Complete feeds can be one of the most confusing horse feed types for owners. The confusion usually comes from their unique feeding directions or the fundamental problems with their design.
Complete horse feeds are formulated to be able to replace the hay and other forage in a horse's diet. The idea is that horses that can no longer chew hay or grass can still get all their forage needs met.
However, there is a big fundamental problem with this -- horses have a need for long-stem forage to keep their gut moving and healthy. Complete horse feeds cannot provide long-stem forage, because the particles of forage in the feed are too small.
So, unless your horse absolutely cannot chew anything except a pellet meal that has been soaked to make a mash, there is a good chance that these feeds really have no place in your horse's diet.
The second fundamental problem with these feeds is that they are formulated to be the sole diet of the horse -- but often have directions on the bag for feeding them with hay (usually at reduced amounts).
Again, the idea behind the directions (the horse doesn't need as much forage from the feed if he is eating some hay/grass) is good at first look. But when you think about it, it is flawed.
Yes, reducing the feed intake to account for hay intake will keep the horse's forage intake at a certain level. However, when you reduce the feed amount, you are also reducing the nutrient intake of your horse. Nutrients that may or may not be contained in your hay and grass...nutrients that your horse needs.
Your hay or grass may also contain MORE nutrients than the feed provides -- which means that feeding the feed with hay or grass could throw off the ratios of certain nutrients (the calcium-to-phosphorus ratio being one of the most important) in the horse's diet, potentially causing a number of health problems.
Like I said before, these feeds are great for horses that cannot chew anything except pellets soaked to a mash -- it does provide all the nutrition they need, if not all the long-stem fiber. And if the horse can only eat soaked pellets, there is no way to get long-stem fiber into him anyways.
However, for horses that CAN chew other things (but maybe not hay and/or grass in the pasture), there are better alternatives than a complete feed.
Alfalfa cubes can be soaked (to make them very easy to chew) and fed to meet the long-stem fiber requirement of the horse. Beet pulp is another option to provide long-stem fiber in an easy-to-chew form. Both of these feeds can (and should!) be fed with a fortified feed -- such as a ration balancer -- or a high-quality vitamin and mineral supplement to provide the complete nutrition the horse needs.
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