Equestrian’s Guide to Horse Feed and Nutrition

by Michelle Drum January 18, 2021 4 min read

horse grazing on grass

Your horse’s nutrition has a significant effect on its health. You have many options available for horse feed and nutrition, and it can be confusing to know exactly what your horse needs for optimal health. In this guide, we share the most important things you need to know about horse feed and nutrition so you can make the right decision for your horse.

Intro to Horse Feed and Nutrition

Horse food has six basic nutrient categories: water, carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals. Water is the most important, and a healthy horse will consume as much as 15 gallons or more per day, depending on activity level, temperature, and humidity. 

Carbohydrates will be the largest portion of your horse’s diet. They consist of structural carbs (fiber) and non-structural carbs (sugars and starches). Structural carbohydrates are in the roughage your horse eats from hay, grass, and legumes like clover and alfalfa. Structural carbohydrates are also called forage. 

Non-structural carbohydrates provide a more concentrated form of energy and are generally found in grains like corn, oats, and barley. These grain and grain mixtures are often referred to as concentrates. Generally speaking, concentrates should only be used to supplement a forage diet.

Horses should be fed at least 1% of their body weight in forage, but 1.5%-2% is ideal. Feeding your horse less roughage than this can lead to health issues like ulcers and colic, so you want to make sure your horse is getting enough.

What To Look for in Horse Feed and Supplements

When it comes to forage, look for a good quality cut at an appropriate length and stage of maturity that is free of mold and dust. Hay that is too mature has decreased nutritional value to the horse, and hay that is too coarse or too fine can cause digestive issues. 

Your horse should get most of what it needs in forage. However, you may want to supplement with concentrates to make sure your horse gets enough of the protein required for energy, healing wounds, and recovery from exercise. When you introduce grains, you should limit the non-structural carbohydrates (NSC), as they can cause your horse to become “hot,” or tense and energetic.

How and When To Feed a Horse

An average 1,000-lb horse with light activity should get around 2% of its body weight, or around 20 lbs, in forage to maintain good health. If you choose to supplement, reduce the amount of hay to compensate. Clean water should be available all the time if possible, and if not, the horse should be watered at least twice a day with several minutes to drink each time.  

If your horse is competing, they can be fed hay right up to when you compete. And in fact, it’s a good idea to do so in order to protect the stomach from excess acid. Grain or feed concentrates should be fed to your horse at least four hours before exercise or competition. You should always spread out feedings in small quantities, especially when giving your horse grain or feed concentrates. Feeding too much at a time can increase the risk of digestive ailments and colic.

Types of Horse Feed

Most of your horse’s diet should come from hay or grass. Hay provides the nutritional content required by your horse, along with the needed fiber. Grazing provides your horse with valuable nutrients and calcium as well as fiber. Here are some other common horse feeds:

Oats

Add bulk to your horse’s diet with low energy content. Though they are one of the most popular grains for horses, they are low in nutritional value.

Flaxseed

A high-protein supplement that’s one of the best grains for horses, as it contains high-omega-3 fatty acids that help with digestion and are anti-inflammatory.

Sweet feed

Customizable feed usually containing corn, oats, molasses, and mineral supplements. It should be given sparingly based on the amount of work the horse does.

Pellets

Come in a variety of combinations often including grains, corn, and supplements. They are often designed for a specific purpose, such as feeding to seniors, foals, etc.

Cereal grains

These grains are easy to digest and great for athletic horses. They provide protein, vitamins, and fatty acids, as well as starch to give your horse more energy.

Beet pulp

Underweight or working horses may get beet pulp, which is generally served wet after soaking in water for 12 hours. It’s rich in carbohydrates and protein and is a good source of energy.

Barley

Though it’s not easy to digest, it’s one of the highest-energy feeds. It should be provided in limited amounts and fed with a bulkier feed like beet pulp or hay.

Rice bran

Helps with weight gain as well as endurance and performance. Rice bran is high in carbs, vitamin E, and phosphorous and has a high energy content.

Corn

A good source of carbs often found in pelleted feeds. Cracked corn may be easier to chew for some horses, and it’s often mixed with other grains.

    What You Should Not Feed a Horse

    Although grass and hay are the foundation for a horse’s diet, grass clippings are not a good idea. Horses may bolt them since they don’t have to graze and chew, which can lead to medical issues like choke and colic, and the sugars can cause an imbalance in their gut leading to laminitis. 

    Here are some other foods that you shouldnot feed horses:

    • Meat
    • Cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, kale, broccoli, and cauliflower
    • Fruit in large quantities, and fruit stones and seeds
    • Moldy or dusty hay
    • Cattle feeds
    • Alsike clover
    • Tomatoes
    • Onions and garlic
    • Dairy
    • Rhubarb
    • Potatoes
    • Bran and bran mashes 

    Some other, less common foods you shouldn’t give to horses include anything with caffeine or chocolate, and processed foods like bread, which they cannot digest. Though bran was once commonly given to horses, it should be used sparingly as an occasional treat, as it can impact the gut flora and cause digestive problems and a mineral imbalance.

    Nutrition Is Important for Your Horse’s Good Health

    Just like with humans, nutrition is one of the most important aspects of your horse’s quality of life and overall health. Knowing what, how much, and when to feed your horse is a key element of making sure your horse stays happy and healthy.


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