Getting an Equine Nutritionist Consultation

Sure, it makes sense that the owners of high-end performance horses and blue-blooded broodmares find the services offered by equine nutritionists useful. Anything that can give these horses an edge or help them reach their maximum potential is ultimately a revenue-booster. But what about the horse owners who compete on the B and C circuits, or the weekend pleasure riders? Do they really need a nutritionist for their horses? And what can a nutritionist offer that a farm veterinarian or a feed analysis can't cover?

Who Needs 'Em?

Whether your horse is a weekend warrior or pasture ornament, broodmare or high-end competitor, of sound or ill health, he needs a complete and well-balanced diet for maximum well-being (as does his owner). To this end, a nutritionist can help by determining your horse's individual nutritional requirements based on his health and performance status. The nutritionist does this by evaluating the qualities and components of your horse's current diet (pasture, hay, and/or grain), then using these guidelines to create a suitable, palatable diet specifically designed to meet those needs.

That said, not every horse needs a nutritionist's services. Carey Williams, PhD, an equine extension specialist at Rutgers University's Cook College, says, "If your horse is doing fine, has enough energy, has a good body condition score, and--this is key--you're providing quality forage or feeding a balanced, commercial feed, he's probably okay and doesn't need a nutritionist. If it's not broke, don't fix it."

Ginger A. Rich, PhD, of Rich Equine Nutritional Consulting in Eads, Tenn., agrees. "In general, horses between three years and 16 years that have no serious health problems or serious work demands can get by on good-quality forage and an appropriate salt/mineral supplement."

Your horse could benefit from a nutritionist's input if you:

  • Have questions or concerns about the quality or nutritional balance of your pasture, forage, or feed;
  • Need to correct the quality or nutritional balance of your pasture, forage, or feed; or
  • Want to create a diet to address your horse's performance demands, health needs, or health problems.

Your farm veterinarian might be able to provide advice on general nutrition, while a soil or forage analysis can give you figures on the various nutrients present in your samples. But in many cases, this might not be enough.

Unless your veterinarian has taken specialized training in nutrition, he or she is not going to be able to offer in-depth answers to your nutritional questions. Explains Williams, "When a veterinarian goes through school, they might get one semester of nutrition."

Further, that nutrition course covers small, large, and exotic animal species, not just horses. "Whereas an equine nutritionist who has gotten a PhD in equine nutrition has at least five years of post-graduate study with practically nothing but nutrition and metabolism," Williams continues. "The magnitude and depth of nutritional studies that a nutritionist gets versus what a veterinarian receives is exponential. So the horse owner is going to get a lot more detail and information from a nutritionist."

And while a soil, feed, or pasture analysis can tell you what you have--or don't have--it doesn't tell you how to make adjustments to provide what your horse needs. "You still have to have someone help you define and fulfill your horse's requirements to make changes to obtain a balanced, economic, palatable diet that the horse will consume on a consistent, daily basis," says Rich.

Time for a Consult

Consider seeking a nutritional consultation for any of the following situations:

Questions/uncertainty about pasture, forage, or feed quality. Do you really know what your pasture or forage is providing? Are you sure your feed mix is appropriate for your horse's needs?

"I get a lot of calls and questions from backyard horse owners who need a little more help," Williams says. "Novices know their horse needs hay and grain, but they're not sure what type or how much. A nutritionist can analyze everything for them: We take a look at what's going on at their farm, analyze the forage, look at the feed, explain what everything means and what's right or wrong, answer all of their questions, and give recommendations as to what to do. Is the forage in the diet okay? Does the horse need more protein or minerals? We work in-depth with the horse owner to help figure out what this information means, if we need to make changes, and how to make those changes."

Ditto if you've moved to a new area and are unfamiliar with the local hay and grain, or if you want to start formulating your own feed, get a feed analysis from a mill, or check the content of your current feed.

Changing pasture or forage conditions. During some seasons or under changing weather conditions, does your pasture or forage quality dip below optimal? When your pasture is especially lush, can you reduce your horse's grain and supplements?

"When you have changing situations, you should get an evaluation," states Rich. This ensures that your horse's diet remains balanced.

Changing health demands. When your horse's body changes, so do your horse's nutritional requirements. Pregnant and lactating mares, foals, growing horses, and senior horses all have different nutritional demands. Explains Williams, "The mare that is eating for two needs extra protein and various vitamins and minerals; the youngster with high energy and growth demands benefits from increased amounts of energy, protein, calcium, phosphorus, and various other minerals. Some senior horses who may have trouble digesting all the nutrients they need could be helped by providing a highly processed or extruded feed, or increased levels of high-quality protein."

Performance demands. Horses going into heavy or different training will have changing physical and nutritional demands. Hard-working horses have increased physical and nutritional demands over pasture decorations or horses in light work.

"Many high-performance riders work with nutritionists because of the increased energy and electrolyte demands," Rich says. But it's not just high-end performance horses that benefit: Any horse that starts training, exercises or works hard, or is switched to a different kind of sport has altered nutrient demands for which you'll likely need to modify nutrients or adjust meal sizes.

"Fat, fiber, and carbohydrate manipulation can help a variety of athletic horses overcome some of the problems they
encounter," says Rich. Overweight or underweight horses can reach and maintain their ideal weight with less stress when a nutritionist is involved. Nutritionists keep up with new products on the market, know how and when to use them, know the limits of the product, and understand potential health risks.

"If you have problems with your horse moving up to the expectations of the market, if they're not looking as good as they should to be sold, if they're not performing or training as well as they should, then that's the time to be looking for some help," Rich adds.

Health problems. Special diets are often important in treating or managing disorders. Recurring colic, founder, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, physitis, dental disorders, hyperkalemic periodic paralysis (HYPP), exertional rhabdomyolysis (tying-up), and liver disease are among conditions that necessitate special dietary changes, says Rich. Ditto for the horse that undergoes colic surgery. "A horse that's had his gut resected or several feet of intestines removed is not a normal horse, and you'll have to feed him differently," she states.

Count in tough keepers, too--those that are in good health but can't seem to keep weight on or who shed pounds easily. They are good candidates for a nutritional review.

Finding a Nutritionist

Having decided that you'd like a nutritionist's input, the next step is finding one. Because a "nutritionist" isn't a regulated occupation or one that requires any type of certification, anyone can claim that title, regardless of his or her qualifications. Therefore, it's important to seek educated individuals truly qualified for the job.

Williams suggests looking for someone with a PhD specifically in equine nutrition. "There are a lot of animal nutritionists out there, but there are a lot of animals and each species is quite a bit different for what they need nutritionally," she says. You might consider a board-certified veterinary nutritionist (a veterinarian who has earned a diplomate in nutrition), although veterinary nutritionists tend to specialize in critical and disease-related nutritional cases as opposed to feed and farm evaluations.

There are many ways to locate an equine nutritionist: "Ask your veterinarian, farrier, or your local county extension office for a recommendation," suggests Rich. "Some feed stores employ nutritionists, and while some may try to push their particular grain or their way of feeding, at least you will have a contact and hear another person's ideas, and usually those are free."

Another opinion is to contact experts quoted in nutritional articles or those who lecture at seminars. "With this method, you get a little insight into the philosophy of the nutritionist before you hire them," Rich says.

Two more sources are the Equine Science Society (formerly Equine Nutrition and Physiology Society) and the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN). The Equine Science Society enables you to find a member equine nutritionist in your state or region (www.enps.org; or call Mary Swenson, association secretary, at 217/356-3182 ext. 20). The ACVN helps to advance the specialty area of veterinary nutrition and increase competence of those who practice in this field (www.acvn.org; or e-mail Dr. Wilbur Amand at wbamand@aol.com).

Equine nutritionists either work as private consultants or are public employees attached to a land-grant university or cooperative extension agency. Nutritionists employed by cooperative extension services and land-grant universities are paid through tax dollars, so their services to you are free, whereas a nutritionist in private practice works on a fee basis.

However, extension personnel might have to set a limit on how much they will do for free for a client, Williams says. "Some may answer calls and/or make an initial visit, but if the owner needs feed formulations or additional visits, the nutritionist may request a 'donation' to their extension or research program. Out-of-state consulting will have to be subsidized and will depend on how much time the nutritionist will put into the case."

Although Williams says the quality of advice isn't any different for private vs. extension consultants, Rich, a private consultant who formerly worked for 10 years in the extension service at Colorado State University, notes: "It is frowned upon for an extension nutritionist, being on the taxpayers' tab, to give specific advice on one feed company or product to use, especially if competing companies are residents or taxpayers in the state. You will still get good general advice from state extension people, but a state employee must be much more 'politically correct.' "

While Williams usually doesn't tell owners what specific brands to feed their horses, she will disclose what feeds she gives to her research and personal horses. "That is public knowledge," she says. "And I do tell people what types of feed within each company are good choices for their horses (i.e., based on protein or fat content, type of processing or ingredients, etc.)."

How It Works

Unless you are calling regarding very basic questions, the nutritionist comes to your farm to do a whole farm evaluation. "I'll look around, take samples, check over the horse, and observe what and how the horse is fed and in what manner," says Rich. "I rarely make recommendations over the phone when I haven't seen the horse, farm, or part of the country."

Board-certified veterinarians who specialize in nutrition often consult on cases from referring veterinarians without seeing the horse or the farm. They make recommendations based on medical history, diagnostic results, and sometimes by talking with the horse owner. This type of consultation is geared to address a specific disease process as opposed to optimizing a dietary program or helping owners.

How often and how frequently you need to consult with the nutritionist varies. "I might give some advice and ask the owner to give the horse two to four weeks to adjust to the changes," says Williams. "If their problem continues, they would need to call back. If the problem resolves, then the owner usually doesn't need to call back unless something has changed--the quality of hay or pasture, winter vs. summer feeding, etc."

Says Rich, "One call or visit to the farm isn't going to solve all the problems forever, where you'll never have to talk to the nutritionist again. Nutrition is ever-changing, depending on the time of year, your climate, your pasture quality and quantity, the quality and consistency of the hay, the grain and the supplements, the growth of your young horse, and/or developing problems with older horses. All of those things need to be monitored. Most people benefit from a call or visit from the nutritionist two to four times a year to access the general status of the farm, the hay, the grain."

Take-Home Message

No doubt about it, providing optimal nutrition for all life's stages can be a complex undertaking. Fortunately, there are plenty of resources out there to help you get the job done, including reference materials and your veterinarian. If you can't find the answers to your nutritional questions, then it's time to seek expert help from an equine nutritionist.

About the Author

Marcia King

Marcia King is an award-winning freelance writer based in Ohio who specializes in equine, canine, and feline veterinary topics. She's schooled in hunt seat, dressage, and Western pleasure.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from TheHorse.com. Learn More

Free Newsletters

Sign up for the latest in:

From our partners