Equine cuisine around the world

A look at what goes into hay nets and feed tubs in far-off lands may give you a new appreciation for the options you have for mealtime at your own barn.

The first time I ever fed a horse I was in Heidelberg, Germany. I was 9 and my father, a career soldier, was stationed there. I don’t remember if my mom had found horseback riding listed in the catalog of recreation options for dependent youth or if I discovered it on my own, but I was signed up, and every Saturday morning my parents drove our giant American station wagon through narrow streets to a local farm. There, an instructor named Frau Beier taught me the basics of horsemanship. Riding wasn’t enough to satisfy me, though. Within a few weeks, I’d cajoled my way into staying after lessons to help groom horses and do basic barn chores, including feeding.

While grains are commonly fed to horses in many countries, specific feed and grazing options vary depending on local resources.

I remember the first time I lifted the heavy lid on the feed bin and peered inside. One section was filled to the brim with raw, golden oats. I didn’t know at the time that they’d gone through a roller, which slightly cracked their outer shells for better digestibility. But I did quickly learn that if I popped a few in my mouth, I could work them like sunflower seeds between my teeth to grind out the interior goodness—and then I’d spit out the husks behind the row of stalls when no one was looking.

The other section of the feed bin was filled with a mixture of oats, corn and other grains covered in a coat of molasses that smelled like heaven. This mixture, I was told, was made right on the farm and given only to a few select horses. I figured they were the luckiest horses, but in retrospect I realize they were probably the older school horses who had trouble holding their weight.

I didn’t encounter pelleted, commercially produced horse feed until a year later, when my dad was transferred to the East Coast of the United States. One afternoon each week during summer camp, we’d watch the feed store deliver the bags with a familiar corporate logo on the side. Pellets, I discovered, weren’t as fun to chew on as raw oats. That was the same summer I learned to stack hay. Lots and lots and lots of hay.

A few years later, the military sent my family to The Netherlands. There, I helped fling literal shovelfuls of giant, misshapen carrots, aesthetically unfit for the local market, over stall doors. The horses, whose turnout was limited because the low-lying fields were small and nearly always wet, spent their evenings busily rooting through straw in oversized box stalls to find the carrots. It was an effective way to provide the mental stimulation of grazing when pastures weren’t available.

After finishing high school, I spent time as a working student at an eventing yard in southeast England. Among my duties was helping feed about 45 horses every morning and evening. This was my first experience with chopped forage—hay cut into tiny pieces and delivered to the farm in large paper bags. Chopped forage, I was told by a fellow working student who took pity on the confused young Yankee, made up for the inability to consistently secure good quality hay on the cloudy, rainy island. I also learned—without anyone’s help—that the flaked barley, made at a farm down the road and fed to the horses who were too “hot” on oats, was delightful to chew on as I delivered the horses their meals.

The last three decades of my horsekeeping experience have been in the United States. In that time, I’ve taught at, helped manage, farm-sat or just pitched in at dozens of barns, feeding hundreds of horses. An American feed room is as familiar and comforting to me as anywhere on the planet. I do, however, occasionally wonder what people on the other side of the globe are feeding these days. I know time has brought some changes since my international adventures in horsekeeping, and globalization has unquestionably made the world a smaller, more homogenous place. But local geography, resources and customs must certainly have preserved some of the feeding practices and quirks specific to different countries and regions.

I’m lucky to be in a position to find out. I recently emailed researchers, veterinarians and horse owners around the globe who have helped with EQUUS stories and asked them to describe the feeding practices in their home country. Like most horsepeople around the world, they were happy to share their experiences. And, as I expected, modern feed rooms in various countries have much in common. Nonetheless, there are some fascinating differences. Here’s a brief look at what some horses around the world are eating these days.

New Zealand: Where grazing comes first

Grass in New Zealand is lush and abundant, supporting the dairy cows and sheep that form the cornerstones of the economy. Likewise, fresh grass supplies the bulk of the nutrition for horses living in the island nation.

“The temperate climate of New Zealand permits horses to be kept at pasture all year round,” says Chris Riley, BVSc, PhD, at Massey University. “Even in riding stables, horses get regular turnout onto pasture every day.” Riley adds that those pastures are developed and maintained with equine nutrition in mind.

All that grass means that supplementation with hay or grain isn’t common, especially among pleasure horses who have lower energy needs, explains Riley. “Sport horses are generally managed at pasture but may have up to half of their digestible energy requirements (60 of 116 MJ/day) provided as concentrate and supplementary hay. Leisure/pleasure horses and pony club ponies are usually kept at pasture for the whole time. Although broodmares may be supplemented with hay during the winter months, most pleasure horses are not.”

Of course, too much grass can be a bad thing. “Sometimes during the year there may be some restriction of access to pasture for heavier horses or ponies due to the risk of over ingestion and laminitis,” says Riley.

As for concentrates, Riley says the few owners who feed them typically opt for premixed commercial feeds formulated for the horse’s stage of life or activity, rather than straight grains. “There is a moderate degree of choice among premixed commercial feeds, but nowhere near the level of choice available in North America.”

South Africa: Coping with drought

Horses in South Africa live very different lives than those in the Northern Hemisphere. Yet some experiences are universal.

“Feeds are typically premixed,” says Sophie Baker, a horse owner in Gauteng. “Very few owners in South Africa mix their own feeds, although some may add oats, barley or beet pulp to an existing premade food. Amounts fed will depend on the breed, as our hardy native breeds get far less than Thoroughbreds, which are probably the most common breed of pleasure horse found in South Africa.”

The African continent has grass species that may be unfamiliar to horsekeepers in other parts of the world. “Generally, we feed eragrostis or teff,” says Baker, referring to two common types of local grasses that are used to make hay. “Alfalfa is called lucerne and is sometimes fed for extra weight or ‘oomph’ but in very small amounts added to normal grass hay.”

More familiar to American horsekeepers may be the struggles South Africans can have finding hay during prolonged dry spells. “With the recent drought, grass supplies were very low, so a lot of people have also recently turned to oat hay. Before the drought, grass was readily and easily available at good prices, but the drought has caused major supply issues and pushed prices up significantly—though we do expect this to normalize in time.”

Finally, some feeding practices in South Africa have no counterpart in the United States. “A lot of people here feed rooibos tea to their horses, particularly for those with sweet itch or other skin conditions,” says Baker. “Normally this is dried tea leaves as it’s more cost effective, but it isn’t unheard of for people to use brewed tea either.”

Sweden: Wrapping up forages

With long winters bringing average temperatures between –7 and 26 degrees Fahrenheit, many of the feeding challenges Swedish horse owners face are cold weather related.

“Pasture season is short compared to many other countries,” says Cecilia Müller, PhD, an associate professor of equine feed science at Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. Grazing in the south of the country is typically available from the beginning of May to the end of September, while in the north, it’s only from June to the end of August. “This has to be overcome by harvesting summer grass for winter feeding. Winters in the south are commonly damp and not so cold (coastal climate), while up north they are dry and can be very cold (inland climate). Damp winters mean storage of hay is very difficult as the damp air moistens the hay and results in mold growth.”

One solution to this challenge is wrapping harvested grasses in plastic for protection from the elements: Silage is wrapped forage with less than 50 percent dry matter content, while haylage is wrapped forage with more than 50 percent dry matter content. “One of the major reasons why wrapped forages have become popular is that storage of wrapped bales is not weather dependent,” says Müller. But even among wrapped forages, extreme cold weather can complicate feeding. “A drawback in the north is that cold weather (below 0 degree Celsius) results in frozen bales during winter, which are very difficult to separate before feeding. Haylage does not pose this problem.” Wrapped forages are sometimes used in conjunction with traditional dried hay to stretch the supply through the winter months.

Beyond the forage challenges, many Swedish feeding practices are similar to those in the United States. A recent study of Swedish horse owners found that 60 percent use commercial feed mixes, 50 percent use beet pulp with molasses, 80 percent feed a mineral supplement and 50 percent feed a vitamin supplement.

The Netherlands: An abundance of choices

How much could the Netherlands and the United States have in common when it comes to feeding horses? It’s a valid question: After all, the western European country is 237 times smaller than America, with limited, low-lying pastures and a climate that is famously wet and mild. It’s a far cry from the expansive, dry plains of Texas or the snowy mountains of Vermont.

But the Dutch culture is as “horsey” as any, with approximately 500,000 regular riders out of a population of only 17 million caring for 450,000 horses. Riding is the second most popular sport in the country, after soccer. Not surprisingly, then, there is a huge industry to support the Dutch equestrian pursuits, and this creates common ground between horse owners in the United States and the Netherlands: Both groups have a huge variety of choice when it comes to feeding.

“There are at least 50 to 60 different pelleted concentrates and mixtures from 10 to 20 different companies [available in the The Netherlands],” says Marianne Sloet van Oldruitenborgh-Oosterbaan, DVM, PhD, of Utrecht University.

Like their American counterparts, many Dutch horse owners make the most of this variety by mixing different grain products and adding supplements to customize meals for each horse “Many owners will buy commercial concentrates,” says Sloet van Oldruitenborgh-Oosterbaan. “But there are also a lot of people that make mixes. Horses from individual horse owners get sometimes 10 or more different products over the week.”

Even with these choices, Dutch horse owners do face feeding challenges. One of the biggest, says Sloet van Oldruitenborgh-Oosterbaan, is lack of access to pasture in winter. “Most horses get no pasture [during that time] as it is too wet,” she says. To compensate, silage and/or hay is fed. She recommends to her clients that rations be broken up into at least three to four feedings a day, with the first meal at 7 a.m. and the last at 11 p.m.

Italy: Holding fast to traditions

Adherence to horsekeeping traditions can be useful, but sometimes the “old ways” certainly aren’t better. In Italy, the reluctance of horse owners to modernize has frustrated some equine nutritionists, including Emanuela Valle, DVM, PhD, ECVCN, diplomate of the University of Turin. In 2009, Valle published a large-scale study of feeding practices of elite and mid-level show jumpers in Italy, writing in the conclusion: “The feeding plan management is based only to achieve a good body condition score, without taking into account other important factors for the welfare of the horse.… Little attention is paid to the nutrition of sport horses, even if they are top eventers. They still receive a diet based only on meadow hay and simple cereals according to Italian tradition; horse owners often think that grandfather’s way of horse feeding is still good because they don’t really feel the impact on performance.”

Breaking with tradition in Italy may be more difficult, says Valle, because of limited availability of more modern feeds and the lack of information. “The choice is not so big like in America,” she says. “There are some local Italian companies that produce feed for horses, but many times they are also producing other products like the feed for rabbits. We also have a few feeds from big brands in other countries. Senior feed at the moment is not a big market, even as the number of aged horses is increasing.” She adds that for some owners tradition is still strong. They spend lot of effort in preparing “cooked” meals even for a barn with 60 horses. “We still have places where they do the cereal mashes in the winter once a week. They cook the cereals for one hour (1 kg for each 500 kg horse) and add cooked linseed and bran.”

Even while holding to tradition, Italian horsekeepers have adopted a few modern feeding practices. Overall management of nutrition of horses is improving, says Valle, especially in the market of supplements. Valle says products for joint support and to prevent gastric ulcers are common, as are calming supplements.

Australia: Risks in a rugged landscape

Australia may be known for its koala bears and spiders the size of a man’s hand, but it’s home to plenty of horses as well. From racehorses to pleasure horses to working ranch horses, the Land Down Under supports a thriving equine industry.

Feeding programs for Australian horses are similar to those in the United States but are shaped by challenges specific to the island nation’s often-difficult physical environment.

“[Equine diets] are variable from owner to owner,” says Mick McCluskey, BVSc, MACVS, a veterinarian in Victoria. “Rye grass/clover or lucerne (alfalfa) are the main two hays. Oaten and lucerne chaff are commonly used as well. Hay pellets are available, but they are not very commonly used.”

Increasingly, Australian horses receive commercial feed mixes. “Ease of feeding and lowering of costs have made premixed feeds more popular, especially in the racing industry,” says McCluskey. “A large and ever-expanding variety of premixed rations is available, including a number of senior feeds.”

With plenty of land available, turnout is easy to provide to the horses of Australia. “Most pleasure horses are housed in paddocks of varying size, usually with pasture,” says McCluskey. “Full-time stabling or yarding [without turnout] is uncommon.”

However, grazing in Australia carries certain risks. Nearly 1,000 poisonous plants have been identified in the country, so “the main challenge in some regions is access to toxic weeds because so many horses are kept on pasture,” says McCluskey. “Other regions have issues with sand consumption and associated health problems like sand colic and diarrhea because of feeding directly off the ground.”

Honduras: Horses at work

In the Central American country of Honduras, horsekeeping often isn’t a pastime or hobby. In many cases, horses are working animals and contribute to the livelihood of a rural family. Working horses in the country tend to be fed differently than pleasure horses, due to the demands of their jobs and the resources of their owners.

For instance, a pleasure horse may have continual access to hay all day, but “working horses are typically fed before or after work, and in some cases they are only fed after work,” says Daniela Robles, president of Equinos de Honduras, a nonprofit organization that promotes equine welfare and owner education throughout that country.

“In the south region of Honduras (Choluteca), which is the area we are currently working in, it is very difficult to find high-quality pastures due to the fact that Choluteca is a very arid and dry place where pastures barely grow in summer,” says Robles. “Only people with economic resources and large amounts of terrain have access to high-quality pastures during the summer, and if they buy hay, it is very expensive. Since owners of working horses have fewer resources, they provide corn grains or very small rations of concentrate (one pound every three days) when grazing is reduced.”

Few commercially made concentrates are available in Honduras. “Horseman don’t have many choices among premixed feeds since they are not formulated specifically for horses,” says Robles. “Most of them are more recommended for cows or other livestock.” Even if they are able to find it, only owners of pleasure and sport horses are likely to use commercial grains, as they can be expensive, while working horse owners make their own mixes of grain.

The importance of keeping hard- working horses fed is so widely recognized that other local industries often assist in the effort, says Robles. “Choluteca is an ideal area for planting sugar cane, so we have sugar cane companies all over the south region in Honduras. The areas where sugar cane grows provide the conditions for pastures to grow as well, so these sugar cane companies allow working horse owners to cut grass to feed their horses during the summer because the companies know that these people rely on their horses to obtain their daily income.”

Not surprisingly, the sugar industry also supplies a common treat for all types of horses in Honduras. “The treats given to horses when they do a good job are made of rapadura, an unrefined cane sugar,” says Robles.

While the specific types of hay and grains fed to horses may vary from country to country, the anticipatory nicker heard at feeding time is a universal language recognized by all horsepeople. That call—when a horse simultaneously says “hurry up” and “thank you”—is one of those little things that brighten a horsekeeper’s day, providing reassurance that our effort is appreciated, no matter what country we call home. 

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