Horse Nutrition

Owning a horse is something many people find a challenge, simply because it involves a bit more work than they originally realize. However, armed with energy and the right knowledge, it can also be a rewarding and exciting experience, and you can enjoy your equine friend for many years. Although a good amount of a horse’s nutritional needs are met through grazing, it is important to make sure his daily diet is balanced and complete in order to maintain a healthy weight and good digestive function. One of the most important concerns with owning a horse is making sure his nutritional needs are met.

To make sure your horse’s diet is complete, you need to consider several things:

  • Age – a mature horse requires that approximately 2% of its body weight consists of quality hay or good grass each day. This amount is especially important if the horse is very active or used for work.  Older, less active horses (not used for riding or working, or who get a lot less exercise other than walking a field while grazing), require approximately 1% of their body weight daily in the form of hay or grass. 
  • Weight – your horse’s age and build will affect the amount of feed you will need to provide along with field grazing to maintain a healthy weight range for him. 
  • Activity Level – a key factor in determining the amount of food your horse will require each day will depend greatly on his daily routine. If the horse is used for riding or work on a farm, then he will burn what he eats much quicker than a horse that basically spends its day in a field just grazing, or long periods in a stall. 
  • Season – when weather turns colder, you will have to adjust how your horse feed supplement because he will spend less time in fields grazing, especially in areas where the ground freezes and grass doesn’t grow as quickly, or is snow-covered. In warmer seasons, when grasses grow quicker and thicker, you will not need to supplement your horse’s grazing with additional grains, as he will have plentiful grazing supply. 
  • Breeding – a horse that is used for breeding will require at least half of its daily nutritional needs to be met by grazing and have additional grain or oats to provided to supplement its diet.

  • Field Quality – grazing meets a horse’s dietary needs as long as it provides sufficient, good quality grass. If the field is small or has barren patches, it may not provide enough quality grass. If the pasture or field supports more than one horse, there may also be insufficient grazing available.
    1. Individual Feeding – To help ensure that your horse is getting the best nutrition possible, and in the proper quantities, it’s best to treat each horse’s feeding requirements individually if you have more than one horse. Group feedings have some drawbacks: 

             a.  They sometimes encourage unwanted competition between horses at feeding time, resulting in the most aggressive horse consuming more than their share.

              b.  Using the same amounts, types of feed, etc., may not work best on every horse. Those requiring special diets, or with unique physical qualities or limitations will not thrive as well under a generalized routine. 

    2. Rate of Consumption – by placing large stones in the feed so horses have to eat around them. You can also use shallow troughs to ensure the feed is not consumed too rapidly. Pelleted feed requires horses to chew longer, thus naturally slowing down the rate of consumption. 

    3. Feeding Amounts – when it becomes necessary to adjust the amount or type of food your horse receives daily, make sure you do this gradually over the span of a few days, as too quickly a change may upset your horse’s digestion and cause problems. It is important to remember to reduce nutrient/supplement intake when a work horse’s activity is reduced.

    4. Feeding Schedule – timing the feedings is important, particularly for work horses, to avoid digestion problems. A work horse should be given at least an hour following a feeding before he begins or resumes heavy work.  

    5. Supplements – vitamins and other nutritional supplements should be used as needed, preferably under the guidance of an equine veterinarian. Excessive amounts can cause health problems, and amounts given beyond the necessary levels serves no purpose (more does not mean better benefits).

    6. Illness – it is important to note how long it takes your horse to finish feeding. If it has difficulty chewing, excessive slobbering or you notice large amounts of whole grain in the horse’s feces, this indicates there may be teeth or dental problems, which will make it necessary to adjust feedings to ensure the horse is getting enough nutrition.

    The natural choice of horse food is foraging in a good quality pasture that allows sufficient grazing. Optimally, it is a good idea to have more than one pasture, or at least section your pasture so that you can move your horse around to other sections, while areas depleted from grazing replenish the grass. It is important to keep grazing pastures as free of manure as possible.

    Hay is often used as the basic feed of domestic horses, but does not provide “complete” nutrition for work horses. Pregnant mares or growing foals will need additional supplements too if hay is their basic feed. Be careful to choose only good quality hay, free of dust and mold and preferably green. Moldy hay is likely to cause colic and respiratory problems can arise from dusty hay. Separating hay and shaking it out before feeding will help to make sure it is dry and free of any residual dust. There are three types of horse hay:

    • Grass Hay – this can include timothy grass and  brome.
    • Alfalfa Hay – this grass contains a higher level of protein than other grasses. This is also available in pellets and cubes; but used less often, as it is best for horses to chew their food slowly, which aids in thorough digestion. If you decide to use cubes, they can be softened in water beforehand.
    • Grass/Alfalfa Mix – generally horse owners use a mix of timothy, alfalfa and brome.

    An ample supply of fresh water every day is absolutely essential for your horse’s health and to help his digestive system function at an optimum level. Make sure your horse has access to water at all times, with the exception of a cool down period following heavy exertion or exercise. Small sips are okay, but do not allow your horse to stand and drink excessively. During winter months, snow provides a form of water for your horse, but he will still need fresh water to make sure he gets enough fluids.

    Salt and minerals are also an important part of your horse’s nutrition regimen, and your equine veterinarian will be able to suggest the proper amounts for your horse.

    The amount of feed your horse requires on a daily basis will average approximately 2 pounds per 100 pounds of body weight. For a horse weighing 1000 pounds, he will need approximately 20 to 25 pounds of feed per day, of which a good portion of it should consist of hay. It is a good idea to separate this daily amount into two meals. A good rule of thumb is to feed smaller amounts more often, rather than one big amount. As with most animals, they will eat what is provided, so be careful to avoid overfeeding.

    It is always best to check with your equine veterinarian to make sure your horse is getting the best nutrition possible.

    Do you have a horse? Do you have any recommendations or tips for feeding? Let us know in the comments!

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