Walking into any feed store - or even the horse feed aisle at Fleet Farm - is mind numbing. There are a thousand products, and it seems insurmountable.
Don't worry, I've got you.
There are many types of feed: Complete feeds, ration balancers, straight grains (Don't you just feed horses oats? Don't get me started!), sweet feeds, senior feeds...
Complete feeds are feeds that, when fed in the correct amounts (usually noted on the bag) they provide everything a horse would need. They contain vitamins, minerals and other necessities as well as fat and protein (levels of which will differ formula to formula) and usually a fiber additive, which can serve to replace some of the hay in a horse's diet. Fiber is the most important part of a horses diet - their stomachs do best when they are constantly munching - not porking out quickly and then having a rumbly tummy for hours. Empty stomachs can cause ulcers or other problems, as well as make it ridiculously hard to get/keep weight on a horse who doesn't get a lot of hay (AKA that Thoroughbred type horse). Completes come in formulas, like dog food; senior, growth, performance, etc.We'll talk more about these in a minute.
Ration Balancers are the new thing. RB's are designed for horses who do well on hay alone - they don't need a ton of extra calories, but since hay is hard to measure and expensive to test, it's easier to make sure your horse gets all of his nutrient requirements through a ration balancer. Usually you feed 4 pounds or less and thus feed less calories to get the nutrition than a complete, which you feed in larger amounts. The protein level depends on whether or not you are feeding grass hay or alfalfa- and usually the formulas are labeled, or in Purina's case, Enrich-32 is for grass and Enrich-12 is for alfalfa, as alfalfa is much more nutritionally and protein rich.
RB's can also fill in the holes for horses getting straight grains. I'm not a huge fan, because straight grains are a less efficient food source, and as an event horse owner, I want CALORIES! Straight grains can come straight - your standard oats or corn, or as mixes, or as sweet feeds (mixed grains, sometimes added pellets and molasses to coat/make it super exciting to your horse). I'm not a sugar fan for any horse, so I'm less of a sweet feed fan, but it works well for many people - and for your picky eaters.
Now, back to complete feeds - aka "pellets". Completes come in many formulas - allow me to outline Purina's lines, as I know them best.
Stategy: Professional and Healthy Edge
Strat is a local standard - its what most barns feed. Healthy edge is higher fat, and slightly lower sugar, and is a good option despite the oddity that it's lower calories. For me, Strat is too high in protein and too low in fats - and has a high NSC (non-structured carbohydrates) percent, which basically means it's high sugar. My Thoroughbred needs fat, not more energy, so it didn't turn out to be a good fit, but it's a good starting place and a popular feed.
Ultium - Growth (for your young growing horse) and Competition
I am an Ultium fan, and I am not ashamed. Mid level protein, an industry high for fat content and one of the highest calorie per pound ratios I've found, Ultium has been a source of "cool calories" with its mid level NSC (16 versus Strat's 26). Ultium is also high fiber, which is nice to keep their stomachs moving. This feed I can feed less of, and get more bang for my buck calorie wise.
Omolene Line -
The Omolenes are Purina's packaged sweet feeds. They have several mixes, and some good levels of protein and fat for different needs. I'd just check the NSC before I make that choice. Horses LOVE sweet feed, though, so good to mix for your picky eater.
Equine Family Line
This line includes Equine Junior, Equine senior, and Equine Adult. This are a more generic complete feed line, with the stand out for me being equine senior and senior HE. These feeds are both optimized for the older horse with less teeth (and they soak well) and tend to work well for picky horses who don't like Strategy as much as they're beet pulp based. Generally these are decent, economical feed. For the technical feeder (me!) they're a bit lacking for my calorie and low sugar needs.
This heading includes our Ration Balancers (alfalfa and grass), Purina's fat supplement (and it works, holy god. This nugget looks like cat food, and is in the HE feeds and Ultium - it's gooood stuff) and their mineral block line. I've already talked about the benefit of the Ration Balancer revolution, and I highly suggest Amplify nuggets for your fat supplement needs - it's a great way to add calories to a nutritionally balanced diet that is just lacking fats.
As always, I would say contact a feed specialist in the area (many feed companies employ people just to help you feed your horse!) or talk to a feed store employee or other knowledgeable people (like me! Let us crazies do the research!) about your needs and feed options.
We'll talk about supplements next!
Ashley and Foxie