Five Tips For … Reading Between the Lines on Your Horse’s Feed Tag

Photo by Shelley Paulson

When you go to any feed store or online retailer, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the thousands of choices you have for horse feeds and supplements. As an involved horse owner, no doubt you have spent time researching and choosing the feed and supplements that make sense, or in many cases, you may have worked with your trainer or barn manager to make a suitable choice that serves most of the horses in your barn. 

But have you considered the feed tag? Rather than focusing on the marketing claims listed on the front of the bag, the often-overlooked, plain white feed tag—sometimes sewn into the bag of feed or printed on the back—is key. 

By law, commercial feeds must have specific information listed on the tag or bag. Each state has laws and regulations governing the sale of commercial feeds, including the definition of commercial feeds and items that are exempt from that classification. A typical feed tag will list the product name, a guaranteed analysis, the ingredient list, the name and address of the manufacturer or distributor, feeding directions and the net weight.

It is important to note, however, that supplement labels are not as closely regulated by a governing agency, so some of the claims made can feel a bit like the Wild West.

The good news is that with some quick education (as outlined below), you can take a more straightforward approach to choosing the best product for your best friends.

TIP 1:

Understand what the guaranteed analysis tells you

This may be an unpopular opinion, but the guaranteed analysis often receives more credit than it deserves. 

The guaranteed analysis does not tell you anything about specific ingredients, but rather guarantees that certain nutrient levels—typically in a range, with a minimum and a maximum level—will be included in each bag. Ingredient prices, fluctuations due to the weather, the season, and other variables can easily change the composition of a bag of feed, especially if that feed does not have a fixed formula. Since rapid diet changes are not ideal for equine gut health, feed companies guarantee nutrient levels.

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) requires that the guaranteed analysis on horse feed tags includes the following:

  • Crude protein
  • Crude fiber
  • Crude fat
  • Acid detergent fiber
  • Neutral detergent fiber
  • Calcium
  • Phosphorus
  • Copper
  • Zinc
  • Selenium
  • Vitamin A

You will notice that lysine and non-structural carbohydrates are not requirements of the AAFCO, but they can be guaranteed at the manufacturer’s discretion, and the levels may be determined based on individual state regulations. 

Two feeds may have the same or similar guaranteed analyses, but the actual feeds may be very different. As McCauley Bros. Feed equine nutritionist Amy Parker explains, “The guaranteed analysis simply reveals the guaranteed concentration of nutrients (protein, fat, fiber, minerals, etc.) in the feed. When a sample of the feed is tested, the level of nutrients must not be less than the minimum amount guaranteed or more than the maximum.”

So, if many guaranteed analyses look similar, how does anyone manage to choose the best horse feed? As it turns out, there is quite a bit of information that cannot be found on the tag’s guaranteed analysis alone.

“The guaranteed analysis does not provide information about ingredient quantity or quality,” says Parker. “Thus, two feeds may have the same guaranteed analysis but contain very different ingredients.” 

TIP 2 :

Read the complete ingredient list

With Parker’s advice in mind, the second way to find more in-depth information involves reading the entire ingredient list on the feed tag. While this sounds boring — and sometimes a bit overwhelming — it can be quite eye-opening. 

Ingredients may be listed individually by specific name (e.g., oats, corn, barley) or by collective terms for the grouping of the ingredient (e.g., grain products). Collective terms may be used when trying to keep a formula or portion of the formula confidential due to the uniqueness of the product or ingredients. When asked, manufacturers will often tell the customer the main ingredient(s) in the feed and explain why collective terms are used. 

Other reasons for using collective terms are to shorten the ingredient list or when least-cost formulating. Least-cost formulating means that the ingredients in the feed change with fluctuating ingredient costs. Least-cost formulating can occur whether the ingredient list uses individual or collective terms. Unfortunately, such practices are not in the best interest of the horse. In extreme cases, changing the concentration of ingredients due to least-cost formulating is the same as switching to a new feed. It also means that the horse’s digestive tract usually has little to no time to adjust to the “new” feed, which may lead to decreased feed intake, digestive upset, and/or colic. 

Inquiring about the manufacturer’s formulation practices is one of the best safeguards against least-cost formulations. 

Besides individual grain quality, some grains are better for horses than others. For instance, oats are typically the grain of choice for horse feeds. Oats are relatively high in fiber and are not as prone to harmful molds and mycotoxins as many other grains, such as corn.

TIP 3:

Decode the minerals used in the feed or supplement

Minerals are the backbone of the horse’s body (literally!), making up every organ, tissue and cell. While they only make up a very tiny percentage of a horse’s daily intake, they play a role in every single body system, from skeletal and muscular development to nervous system function, along with hair and hoof health.

While minerals are only present in very small quantities in a bag of feed, they are crucially important for your horse’s overall performance, which is why their bioavailability is so important. Bioavailability has to do with the rate in which they are absorbed and utilized in the body.

Organic trace minerals (e.g., zinc, copper, cobalt and manganese) are absorbed at higher levels and are more readily utilized by the horse because they are presented in a form that mimics the form in which minerals are found in nature.

On the feed tag, organic minerals will be listed as the mineral name, followed by the word “proteinate,” “methionine” or “amino acid complex” (for example: zinc proteinate). 

You can easily spot inorganic minerals because they will be listed as the mineral name followed by the words “oxide” or “sulfate.” For instance, the ingredient “zinc oxide” is an inorganic version of zinc, which is both cheaper and less conducive to optimal horse health and performance.

Horses are unable to store large amounts of excess minerals in their bodies, and research has shown that exceeding 100% of their mineral requirements results in higher mineral excretion (i.e., mineral-rich manure), which has important environmental implications.

Alltech senior equine nutritionist Dr. Mieke Holder notes, “Research has shown that providing high levels of trace minerals in horses’ diets also increases the levels of phosphorus that leach from the feces of horses consuming those diets. Given that phosphorus is an element of great environmental concern, it is crucial that minerals are not only fed at the appropriate levels but are provided in bioavailable forms as well. When organic minerals are absorbed at higher levels, that also means that fewer minerals are excreted, which can help protect the environment and preserve water quality.” (Source: https://doi.org/10.3390/su11247107)

Read the feed tag to check the feed’s trace mineral status. It is important to closely read the entire list of ingredients because many feed companies will use a mix of organic and inorganic minerals. Ideally, choose a feed that contains 100% organic zinc, copper, cobalt, and manganese. 

TIP 4:

Look for the form of selenium supplied

Selenium is also considered a trace mineral, and in horses it is especially noteworthy because too much—or too little—can be detrimental and even fatal.

Selenium is a highly important mineral in the antioxidant pathway, which is why it is crucial for recovery, endurance, and metabolism. 

For example, glutathione peroxidase, a selenium-dependent antioxidant enzyme, displayed increased activity after exercise in horses that were fed
Sel-Plex®, Alltech’s organic selenium (versus horses who received inorganic selenium in the form of sodium selenite).

Organic selenium is a hugely important component of the performance horse’s diet, as it helps combat muscle damage from the free radicals associated with exercise and metabolism.

Inorganic selenium is easy to spot on feed tags and will be listed as “sodium selenite.” Organic selenium, on the other hand, will be listed as “selenium yeast.”

Again, be careful: Some feeds use a mix of both types of selenium. Choose feeds that contain only 100% selenium yeast for the best results.

TIP 5:

Check for any extra ingredients to support gut health for horses

Your final task in reading the ingredient list on the horse feed tag is to check for any bonuses. Think of this like the prize at the bottom of the Cracker Jack box.

One example of this is added prebiotics and probiotics for horses, but again, caution is necessary: Not all gut health ingredients are created equal, and there are many considerations that should be taken into account, from the strain of bacteria to its viability.  

The stress that performance horses are subject to in the forms of training, travel, new environments and more can absolutely impact their gut microbiome and cause digestive upset. Additionally, the need for glucose—like non-structural carbohydrates (NSCs)—to power exercise is a reality for many performance horses. Gut nutrients, such as prebiotics and probiotics, can help minimize digestive distress and maximize safe feedings, travel and training days.

Look on the feed tag for ingredients such as “yeast culture,” “hydrolyzed yeast,” “dried brewer’s yeast” or any specific strain of probiotic bacteria. These ingredients can increase your horse’s ability to fully digest and utilize the feed (thanks to beneficial bacteria) while also potentially saving you from having to purchase additional equine supplements.

A Final Word

While there is a lot more information that you can glean from a horse feed tag, start by looking for the five elements listed in the tips above.

It’s no secret that performance horses endure stress. What we sometimes forget, however, is that this stress can impact almost every system in an animal’s body, from its digestive system to its musculoskeletal system. A well-rounded approach to managing performance horses includes taking all of these systems into consideration.

The key to feeding performance horses is moderation. No one ingredient or nutrient is beneficial when there is either a deficiency or an excess of it. Use common sense, pay attention to your horse’s behavior and cues, and, if possible, consult with a skilled equine nutritionist. 

To learn more about Alltech’s full line of equine offerings, from their complete feeds to their high-quality line of Lifeforce™ premium equine supplements, visit alltechequine.com

*This story was originally published in the July 2022 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!