By Vicki Glasgow

Harbro Nutritionist

The majority of horse owners in the UK will use a compound feed of some description to feed their horse as the ‘concentrate’ portion of the diet.

Compound feeds come in all shapes, sizes and varieties to fulfil the needs of most equines. So, what is a compound feed and what is the difference between feeding one of these and choosing to feed your horse on ‘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 the diet.

There is a vast array of compound feeds available to chose from, some of which are very specialist, 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 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 vitamin and mineral supplement?”

Compound feeds are designed to fulfil your horse’s vitamin and mineral requirements but only if fed at the recommended level for its 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 to make up the difference (Harbro One Scoop is a good option).

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, even detrimental, at worst.

As with many things more is not necessarily better.

Balancer pellets

These are also compound feeds and also come in many different forms (meal, pellet and coarse mix).

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 the recommended feeding rate is much smaller (typically 100g per 100kg body weight).

Extra energy, if required, must be provided by selecting an appropriate source for the individual horse. For instance, provide oats to a horse that is working hard, and/or needs a bit more oomph or beet pulp, oil and and alfalfa or grass based chop for a fizzy type.

These products are ideal for good doers as they can get all the nutrients required without such a large 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 effect.

A handful of oats added will make little difference but a half scoop or more will compromise the nutrition of your compound feed. Also, remember that oats is the only cereal that can be fed whole or rolled.

Wheat and barley should only ever be used in the cooked/extruded form (usually as flakes).

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 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 supplier.

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 whilst 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.

But cattle and sheep are fed to grow, breed and/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.

Some vitamin and trace element levels in the average beef feed will be minimal in comparison with the average horse feed and others could be higher than would be deemed safe for a horse feed, especially selenium which can be toxic to horses if fed at too high a level.

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’, ulcers 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 a good quality vitamin and mineral supplement to top up if using less than the recommended amount.

Feeding advice and availability of the majority of horse feed brands plus our own quality range of horse feeds are available at your local Harbro Country Store or contact us at