Feeding horses is both an art and a science – it requires complex nutritional evaluation as well as a good working knowledge of horse management plus an eye for the animal in front of you. Fortunately, all the number crunching and scientific input is managed by the equestrian feed companies making it far simpler for the horse owner to choose the right feed for their equine companion. All that hard work and knowhow is distilled down into a feed formula and the two most common types of presentation are pellets sometimes also called cubes or, a textured mix.
Pellets versus textured horse feed
The same principles apply to horse feed as to human food, something which looks like colourful and delicious muesli is bound to be better for the horse and taste nicer, isn’t it than a uniform, boring nut or pellet? Pellets can look rather dull and smart and horse feed manufacturers capitalise on this with really appetising mixes and textured feeds which are so much easier on the eye when it comes to purchasing power but often, textured feeds and pellets contain very similar ingredients. Furthermore, pelleted feeds have some distinct advantages over textured feeds because horses cannot pick out and select ingredients that they like more than others.
How are pellets made?
Pellets are made by grinding down the ingredients – grains, hay, beet pulp – into very fine particles followed by the addition of any supplements like vitamins or minerals. This mixture is then heated using steam and this also increases the moisture content and the resultant mix is then forced through a die which creates the distinctive pellet shape. The diameter and length of the pellet are determined by the die setting. The pellets are then cooked to harden them into the product you find in your feed sack.
What is the difference between a pellet and a cube?
Cubes are often called nuts and tend to be shorter and fatter than pellets and also softer in terms of their texture; it would be possible to crush a cube between your fingers whereas this would be harder with a pellet. Cubes, nuts, pellets and pencils are all terms which can be used interchangeably but essentially they refer to anything that is not a classic textured horse feed mix.
Best horse feed pellets buyers guide
Many different types of horse feed can come in the form of pellets so before you look at different brands, you need to decide on the most appropriate type of feed for your horse and the work he is doing. Lower energy pellets tend to contain more fibre sources and high energy pellets more cereals. Here are some of the top pelleted feeds which are amongst the most popular on the market this year:-
Allen & Page Veteran Light – from their well-known barley and molasses free range, this is a pelleted feed which optimises good condition on older horses without crossing the line in terms of the risk of laminitis. Many older horses suffer from Equine Cushing’s Syndrome and with that disease comes a heightened risk of laminitis regardless of the breed or type of horse. Veteran Light can be fed in confidence to golden oldies because it contains a naturally occurring combined starch and sugar level of less than 10%. The pellets are soaked for less than 60 seconds to provide a soft mash or stiffer crumble to suit your horse’s taste. Older horses often have dental problems so this is ideal if they struggle to eat a textured mix and the pellets contain appetisers like Fenugreek to tempt even the fussiest of feeders. The blend also includes a probiotic and a mix of prebiotics for healthy digestion and linseed which is a good source of Omega 3. Veteran Light is not just a great pellet feed for veterans but is also suitable for horses and ponies with intolerance to barley, alfalfa, molasses and soya so can be used as a working feed for any age of equine.
Saracen Essential Balancer – this is a pelleted balancer for good-doers who may be on forage only diets of grass and hay so perhaps they are only in light work or are not working due to age, recovery from injury or other external factors like Covid-19. The pellets are low in sugar and starch and non-heating for horses that do tend to become excitable on hard feed or grain rations. The balancer contains high-quality protein sources to support muscle tone which makes these an excellent choice for youngstock out at grass. The ingredients also include Omega-3 fatty acids for coat condition, joint health and mobility, a benefit for horses at the other end of the age spectrum. Hooves are not overlooked and the addition of calcium, chelated zinc, Biotin and copper plus the essential amino acids, lysine and methionine, optimises the right nutrition for healthy feet. Finally, the pellets include yeast culture to help maintain a healthy hindgut.
Dodson and Horrell Classic Fibre Cubes – there are lots of different variations of fibre nuts, fibre pencils or grass pellets but the Dodson and Horrell classic fibre cubes have always been at the top of the list for popularity and palatability. These are a complementary feedstuff which can be used to supplement a hay diet or as a partial hay replacer and as a feedstuff for horses in light to medium work. They are a cube with almost universal appeal with a low starch content and a great source of fibre. Distinctly non-heating, if you have a mixed yard, these classic fibre cubes could be fed to a variety of different horses.
Baileys No.4 Topline Conditioning Cubes – no review would be complete without the famous No.4 cubes from Baileys Horse Feeds. Baileys have worked long and hard to gain their reputation for producing a full balanced and effective conditioning feed which is barley-free and non-heating. Restore lost condition after hard work, hard weather, injury or stress without blowing your horse’s mind. The protein sources are excellent quality helping to develop muscle tone as well as the inclusion of soy oil for coat condition and which also acts as a further source of slow-release energy. Promote weight without feeding large amounts of unnecessary bulk which can impact on both your pocket and the ride as well as being a source of unwanted digestive upsets. This is one versatile cube which has been successfully used for all types of horses and ponies from those at rest to animals at the top of their competitive game. The new formula includes a boosted anti-oxidant package containing grapeseed extract, Vitamins C and E plus organic selenium to support the immune system, ideal for horses recovering from illness and those working hard in the sporting disciplines.
Simple System Organic Lucie Pellets – made from lucerne, these 6mm organic lucerne pellets are naturally high in calcium and protein to support muscles and bones. They are suitable for all equines in all levels of work and 100% pure as well as being free from all binders. Lucie pellets should be soaked in around double the feed volume of water.
Can soaked fibre pellets be used a partial or total hay replacer?
Fibre pellets or cubes can be used to supplement hay or even as a total hay replacer for horses who have a severe dental compromise. In an ideal world, the horse should be able to tear at long fibre so hay or grass with the incisors at the front of the mouth before moving the fibre back to the large molars to grind this up before swallowing. However, horses are living longer and those horses and ponies who have lost some or all of their back molars find it impossible to do this and are at risk of colic as large lumps of fibre are swallowed and sent on through the digestive system where they can cause a blockage or impaction.
Soaked pellets or nuts are a lifeline for these horses who can be provided with some or all of their fibre intake in a soft and palatable mash which is not a challenge for the lack of teeth.
Feeding pelleted feeds
Pellets or pencils as they are sometimes called should be fed dampened or may even be designed to be fed soaked; this will depend upon the range of horse feed and the ingredients within the pellet so always check the bag carefully before you mix the feed. It is also best practise to add some fine chop or chaff to the dampened pellets or wet feed in order to make the texture more interesting and to prevent the horse from bolting the feed without chewing it sufficiently first.
Rules of feeding
Whatever horse feed you choose, following the golden rules of good horse management and feeding is essential to keep your horse or pony happy and healthy.
- Horses have small stomachs about the size of a rugby ball and they need to feed little and often – this is called trickle feeding – mimicking the grazing pattern they have in the wild. Hard feeds should be broken down into small meals with a maximum weight per feed of 2kg for horses which weigh over 400kg
- If you do have a late-night feed then this is the time to feed a larger feed if you need to
- Ensure that the horse always has access to clean fresh water and this includes untainted water. Water may look clean but if it has been standing for several hours in the stable, it will pick up odours and small particles of dust and debris from the stable environment
- Calculate the correct amount of hard feed and forage the horse should be receiving and then weigh the feeds, don’t feed by eye. All feed pellets have different densities so two equally sized scoops of different pellets may look the same visually but will probably have completely different nutritional values
- Buy the best quality feeds you can afford and take care to store them well to prevent mould, dust and attack by rodents
- Keep feed bowls scrupulously clean
- Calculate your horse’s feed based on his body weight, workload, condition, temperament, age and the season. If you don’t know how much your horse weighs then a weigh tape will give you some idea or you can weigh your horse at your local veterinary practice
- If you need to change your horse’s feed (and this includes hay – new season as opposed to old season or a new hay supplier) then makes changes very gradually over a period of a week to ten days. The microbes in your horse’s hindgut are bespoke to the diet he is currently eating, radical changes will cause digestive upset and could lead to colic
- Feed for workload and keep the work ahead of the feed
- Always ensure the horse has access to long fibre so hay or grass
- Leave an hours’ gap after feeding before you ride the horse
- Feed at the same time every day
Always identify the pellets from the bag they came from, if in doubt, don’t feed them as if you cannot identify their origin, they could contain things which may be harmful to your horse. You must also always consult the feeding instructions.
Pelleted feeds don’t look as exciting as the colourful textured mixes and mueslis with their tempting names and an array of ingredients but if you have ever wondered if your horse gets bored with the same pellets or nuts day in day out, just remember that he never gets bored of grass and that is also pretty uniform.