horse grazing in pasture

What to Feed a Horse (+ Health Benefits)

Reviewed by Dr. David J. V. Drum DVM MS

Providing our horses with a nutritious and balanced diet is essential to caring for them well. Our horses may feel like family, but they can’t eat all the same foods we do. As much as we love to reward our horses with yummy treats, certain foods are harmful to their health. It’s important to have a plan for your horse’s diet to make sure it gets all the essential nutrients it needs. A horse’s food and portion size vary with breed, age, job, weight, and even pasture quality. Understanding equine nutrition can get complex, so we’ll help you understand what to feed and why it matters so your horse stays happy and healthy. 

What do horses eat? 

Horses are herbivores who survive mostly on a forage-based diet while grazing. A well-balanced horse diet consists of 6 main nutrients–water, fats, carbs, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Green grass and fresh hay are a horse’s best sources of these nutrients. Carbohydrates are a horse’s primary energy source and the largest portion of their daily intake. These include structural carbs (fiber) and non-structural carbs (sugars and starches). Structural carbohydrates are the most beneficial to a horse and are found in the forage or roughage your horse eats from hay, grass, and legumes like clover and alfalfa. 

Horses who are retired or have a minimal workload only need pasture with access to fresh water and a mineral block to stay strong and healthy. Senior horses or horses with a heavy workload often need a diet supplemented with concentrated feed to sustain their energy. Green pasture grass is the best food for your horse, as long as it is well-managed and free of toxic weeds and plants. A horse’s teeth grind plants into a pulp in a rhythmic motion to help their slow digestive system extract their nutrients. Because their stomachs only hold a few gallons of food at a time, horses spend most of the day grazing on small portions. 

Why what you feed your horse matters

The food you feed your horse matters because horses are large animals with small stomachs, specific dietary needs, and a unique digestive system. Many foods that are safe for humans can give horses colic or abdominal pain caused by some problem in the digestive tract. Colic may be mild or life-threatening, so it’s important to watch your horse’s diet carefully. You should do a few things to ensure your horse is supplied with all the nutrients it needs.

1. Give your horse the freedom to graze throughout the day. 

An average 1,000 lb. horse needs about 16 or more pounds of food daily, but its stomach can only hold 2–4 gallons at a time. Eating is how a horse spends most of its day. It’s important your horse has plenty of time to graze in a nutritious pasture and has access to fresh hay indoors. Horses also have no gallbladder, so they’re not able to digest much fat. For this reason, it’s usually best for a horse’s diet to contain only 3–4% fat. If your horse eats feed or treats in addition to forage make sure they fit within its recommended daily nutritional intake. 

2. Take good care of your pasture. 

Additionally, horses can’t regurgitate their food if they over-eat or eat something harmful or poisonous. Your horse can’t tell the difference between harmful and healthy foods, so you must pay careful attention to your horse’s food and your pasture to make sure there are no toxic plants lurking in the grass. A weedy pasture is dangerous for a horse and soil may have vitamin or mineral deficiencies, so testing the forage is always a good idea. With testing, you’ll find out if your horse needs any mineral supplements to make up for nutrients the soil lacks. Overgrazing also depletes a pasture of essential nutrients. Horses pick and choose which parts of the pasture they prefer to graze on, unlike cows who aren’t such picky eaters. Rotational grazing, or rotating pastures until new growth occurs, allows the horse’s favorite grazing spots to stay lush and green. 

3. Don’t over or under-feed your horse. 

Overfeeding your horse can lead to obesity, metabolic syndrome (inability to regulate insulin), or laminitis (inflammation in the hooves). On the other hand, you’ll want to be careful not to underfeed your horse. This is often a problem for horses who work hard or perform often or who have dental problems and can’t chew well. These horses may need supplements added to their diet to compensate for the energy they exert. 

How much should your horse eat? 

How much you feed your horse is determined by its body weight. Horses should be fed 1.5–2% of their weight in forage or roughage. For example, an average 1,000-lb. horse with light activity should eat roughly 20 lbs. (2% of its body weight) in forage to stay healthy. Feeding your horse less than this can lead to health issues like ulcers and colic. If you don’t have a large enough scale to find your horse’s weight, a vet can weigh your horse at a clinic, or you can calculate its weight using a weight tape. 

You should regularly monitor your horse’s weight and body condition to make sure it’s fed in proper proportions. For example, if your horse’s diet is supplemented with cereal grains, it should not eat more than .3–.4% of its body weight per feeding. A horse’s ideal body condition falls between 4–6 using the Henneke Body Condition scoring system, where 1 is emaciated and 9 is obese. 

Some horses only need high-quality pasture grass and additional minerals to stay healthy, while highly active, sick, or nursing horses need supplements for energy. Your horse’s specific dietary requirements are determined by its breed, level of activity, and wellness. If your horse’s workload or exercise increases, you will need to adjust his diet. You’ll also need to adjust it as your horse grows to maturity and if she is in foul or nursing. Feedings should be spread out in small quantities, especially when giving your horse grain or feed concentrates. Feeding too much at a time or adjusting your horse’s diet too quickly can increase the risk of digestive issues and colic. 

When it comes to diet, no two horses are alike, and some are easier to feed than others. Understanding your horse’s particular needs and balancing its diet can be challenging. Your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist are excellent resources for helping you develop the best nutrition plan for your horse. 

Benefits of a healthy horse diet 

Grazing on pasture grass is natural for horses, and it’s the best source of nutrients for them. Giving your horse plenty of access to pasture and fresh water helps them stay strong and nourished. Supplementing your horse’s forage diet with minerals and feed based on his nutritional needs makes up for any nutrient deficiencies in the soil. Balancing your horse’s rations according to his body weight keeps him free from metabolic disorders, colic, and other illnesses. And using treats on occasion can be a delicious way to reward good behavior. 

What to feed your horse

If your horse is healthy and doesn’t have specific feeding requirements, the simpler its diet, the better. Most of your horse’s sustenance should come from grass or hay. Grazing provides your horse with valuable nutrients, like calcium and fiber. But sometimes your horse needs additional feed to supplement any nutrients the soil lacks or to provide extra energy for active horses. Here are 5 types of food you can include in your horse’s diet. 

1. Pasture grass

Pasture grass should be the primary source of food for horses. The forage and roughage in a well-maintained pasture contain most, if not all, of the nutrients a horse needs to survive. Wild horses who survive solely on forage don’t have health problems, like obesity or metabolic syndrome, that are common in domesticated horses. Alfalfa grass is a superfood for horses–it contains more protein and calcium than other types of grass. Timothy, Bermuda, orchard, bluegrass, and fescue grasses are also great for grazing. 

2. Hay

Hay is the second-best source of nutrition for horses. Most domestic horses’ diets require hay in addition to pasture grass because they don’t spend the entire day in the pasture, and grass doesn’t always grow year-round. In colder weather, hay may replace pasture grass as your horse’s primary food source. It’s not a bad thing to be choosy about your horse’s hay. It’s best to feed horses fresh, green hay with only 12–18% moisture. Avoid hay that has been stored in a damp location or was exposed to moisture, especially if it shows evidence of spoilage. Because your horse’s stomach digests food slowly, it’s important to provide your horse hay in small doses at a time using a slow-feed hay net or bag

3. Grains

Many types of horse feed include a variety of grains as a dietary supplement for additional energy. Grains most commonly used in horse feed include:

  • Oats: One of the most popular grains for horses because they’re easy to digest and high in fiber. But oats aren’t as high in nutritional value as other grains. 
  • Barley: One of the highest energy feeds, but it needs to be processed to be digestible. It should be provided in limited amounts and fed with a bulkier feed like beet pulp or hay.
  • Corn: A super rich energy source but should only be fed to horses in small amounts. It’s often mixed with other grains in pelleted feeds as a good source of carbs. 
  • Flaxseed: A high-protein supplement and one of the best grains for horses. It contains anti-inflammatory, high-omega-3 fatty acids that help with digestion.
  • Rice bran: A high-energy grain that helps with weight gain, endurance, and performance. It’s high in carbs, vitamin E, and phosphorous. 

If your horse’s diet requires additional grains, commercial mixes are convenient because you don’t have to worry about calculating the proper rations. 

Bagged feeds are popular for athletic horses because they’re easy to digest and provide protein, vitamins, and fatty acids, as well as starch to give your horse more energy. 

Complete feeds are a mix of high-fiber grains in pellet form that may be given as a dietary replacement under certain circumstances. These may be used for horses with respiratory illnesses or senior horses with missing or worn teeth who have lost the ability to chew grass or hay. In emergencies, when hay is moldy, dusty, or unavailable, complete feeds may also be given as a temporary replacement. 

Sweet feed is a customizable feed usually containing corn, oats, molasses, and mineral supplements. It should be given sparingly based on the amount of work the horse does. Sweet feed is textured rather than pelleted and is much tastier than complete feeds.

4. Minerals and supplements

There are many different types of minerals or supplements your horse may need depending on which nutrients they’re lacking. It’s a good idea to have your grass and hay tested so you can fill in any gaps in your horse’s diet. If you choose to feed your horse supplements, make sure you adjust their intake of hay, so they don’t eat more than they need. Here are a few types of minerals and supplements for horses. 

Salt blocks

It’s always a good idea to leave a salt block in the stall or pasture so your horse can lick it as he pleases. Salt is an essential electrolyte for horses, and horses require a lot of it. Too little salt causes an electrolyte imbalance that can lead to low blood pressure and heart problems. It’s safe and recommended to provide your horse free access to a salt block. Horses need anywhere from 25–200 grams of salt per day, depending on the demand of their workloads. 

Beet pulp

Beet pulp is a good source of fiber, carbohydrates, calcium, and protein if your horse’s diet is deficient in any of these. Beet pulp is generally served wet after soaking in water for 12 hours so that it’s easily digestible. Underweight or working horses may require beet pulp as an extra source of energy. 

Ration balancer 

A ration balancer comes as a pellet containing vitamins and minerals combined with a protein source. If your horse needs more protein, ration balancers are a good choice without added sugar. 


Concentrates come in a variety of grain mixtures, including oats, corn, barley, flaxseed, vitamins, and minerals. Concentrates are an energy source made up of non-structural carbohydrates and, generally speaking, should only be used to supplement a forage diet when energy is needed for healing wounds and recovery from hard work or exercise. Concentrates can be textured or extruded. Textured feed is a mix of loose grains and pellets. Extruded horse feed is cooked to make the nutrients more readily available and more digestible. This can be a good feed for senior horses who have trouble chewing and digesting food. 

Grain or concentrates should be fed to your horse at least four hours before exercise or competition, so your horse has plenty of energy, and hay should be fed right up to a competition to protect the stomach from excess acid. 

5. Treats 

Treats can be a great way to reward your horse and a useful training tool to help turn good behavior into a learned behavior. But treats are only good for horses in small amounts and on special occasions. Horses don’t need treats but definitely love them. When it comes to food, horses don’t always know what’s good for them, so as horse owners, we have to make smart choices for them. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when feeding your horse treats.

  1. Your horse needs to be behaving well to earn a treat. Don’t reward them without a reason, and don’t treat them if they’ve just misbehaved. 
  2. Keep treats small so your horse can digest them easily. If you’re feeding your horse an apple, carrot, or any other larger fruit or vegetable, break it up into small pieces so your horse doesn’t choke. 
  3. Watch out for pits and stones. Don’t feed your horse an entire peach or plum. Whole fruit is often a choking hazard, and stones and pits of fruits certainly are. 
  4. Keep your hand flat and steady when feeding so your horse doesn’t mistake your fingers for a treat. 
  5. Don’t excessively feed your horse treats to avoid a sugar overdose, and try to make sure treats fit within your horse’s dietary plan. 
  6. Don’t feed your horse canned fruits or veggies. These contain preservatives that your horse doesn’t need. 

If want to make safe and healthy treat choices for your horses but aren’t sure what to feed them, here’s a list of foods your horse should and should not eat. 

What can I feed my horse?
Yes 🙂 No 🙁
Watermelon Cabbage
Apples (preferably without the core) Broccoli
Oranges Brussel sprouts
Pears Cauliflower
Pineapples Fruit seeds or pits
Pitted plums Potatoes
Pitted dates Tomatoes
Pineapple Peppers
Bananas Eggplant 
Fenugreek Garlic
Cucumbers Onions
Carrots Avocados
Radishes  Dairy
Green beans Bread
Lettuce  Chocolate (ok in very small amounts but will cause positive drug test)
Sweet potatoes  Grass clippings
Celery  Acorns
Sugar cubes Other animal feed
Peppermint candy Meat 
Peanut butter (with all-natural ingredients)
Spinach (very small amounts)
Bran (very small amounts, only once a week)

Just like humans, horses have different taste buds, so which treats one horse enjoys eating might be different from another horse. If you want to show your horse a little extra love, try one, or all 5 of our favorite homemade horse treats. If you’re looking for a delicious, healthy, and convenient horse treat, NickerDoodles are one of our top picks. Treating your horse also doesn’t always mean giving them something edible. Some equestrians choose alternatives to edible treats to make sure their horse stays fit and healthy. Choose from our list of treats and gifts for your horse to surprise him with something special. 

Feeding horses well is just one of many ways to care for them. Grooming is another way to bond with your horse and keep him healthy. Learn how to care for your horse’s hooves or choose from our horse brushes, and other grooming supplies.

 Horses also require different care as the seasons change. Learn how to care for your horse on a hot day or learn when your horse might need a blanket to stay warm. Having a first-aid kit handy is important at all times. Make sure you’re ready to care for your horse in emergencies with all the first aid kit essentials.

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