There’s a range of horse feed types for a reason. Your steed will go through various stages in its life, and its dietary needs will change dramatically along the way. Even over the course of one year, your horse’s diet should be adjusted – to fit the seasons, for example.
So if you don’t know your roughage from your rice bran, you’re sure to find this guide helpful. In this rundown, we’ll give you all the info you need about grass and hay, complete feeds, and vitamin and mineral supplements. By the end, you’ll know all types of horse feed inside and out!
If you are looking for a more basic guide, check out our post “what do horses eat“.
A mix of grains and fibre to help condition our show horses
Roughage refers to fibrous plant materials. This diet component is critical to maintaining a horse’s digestive health, and should be the most prominent part of their diet.
Sometimes referred to as forage, you may better know roughage simply as grass and hay.
The amount of roughage a horse requires to stay healthy depends entirely on their size and age. However, the general rule is that young and mature horses should eat around 2% of their body weight in roughage per day. As I’ve mentioned, it should make up the majority of a horse’s daily food intake.
This amount of roughage helps horses meet their daily vitamin and mineral requirements. Not only is roughage full of fibre, but it is also rich in calcium, protein, and vitamins A, D, and E.
Horses are born grazers, which makes grass the perfect form of roughage for them.
A fully-grown horse can eat upwards of 15 kg of grass if left alone to graze for a full day. Grass is the most natural means for a horse to reach its daily roughage quota, especially if it can easily access lush pastures for most of the year. As horses first need to bite off and then chew grass, they eat more slowly, aiding digestion.
Of course, the type of grass seed you plant determines how nutritious the grass will be. The most nutritious pasture types for horses include:
Smooth meadow grass
Creeping red fescues
The nutrient content of grass changes throughout the year. During spring and summer, pastures are at their lushest. During these seasons, horses can dine solely on grass and horse feed concentrates (typically a mix of grains, sweet feed, and pelleted feed).
In the winter, however, grass growth is severely impeded, which limits the amount of pasture available for grazing. During autumn and winter, your horse will have to dine on an alternative roughage type (usually hay) to make up for the nutritional loss. Alternatively, you could invest in grass feed, which is basically grass in the form of pellets.
Gail and her foal enjoying our grass at Strathorn
The second best feed for horses is hay. This is probably because hay is grass (or flowering plants, in the case of alfalfa) – albeit, dryer and crunchier. Hay is a great alternative to grass, as it allows you to feed your horse easily through the winter.
Unlike grass, hay helps you monitor exactly how much your horse eats – ideal if you need to manage your horse’s weight.
Hay is rich in calcium, phosphorus, protein, copper, and zinc. However, like grass, each type of hay has a different nutrition profile. There are three main types of hay: legume hay, grass hay, and mixed hay.
Examples of legume hay include alfalfa and clover. Alfalfa hay (sometimes referred to as Lucerne hay) has a particularly high level of calcium and protein, giving active horses a great energy boost. If you’re trying to make your horse gain weight, legume hay would be the best option.
Examples of grass hay include orchard, oat, Timothy, and Bermuda. Grass hay is generally lower in protein, which is beneficial for horses with health problems, such as obesity.
Besides grass hay, you also get haylage. This is a special hay type that is fermented rather than dried, unlike regular hay. Haylage contains around 60% moisture, along with its various nutrients. It typically consists of grass. The types of grass it contains will depend on where it is grown.
In fact, it has some benefits over hay.
Through the fermentation process, more nutrients are preserved in haylage than in regular hay, making it ideal for highly active horses that require more calories. Plus, if your horse suffers from colic or another digestive system problem, haylage is much easier to digest.
Although feeding horses isn’t usually a chore, some are picky eaters. If they show a reluctance to eat dry hay, you should offer them haylage and see if they prefer the more moist texture.
King Edward our Champion Clydesdale enjoying our homegrown haylage straight from the bale
Cut corn/maize silage
Cut corn or maize silage is another type of nutritious roughage that horses often enjoy. Cut corn consists of all components of the plant – leaves, cobs, and stocks – that are chopped up and mixed. This is either served moist or dried out – like hay. Maize silage is prepared similarly, but is fermented after mixing.
Although it is uncommon to serve horses cut corn/maize silage, it does provide them with health benefits in certain situations.
It’s a starchy and energy-dense roughage food; another one of those horse feeds that is great for working and active horses. It’s also more palatable for fussy eaters.
However, cut corn and maize silage’s high acidity means that it can sometimes cause digestive upset. It also doesn’t provide as much fibre as other types of horse feed, and should not be the main source of roughage in their diet. It could be served alongside hay, for example, to encourage more picky horses to eat.
Straw is low in nutritional value but can help add fibre and bulk to horse feeds. Consisting of dry stocks of cereal grains, straw comes nowhere close to grass (and dried grass) in terms of nutrition. However, it is low in calories and high in fibre – beneficial for horses needing a boost.
Straw cereal grains cut into smaller pieces (also known as chaff) can be digested easily by horses. However, this food lacks protein, sugar, and vitamins, and should not be given to a horse as their primary source of roughage.
Straw is very versatile. It can make your horse a comfy bed, and it can serve as part of their diet, too. Be sure to get good quality straw from this seasons crop and make sure your horses have access to plenty water as it is very high in fibre.
Straw is also very good for managing horses with obesity, EMS or laminitis. You can feed it by its self, or mix it with some haylage depending on your horse’s needs.
Topper and June, our homebred Clydesdale cross horses enjoying our homegrown barley straw
Instead of using both roughage and concentrates, you could choose a complete feed instead – if the situation warrants it. A complete feed is designed to provide a horse with all its nutritional needs in one neat package. It normally consists of a grain mix, including barley, wheat, corn, bran, and oats.
Additionally, complete feeds will contain minerals, such as salt and dicalcium phosphate, digestive enzymes, and probiotics.
These horse feeds are easier to chew and swallow; ideal for senior horses and those suffering from dental issues. In both cases, the horse will struggle to break down forage themselves. Complete feed comes already mostly broken down, so it’s easier for poorly horses to eat.
Horses suffering from heaves can also benefit from regular servings of complete feeds. Heaves is a respiratory inflammation issue, which is often triggered by the dust found in hay and other types of roughage. Complete feeds are a dust-free – healthy alternative in this situation.
We give Veteran Vitality to our older horses as a complete feed to keep them happy and healthy
Ration balancers can be added to horse feed in small portions to create a more balanced diet. They are typically made from oats, corn, rice bran, flaxseed, or soybean meal. In terms of nutritional value, ration balancers can top up a horse’s diet with vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. They also come rich in antioxidants, including the likes of vitamin E.
Ration balancers come either in powdered or pelleted form, which makes it easy for you to add them to standard horse food. I recommend them for horses that don’t receive enough vitamins and minerals from their standard roughage diet.
If your horse is on a low-calorie diet, for example, ration balancers can help maintain their nutritional intake without contributing additional calories. Or, if your horse only enjoys eating hay, a ration balancer can provide the additional nutrients that hay lacks. If your horse is training for a competition and needs an extra boost of nutrients, ration balancers are a good option.
However, don’t introduce a ration balancer to your horse’s eating plan without first consulting an equine nutritionist or a vet; most horses will be just fine without them.
Top Spec Lite, fed to one of our chubby cobs to give him the nutrients he needs while keeping him at healthy weight
Many horses require concentrates when they don’t get enough calories from their meals. Typically, concentrates are given to performance, pregnant, and lactating horses who need additional protein and energy. They are often referred to as sweet or grain feed, and come in the form of pellets and grains.
The main types of horse feed concentrates include:
Performance concentrates – These come loaded with corn, oats, barley, soybean meal, and beet pulp for sustained energy. Out of all the concentrate types, performance concentrates are the most calorie-rich and should only be fed to horses that need the extra calories.
Growth feeds – This is the best horse feed type for young and growing horses. They come packed with nutrients to help with muscle and bone growth and development. Growth feeds contain high levels of protein and minerals to help tissue form and grow.
Senior feeds – As a horse’s digestive system slows down, they need horse feeds that will help them maintain a healthy gut. Senior feeds can also help with weight management and dental health. Senior feeds usually contain beet pulp and rice bran.
Textured feeds – This type of feed is made for finicky animals. They come packed with molasses and tasty grain, and packed into a nugget shape. The result is a more palatable concentrate for your horse.
Extruded Feeds – If your horse suffers from digestion issues, try including extruded feeds in its diet. Grains and oilseeds are cooked together under high pressure, which creates a porous finished product. This porous surface allows for vitamins and minerals to be absorbed more easily.
Vitamin & Mineral Supplements
Horse feed supplements can help combat nutritional deficiencies. You can add them to a horse’s daily feed, or provide them in another way. For example, salt blocks are often added to pastures to top up horses’ sodium levels. Sodium is essential for digestion and helps promote hydration.
Other essential vitamins and minerals often supplemented into a horse’s diet include:
Vitamin D – which is essential for maintaining horse joint health
Omega-3 fatty acids
These horse supplements come in various forms, including pellets, powders, pastes, and gels. Sometimes, the likes of vitamin C are injected into a horse. Supplements can also be served as a top dressing, which can be put directly onto their feed or mixed in with cereal grains.
Vitamin E and Selenium support healthy muscle and nerve function, and also support the immune system.
Horse Feed FAQs
How can I improve my horse’s nutrition?
If your horse suffers from malnutrition, you first need to introduce better roughage to its diet. If your horse’s main source of roughage is grass, make sure its pasture consists of smooth meadow grass, chewing fescue, and/or another healthy grass form. Additionally, you should add appropriate supplements and concentrates to the horse’s diet.
What is a nutrition feed for horses?
The most nutritious feed for horses is long-stem grass or quality hay. However, there are many other types of horse feed, each of which possesses necessary health benefits. The best horse feed types provide a horse with carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and water.
Do young horses have different nutritional needs?
Yes, young horses up to the age of four require a larger protein intake, relative to their size, than mature horses do. This is to facilitate the growth of their muscles.
What are some things you can feed a horse besides hay or grass?
Besides hay and grass, horses can eat cut corn, straw, and beet pulp. They can also be fed a range of fruit and vegetables on occasion – and in small portions. This includes carrots, strawberries, bananas, and cucumbers. Fruit and vegetables should be seen more as a treat, rather than a regular part of their diet. They do enjoy them though, check out our horses trying courgette here