

These four changes made a difference for me (and my horse) in frugal horse feeding, and they are the base for any horse I feed. As always, remember to adjust your horses’ diet slowly, over the course of a week or so.

Do you have a frugal horse feeding tip that has worked for you? Have a question? Comment below!

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