The majority of horse owners in the UK will use a compound feed of some description to feed their horse.

Compound feeds come in all shapes, sizes and varieties to fulfil the needs of most equines. What is a compound feed and what is the difference between feeding one of these and choosing to feed your horse “straights”?

Why do we need specialised horse feeds when cattle feed looks just the same?

Compound feeds are manufactured in a mill and are usually available as a nut or pellet or as a coarse mix. These feeds provide everything the horse requires except for the forage portion of its diet. Some companies advertise their compounds as a “complete” feeds but this is not actually strictly true as the owner still has to provide the horse with forage.

In reality these feeds are officially described as complementary feeding-stuffs due to the fact that the owner still has to provide the main proportion of the horse’s diet as forage.

There are a vast array of compound feeds available to chose from, some of which are very specialised eg, for veterans or horses that cannot eat cereals. The most popular compound feeds are those for the leisure horse in light-medium work, where ease of use and peace of mind for the owner are very important factors.


One question I am frequently asked is: “If I am feeding my horse a compound feed do I still need to feed a supplement?” The supplement in question is a vitamin and mineral supplement; there are many supplements on the market, so it is important to be clear as to which kind of supplement you are referring to.

Compound feeds are designed to fulfil your horse’s vitamin and mineral requirements if fed at the recommended level for his particular weight and work load.

If you are feeding less than this recommended level per day then you should be using a good quality vitamin and mineral supplement, or a balancer pellet, to make up the difference.

As I have said on several occasions, if your horse is already receiving some vitamins and minerals in the compound feed that you are feeding it is not then necessary to feed the full complement of the vitamin and mineral supplement.

Use proportions and if you are feeding half of the recommended daily amount then feed half of the recommended daily amount for the vitamin and mineral supplement. Over supply of some key trace elements is pointlessly expensive at best and counter-productive and even detrimental at worst. As with many things more is not necessarily better.

Balancer pellets

These are also complementary compound feeds and also come in many different forms (meal, pellet, coarse mix and powder). The main difference between these and standard compound feeds is that whilst the protein, vitamins and minerals are provided, very little energy is.

This means that extra energy, if required, must also be provided from an appropriate source for the individual horse. Cereals for a horse that is working hard, and/or needs a bit more oomph or beet pulp, oil and/or alfalfa for a fizzy type.

These products are ideal for good doers as they can get all the nutrients required without the risk of weight gain.


Oats and barley are ‘straights’; they do not contain balanced levels of vitamins and minerals or good quality protein. Many people feed these types of products as they are perceived as a cheaper way of feeding.

They do, however, require to be fed with a mineral/vitamin premix or a balancer pellet to provide quality protein as well. Many more owners feed a mixture of compound and barley or oats.

Feeding barley alongside a compound dilutes the compound and therefore a mineral supplement should be used to make up for the dilution affect. A handful of oats added will make very little difference but a half scoop or more will compromise the nutrition of your compound feed.

Make sure that you buy any straights from a reliable agricultural supplier where the grains they sell are tested for undesirable substances (eg, mycotoxins, mould etc). Mycotoxins are invisible to the human eye but can cause very real problems especially for breeding and performance animals, so it is wise to ensure that you source any cereals you buy from a reliable, assured supply.

Equine feeds

Another question sometimes posed is “Can I feed this or that nut/coarse mix intended for cattle or sheep to my horse?” This question sometimes arises from the owner trying to save money or to cut down on feeds purchased as they also have sheep or cattle.

The first thing to be aware of is that horses are not ruminants, and therefore are not equipped to utilise fibre sources in the same way that cattle are.

The other point is that while ruminants can manufacture many of the amino acids they need microbially (building blocks of protein – lysine etc) horses cannot.

As a result the horse has a higher requirement for quality protein than cattle. Some cattle diets will contain lower quality protein sources and urea which the horse cannot utilise effectively and so will not be digested and will come out as waste.

Cattle and sheep are requested to eat and grow, or produce milk, whereas horses are asked to perform athletically which means that their vitamin and mineral requirements are very different.

Exercise increases the horse’s need for things like B-vitamins, vitamin E and electrolytes. Vitamin and trace element levels in the average beef feed will be minimal in comparison with the average horse feed.

Another thing to bear in mind is that sheep feeds do not contain added copper which horses have a very real requirement for.

Cattle feeds also tend to be high in cereal content which obviously would not suit a fizzy horse or one that is prone to weight gain, or the type that would be predisposed to laminitis, ‘tying up’ or colic.

For all these reasons and many more it is not recommended to feed cattle or sheep feed to horses.

In most cases what is lacking in a cattle diet, and indeed what is there in excess of requirements (energy, source and amount) will eventually catch up with your horse, making the little bit of money you may save a false economy in the long run.

There is, after all, a reason why nutritionists and researchers spend a lot of time and money developing and producing species specific feeds.

Select the

correct feed

Feeding compounds to horses is a reliable and easy method to ensure that they are receiving all that they require.

Ensure that you select the correct feed for the level of work that your horse is doing to prevent problems with ‘fizziness’ and unwanted weight gain. Use the many feed help lines available to help in your decision making.