Properly Feed Your Horse with These Nutrition Tips
What is the best way to feed a horse? With so many grains, supplements, hay types, and more, just choosing the right diet for a horse can be overwhelming. Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer. In general, horses should receive 1.5-2% of their body weight in forage daily. For an average 1000 lb. horse, that equates to roughly 15-20 lbs. of forage per day. For many horses, this may be all that is needed to meet their calorie requirements. Frequently, however, the forage needed for calorie requirement may not meet all nutrient requirements, so a vitamin/mineral/protein supplement and/or “ration balancer” (also called “hay extender”) food may be added to fill the gaps. If their caloric requirements are higher — for example, a growing, competing, or “hard keeper” horse — then grain or other calorie-dense options may need to be added to the diet.
A basic understanding of horse anatomy and physiology is also important in creating a diet. Horse stomachs are relatively small (usually holding only 2-4 gallons!) and nearly continuously secrete hypochlorous acid for food digestion. This means that the best method for feeding is to provide more “slow” food — i.e., roughage — than grain, and to split meals into as many small meals as possible, rather than single large meals. Ideally, concentrates should be fed at no more than 0.5% body weight (about 5 lbs.) per feeding. Also, horses do not have a gallbladder, which makes fats harder to digest and utilize. Most horse diets are 3-4% fat; higher amounts can be fed but take time for the horse’s gastrointestinal system to adjust.
Forage, also sometimes called “roughage,” should make up the bulk of a horse’s diet. This includes fresh forage (grass) as well as harvested forage (hay). Hays are generally classified as “legume” or “grass.” Legumes, such as clover and alfalfa, are much richer in calcium and protein. Grass hays, such as orchard grass and timothy, tend to be less nutrient- and calorie-dense while still providing lots of fiber, which makes them a better choice for maintenance or “easy keepers.” Other ways to feed hay include hay pellets and cubes and hydration (compressed) hay, which are fed soaked to increase digestibility and reduce risk of choke.
Another high-fiber, more calorie-dense option is beet pulp, which if fed to the horse molasses-free is also low in sugar. When feeding hays, it is important to monitor that the hay is not moldy, as mold can cause digestive and respiratory issues for your horse. Hay nutrient levels can vary greatly depending on the type, source, and when they were harvested, so the best way to get an accurate idea of nutrients is by sending a sample to a lab for analysis.
Concentrates include both traditional grains such as corn, oats, and barley, as well as formulated commercial grains, such as the diets made by large feed companies or feed mills. In general, concentrates tend to be lower in fiber and higher in energy and starches than most forages. Concentrates are used to feed horses that have higher energy requirements than met by hay alone, such as growing, performance, breeding/lactating, or senior horses. A wide variety of options exist from feed companies that are formulated to meet specific needs. For example, low starch/low sugar (<14%) options exist for horses with equine metabolic syndrome or Cushing’s, while high-fiber “complete food” options (usually from beet pulp) are available for senior horses unable to chew and digest hay as well. Ration balancer options exist that are low in calories and starch/sugar for horses whose energy needs are filled by hay but need more protein and nutrients. With all of these, remember the adage, “Small amounts often.” Foods high in starches and carbohydrates are harder to digest and can lead to cecal acidosis (overproduction of lactic acid when broken down by bacteria in the cecum) and colic if fed in large amounts at one time.
Water is an often overlooked but important part of a horse’s diet. Adequate hydration is important in normal organ function and reduces the risk of colic. On an average day, a 1100 lb. horse will need about 8 gallons of water (30 L). This number increases with high heat or humidity, exercise, pregnancy, or lactation. Electrolytes can be given to replace losses from sweat and encourage drinking. A free-choice salt block can also be kept in the horse’s stall or pasture to allow self-adjustment of salt levels and encourage water drinking. Most important, make sure there is always a fresh, clean source of water available. In the winter this may mean providing a heated water source or at least frequently breaking down ice in buckets.
Vitamins, Minerals, and Supplements
If a horse can meet all his or her energy needs through hay alone, you may still need to supplement certain nutrients that are lacking. A ration balancer, as mentioned above, is a good option if protein is required. If only vitamins and minerals are needed, there are a wide range of supplements available to help balance the diet. Many companies also sell formulations targeted for specific goals or problems, such as Vitamin E for skin/coat or neurologic function, Omega 3 for inflammation, ASU and MSM for joint support, and so on. Check with your veterinarian when feeding these products, as they may interfere with any medications for your horse or cause any issues of over-supplementation.
Feeding Tips: Some General Rules
- Feed forage as the “base” of the diet, at about 1.5-2% body weight/day (15-20 lbs./1000 lb. horse).
- Feed small meals often, not large meals once.
- Limit concentrates (grain) to <0.5% body weight (5 lbs. for average horse) per meal.
- Always have fresh, clean water available. A source of warm water can help encourage drinking in winter.
- Horses prefer routine, so try to feed at the same time every day.
- Make any changes slowly over at least a one- to two-week period. Do not increase concentrates by more than 1 lb./day.
- Feed grain to match the recommendation on the bag for your horse’s body weight. If feeding less than recommended or no grain, consider adding a supplement to meet vitamin/mineral needs.
- Make sure to feed by weight and not volume!
- Decrease grain and feed intake when exercise/workload decreases.
- For horses with special dietary needs, such as insulin-resistant horses, horses with polysaccharide storage myopathy, senior horses, previously starved horses, or growing horses, consult with your veterinarian for the best recommendations.
- Keep food stored in a clean, dry area to prevent mold and contamination.
Hopefully this brief overview provides some clarification on feeding. If you still have questions, don’t worry: There are whole books on the topic, so this overview touched on just the basics. For further information, see the recommended reading listed below, or contact us to discuss more about your specific horse’s needs.
“Horse Nutrition” from University of Minnesota Extension: https://extension.umn.edu/horse/horse-nutrition#the-basics-of-feeding-a-horse-37860
“Nutrition: The Key to Unlocking Your Horse’s Health” from American Association of Equine Practitioners: https://aaep.org/horsehealth/nutrition-key-unlocking-your-horses-health
“Nutrition 101” from TheHorse.com: https://thehorse.com/13993/nutrition-101/
“Nutritional Requirements of Horses” from Merck Veterinary Manual: https://www.merckvetmanual.com/management-and-nutrition/nutrition-horses/nutritional-requirements-of-horses