The equine industry continues to grow and diversify, with more events, disciplines and activities for horse owners than ever before. The amount of horserelated information available to owners has also grown incredibly. There are popular press publications targeted to every age and aspect of horse ownership, a great number of books about horses on the shelves at bookstores, and the internet offers access to a vast amount of information on topics related to raising and feeding horses. Despite this explosion in access to knowledge, myths, folklore and traditions about feeding horses are alive and well on horse farms across the industry and in all parts of the world. It is amazing to listen to what horse owners have read or been told and believe about feeds and feeding. A few of the more common myths about feeding horses include:
• I need to use bran.
• I must use supplements to make up for what’s missing in the feed.
• Pellets are just floor sweepings that will choke my horse.
• My horse only needs a couple of coffee cans of feed per day.
• My horses are working HARD.
• I can’t feed high protein feed to my horse, it will make him hyper.
• I have to feed oats in the summer.
• Etc., etc., etc!
Where do these myths come from? A mentor of mine made the statement several year ago, “as long as new people are buying horses and getting into the horse business, we as industry professionals will always have jobs”. The feed industry representative has the uphill task of separating fact from fiction by providing correct information that is scientificallybased to a customer who is not always interested in science. In fact, many customers, even seasoned trainers, often find it much more appealing to focus on the ‘special’ qualities of a specific ingredient or nutrient. How then, do we go about producing and promoting feeds?
Companies that service the equine industry today constantly develop new products positioned specifically for certain types of horses. In the highly competitive horse feed business today, it is difficult to produce products, especially in the premium market, that are vastly different from competitor products. To that end, a discussion of the expectations of today’s horse owner is warranted.
While the knowledge that we possess relative to equine requirements is ever increasing, our understanding of what motivates various segments of the industry must also grow. Today’s horse owner has several expectations, and without meeting those expectations, all the new products and new technology in the world will not accomplish our ultimate objective, which is to meet the needs of our customers and their horses and sustain their loyalty and business long-term.
Knowing your customer
How do we categorize horse owners today? If we look solely at buying patterns of horse owners, we find three distinct categories: the economy market comprised of those who buy entirely based on price; a middle market, which will pay for added value up to a point; and a premium market comprised of those who will buy the best product, regardless of price.
In each of the three categories, the horse owner expects quality, consistency, a fair price and service. None of these topics is new or unique to the equine marketplace; but we cannot lose sight of how the horse owner defines these expectations. We must be constantly aware of the external factors that affect the thinking and perceptions of horse owners, and be extremely proactive on the educational side of the business if we want to keep customers focused on the advances in the science of equine nutrition.
The popular culture surrounding the horse, its special position as a companion animal and equine athlete and the fact that horse owners tend to be affluent combine to foster interest in the ‘best’ and the ‘newest’ in feeds and feed ingredients. How do we as feed industry representatives handle these situations? From a formulation standpoint, there is definitely a fine line between formulating products based on science and formulating based on perceptions of the buyer. While all formulations should be scientifically and nutritionally valid, feed companies are often faced with a situation of needing to use specific ingredients because of the demand of the consumer. Positioning such ingredients can be accomplished and is frequently done today; and as long as nutritional balance is not altered and we are not creating problems with the formulas, the philosophy of most companies is to use the ingredients in order to be competitive in the marketplace. The consumer will invariably find a product with the ingredients they are interested in; and the competitive aspect of the business means we must find a way to accommodate feeding ‘fashions’ and popular interests in the context of sound nutrition.
A need for practical education
We must also be aware of the horse owner’s frame of reference for nutritional knowledge when we seek to promote products. Horse owners in general are less likely to have a background in the animal sciences or agriculture than is the owner of a food animal enterprise. In addition, there is no economic pressure to maximize rate of gain or feed efficiency of horses, which in other animal feeding operations essentially forces learning and applying nutritional basics. Similarly, those raising food animals are able to take advantage of a much wider support system in terms of the university research, teaching and extension. While at many universities equine programs are developing steadily, their existence is on a smaller scale than other departments and there are relatively few people involved. In contrast, on the food animal side there is extensive research, considerable commitment at the state and federal level, and a history of getting new information out to the farmer through field days, demonstrations and other extension activities.
There is a continuing need for practical education where feeds and feeding are concerned; and those manufacturing equine feeds and supplements must recognize it and respond, particularly if our goals are to promote advances in equine nutrition science.
It is extremely important for feed industry professionals to provide materials and host seminars on a variety of topics, bring in speakers and in general expose customers to the more scientific side of the equine industry in an environment that encourages discussion and learning. This setting gives the customer, who basically wants to ‘do things right’, an opportunity to look at feeds and feeding beyond what he or she is doing at the moment.
Information about practical nutrient requirements is very much needed by horse owners. Frequently, we encounter the belief that horses must be fed differently because of breed or discipline. To my knowledge, the digestive system of the horse does not vary by breed, and we, from an educational standpoint, need to focus on meeting the horse’s nutrient requirements. We spend a lot of time visiting with horse owners about determining their horse’s classification, i.e., maintenance, working, gestation/ lactation, breeding stallion, growing horse. Nutrient requirements are different based on classification/ workload, and amounts of feed required differ based on requirements and weight of the horse, not by breed.
In summary, the horse owner of today, right or wrong, is well read. Because of the variety of information sources available, as industry professionals we must be proactive and aggressive in the educational aspects of the feed business, in order to provide the proper and correct information to the consumers. In doing so, those who accomplish these objectives will earn the respect and loyalty of the horse owner, and will very likely have these customers long-term. It is my hope that someday coffee cans will disappear from horse barns and that we’ll encounter fewer and fewer horse owners that buy complete feeds then cut them with oats and feed seven different supplements to make up for it.
Author: TIM POTTER
Land O’ Lakes Farmland Feeds, College Station, TX, USA