Here’s What you Don’t Know about Horse Nutrition

Last Updated June. 17, 2019
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You’ll find no other animal as connected to humankind as the horse. For centuries we relied on their speed and strength to help us complete great tasks or for reliable transport.

Along the way, we forged an unshakable bond with the horse, one that remains to this day. Despite the fact that few of our horses work as they once did, their work been supplanted by the tractor, automobile and other machinery, our bond with the animal continues — which is why the horse remains one of the most loved of the domesticated animals on the planet.

Caring for a horse comes with challenges that you don’t simply don’t have when dealing with other animals. They require much more care than smaller animals kept as pets, such as cats or dogs. Further, one must develop a great deal of trust with their horse; unlike other animals, horses can cause serious injury when frightened or in pain.

Don’t let that frighten you — keeping a horse brings a great deal more joy than it brings difficulties. You simply must provide for all of your horse’s needs, and that includes supplying all the food and nutrition that your horse requires. If you don’t have a lot of experience with horsemanship, this might seems challenging, but let the information in this guide help you on your way. Before long, you’ll understand everything you need to about your horse’s dietary needs!


Every horse is different

While horse nutrition generally follows the same guidelines, you must remember that every horse is an individual. Just like people, dietary needs can differ from one horse to another. If your horse seems to have any digestion issues, has trouble gaining weight or seems to have gained too much, you may need to consider a specialized diet.

This guide provides a great general plan for taking care of all of your horse’s dietary needs and nutritional requirements, but we recommend consulting an equine veterinarian or nutritionist to make sure that the specific nutritional needs of your horse are fully met. Every horse is different, and yours may require foods or supplements that others do not. A professional will know how to interpret your horse’s behavior, physique and appetite in order to help you resolve any dietary issues that may plague your horse.

Understanding a horse’s digestive system

Horses belong to a specific group of herbivores called non-ruminant herbivores. This means that they digest differently than we do; they don’t benefit from designated meal times like people do. Horses have deceptively small stomachs — roughly 2-4 gallons for a half-ton horse. Because of this, they can only ingest a reasonable amount at one time. Horses evolved as grazers, and in the wild they would spend between 15 and 18 hours a day grazing on various pasture grasses and other plants. This has a significant effect on their nutritional needs, as you will see.

It also means that horses tend to eat almost constantly. This presents few problems when their food provides proper nutrition. Unfortunately, if you feed your horse any kind of food that has too many calories, their grazing habits can lead to obesity and a number of related health problems. Because of this, you will want to ensure that you feed you horse appropriately, and that means starting with foraging.

Start with foraging
If you can, pasturing your horses and allowing them to graze throughout the day is an excellent place to start their nutrition. Since your horse evolved to spend most of its time taking in small amounts of grasses and other pasture plants, this provides the most natural feed available. If you lack the necessary pasture land to provide adequate forage materials, or you need to find an alternate source of food for your horse in the winter, you will want to feed them hay. Grass hay has all the vitamins and minerals of fresh grass, and most horses do fine when given grass hay freely throughout the day. Legume hay is more calorie-dense, but also provides more protein. Working horses will benefit greatly from this, but you cannot feed it as freely as you can grass hay.

Forage should constitute the majority of your horse’s diet. Horses should eat roughly 1-2 percent of their weight in forage materials every day. For most horses, this means between 10-20 pounds of grass or hay. If your horse eats both fresh pasture grass and hay, then you will have to observe their dietary habits, and work from there to try to ensure they have the right amount of forage materials every day.

Try to consistently feed hay from the same source, or make gradual changes from one source to another. As grazers, horses’ digestive systems have little problem with gradual changes to their diet over time, but drastic alterations all at once can cause digestive issues ranging from colic to diarrhea, and more serious problems.

When to feed forage materials
Remember, horses evolved to constantly eat a little bit at a time. Unlike humans, who can lump their nutrition into a few large meals, horses will suffer ill-health if they wait long times between large meals. Their stomachs constantly produce gastric acid, and without food in their stomachs, this acid can lead to ulcers and other health problems. For optimum health, either feed your horse smaller meals more frequently throughout the day, or allow them to graze.

Does my horse require grains?
Grains have been the staple food of working horses for centuries, but as fewer and fewer domesticated horses perform hard labor, we must re-evaluate the role that grains play in horses’ diets. Forage, as previously mentioned, should make up the majority of your horse’s diet, and grains or commercial enriched grain pellets or sweet feed should only be given as a supplement to forage materials.

Grain provides a calorie-dense source of necessary vitamins, proteins and minerals. Your horse needs those, but because of the high calories in grains and grain based feed, these nutrients come at the risk of overfeeding your horse! Additionally, grain feeds contain high levels of omega 6 fatty acids, which have a pro-inflammatory effect. Since horses evolved eating diets based on grasses high in omega 3 fatty acids — which have anti-inflammatory effects — a diet composed of too much grain can lead to painful joints.

Because of this, we recommend feeding your horse the minimum amount of grain or grain-based feed as necessary, depending on the horse’s energy needs. Some horses will need more grain than others, to help maintain weight or because of high energy expenditure. Others will require no grain at all! If you’re uncertain how much grain your horse needs, consult with an equine veterinarian or an equine nutritionist. They can help you ascertain how much grain your horse needs in its diet, if any at all.

Minerals, vitamins and protein
Since grain cannot always act as a reliable source of vitamins, minerals and protein, you will need to find a less calorie-dense source of these nutrients for your horse. Like all things involving your horse’s diet, this starts with their forage! If the pasture grass or their hay is of very high quality, they may receive all the necessary protein from the forage materials. In this case, you will still want to add a multi-vitamin and a mineral supplement to your horse’s diet. If your horse eats lower quality forage materials, you will likely want to add a ration balancer to ensure your horse receives the vitamins, minerals and proteins that it requires. Unlike grains and grain feeds, ration balancers, multivitamins and mineral supplements have very few calories, so it i unlikely that you will overfeeding your horse when supplying these nutrients.

If your horse eats a partial serving of grains or feed, you will likely still want to supplement their vitamins and minerals. If you feed your horse a full serving of grain, however, all of their needs should be taken care of, and vitamin, mineral or protein supplements shouldn’t be necessary.

Don’t forget healthy fats
Humans tend to hear the word fat and get worried, but fat actually plays an important role in a healthy diet. The same holds true for horses — we simply have to provide the right balance! As previously mentioned, pasture grasses have high amounts of omega 3 fatty acids, while grains provide a lot of omega 6s. While too much omega 6 can cause inflammatory problems, horses do need a reliable source in their diet.

To make matters more complicated, while pasture grass contains high levels of omega 3s, by the time it gets processed into hay, the amount of omega 3 becomes nominal. So if your horse eats forage materials composed of mostly hay, you may have a problem!

Horses need 2 to 4 times the amount of omega 3s than of omega 6s. That means a ratio of 2:1 or 4:1. Fresh grass provides close to this, at a ratio of 5:1. Commercial fortified grain feeds tend to go the other way, with a ratio of 1:8, and whole grains are even worse, with a ratio of about 1:24!

If your horse cannot forage in pasture, or receives grain in their diet, you will want to supplement their omega 3 intake. You’ll find plenty of supplements on the market, but keep in mind that ideal ratio between 2:1 and 4:1. An excellent source of this is flaxseed, which provides a 4:1 ratio of omega 3s to omega 6s, making it right on target for your horse’s fat needs.

However you supply fats, remember they are a necessary part of a healthy horse diet! They support proper cellular health, and in the right ratio they ensure proper joint function as well. Just spend the time to ensure that you provide the correct ratio of omega 3s to omega 6s whether that comes directly from food or from a mix of feed and supplements.

Salt and electrolytes
Though you may not know it, horses need salt in their diet! Salt supports healthy muscle and nerve function and it leads your horse to drink enough to stay properly hydrated. Horses require at least one ounce of salt in their diet every day, but many don’t get the sodium they need.

Many horse owners put a salt lick or salt block in the pasture, and some horses will enjoy getting their salt this way. Many, however, dislike the texture and won’t consume salt from a block. If your horse fits into this category, you will want to add a salt supplement to their diet as well.

If your horse sweats a lot, or does lots of heavy labor, consider adding an electrolyte supplement to its diet as well. Your horse loses minerals when it sweats, and an electrolyte supplement will help replace them.

Additional supplements
You’ll find just as many supplements for horse health as you will for humans. Some of them can help improve your horse’s overall health, but many simply cost you money. For the most part, supplements aren’t necessary for your horse’s survival, but they can drastically improve quality of life in some instances. If you decide to give supplements to your horses, spend time looking for a high quality product.

High quality supplements are made with high quality ingredients. They don’t provide a miracle cure, so if advertising seems a little over the top, think twice about spending your money. As you’re shopping around, look for some of the more common supplements, including the following.

– Joint supplements to help repair wear and tear and reduce joint inflammation. These typically include ingredients like Glucosamine, Chondroitin Sulfate, Hyaluronic Acid, MSM, Vitamin C and herbs like devil’s claw, yucca and boswellia.
– Hoof supplements to support healthy circulation and growth in the hoof. Look for ingredients such as Biotin, Lysine, Methionine, Threonine, Copper, and Arginine.
– Digestion supplements with probiotics, prebiotics, yeast and healthy enzymes to ensure proper digestion and keep the GI tract working properly.
– Gastric supplements to help protect the stomach and ease any irritation. These usually use a combination of Calcium, Magnesium, Glycine, Glutamine, Sea Buckthorn and Aloe Vera.
– Skin and coat supplements to help create a soft shiny coat and healthy skin. These are often made using Flaxseed, Fish Oil, Paprika and Nutmeg.

You could also consider additional supplements for specific issues, such as calming supplements for horses that get nervous or excitable, supplements to ward off insects, and respiratory supplements to help support healthy lungs and breathing. You can even find supplements to help with weight control and building muscle.

Before diving into the world of supplements, remember that a supplement is exactly what it says it is — it adds to the staple diet, it does not take the place of it. A good supplement can help improve your horse’s quality of life but it cannot take the place of good overall nutrition. Nothing can.

Additionally, before using multiple supplements, you should consider speaking with an equine veterinarian or nutritionist. You want to ensure that your horse actually benefits from these extras, and that you don’t give them too much of a good thing!

Don’t forget water
Getting enough water seems like such a simple thing, but most of us humans don’t drink near enough! The same goes for many of horses. While water isn’t a nutrient, it is absolutely necessary for a healthy horse. Horses require a great deal of water — an idle horse needs between 10 and 12 gallons of water every day. While working, running at high speeds or during extreme temperatures they will need even more!

Many owners opt for automatic horse watering systems that provide a constant, reliable source of clean water. If you use water buckets, you will want to clean them regularly to ensure that your horse won’t ingest any debris or waste that has gotten into the bucket, and it will reduce the likelihood of any bacteria building up in the bucket. Horses may resist drinking if their water source is too hot or too cold, so if possible maintain a water temperature between 45 and 65 degrees.

Whatever system you use, make sure that your horse always has access to a clean, abundant source of water! If your horse has a decreased appetite, seems lethargic or has a dry mouth, dehydration may be the cause. Double check the water source, and if the horse still doesn’t seem to drink enough, it might require a salt supplement.

Caring for horses
No other human-animal relationship is quite the same as that between a person and their horse. This relationship is built on trust and companionship. Part of that comes from your horse knowing that they will receive everything that they need from you. That means all aspects of their nutrition — from healthy forage materials to clean water to drink.

Proper horse nutrition creates a greater challenge than feeding other animals. They have a distinct digestive system and specific dietary needs. Yet when we provide them a healthy diet, a safe environment, clean water and pleasant companionship, the relationship between human and horse blossoms into something truly remarkable.

No other animal shares a bond like that of human and horse. They have played such a significant role in our personal and cultural development, and that remains true even today. Horses bring with them rewards that no other domesticated animal can, and they ask little in return. See to their health — including proper nutrition — and develop trust between you, and the companionship you build will last a lifetime.