A horse’s diet comprises several components; namely forage (hay and grass), grains, and supplements. Of course, they also need plenty of water, as well as treats and snacks to encourage and reward good behaviour. Although they’re far from finicky eaters, a horse’s dietary requirements change as it grows older. Feeding requirements also differ depending on the season.
Sound complicated? Don’t worry! In this guide, I’ll share everything you need to know about feeding your horse.
The Main Components of a Horse’s Diet
Horses need six nutrient classes in their diet to remain fit and healthy: fats, proteins, water, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. Pasture grass and tender plants provide most of these, but you’ll may need to top up your horse’s diet with concentrates and supplements depending on it’s workload, age or health status.
To answer the “what do horses like to eat?” question, here’s a breakdown of what they need:
Forage – hay and grass
Forage (or roughage) refers to horses’ favourite foodstuffs, which is just as well considering it should make up around 60-90% of their daily diet.
Hay, grass, clover, and alfalfa are all forage. Horses love forage so much that they’d eat it all day long if they could. They shouldn’t, unfortunately – too much can lead to obesity and laminitis, among other health issues.
But in the correct amount, forage helps horses to meet their daily fibre needs. Not only does grass improve their digestive system, but a healthy diet of forage helps them maintain energy and build muscle. Forage is their natural food, after all. Grass also contains silica, which is great for keeping their teeth healthy.
If you are unable to let your horses graze all year round, hay or haylage is the best forage alternative to grass.
They really love to eat Haylage. Check out Edward below, he was supposed to being doing a photoshoot for the World Clydesdale Show 2022, but we couldn’t get him off the bale!
Edward the champion Clydesdale munching haylage when he was supposed to be a photo-model
So, how much forage should a horse eat daily?
To have a balanced diet, horses should eat 2% of their body weight in forage a day. For example: if your horse weighs 500 kg, it should only eat around 10 kg of forage per day.
It might sound like a lot, but a horse will naturally consume this amount if left to graze for most of the day.
To prevent horses from overeating, you may need to limit the amount of time they spend grazing in lush pastures.
Grains and other concentrates
In addition to their daily forage intake, some horses also need to be fed small quantities of grains every day. Oats are ideal, but horses also enjoy corn, barley, and wheat. This, alongside supplements and treats, should make up the rest of your horse’s daily food intake.
However, whether or not your horse actually needs grains depends on the type of horse you have. If your horse is a hard keeper (like a Thoroughbred or Standardbred) it will generally require grain to maintain a healthy body weight. If your horse is a light keeper (a pleasure or trail horse, for example), it may not require grain at all.
A horse’s daily grain intake should equate to around 1.5% of its healthy weight. If your horse can only graze for half a day, you may need to increase its grain intake slightly to make up for the loss in nutrients.
Grain can either be served in pellets or texturised horse feed. You could also feed your horse concentrate mixes of grains, molasses, flaxseed, bran, and beet pulp. Horse grain should be soaked to make it easier for the horse to chew and avoid impaction colic.
The white starch found in grain is a great source of energy for horses, but overfeeding your horse grain could lead to digestive system issues. Colic and stomach ulcers are common ailments associated with horses overindulging in grains.
Supplements for horses
You can mix supplements containing salt and minerals with your horse feed or serve it to them separately. You could leave a salt block in the pasture, for example, so your horse can relieve their cravings whenever necessary.
To calculate how much salt your horse requires per day, the NRC (Nutrient Requirements for Horses) recommends 0.02 g x the weight of your horse. So, your 500 kg horse needs 10g of salt per day.
Sodium is one of the most important electrolytes in a horse’s diet (or any diet, for that matter). It helps with the digestion of protein, conduction of nerve impulses, and muscle contraction.
Salt also keeps horses drinking the right amount of water. Without regular doses of salt, a horse will stop drinking water altogether. Why? Drinking water flushes out the last of the sodium in their system, so a horse will refrain from drinking when their sodium levels are low.
Other minerals essential in your horse’s diet include:
Many of the above can be found in standard horse feed and forage.
Water is the most vital component of a horse’s diet. It helps them digest forages and grains, combats colic and boosts blood flow.
At a minimum, you need to provide your horse with fresh, clean water twice a day, but having constant access is better. Horses need to drink around 5% of their weight in water per day. Going back to our imaginary 500 kg horse; he’ll need to drink 25 litres of water every day – which is quite a lot!
Obviously, water consumption depends on temperature levels and whether or not the horse has a job. Of course, their jobs aren’t sitting at a desk all day, so workhorses can drink well over 50 litres of water on a hot day.
Check on water buckets regularly to ensure they’re clean and full, and break up ice should they freeze over in winter.
Treats and snacks for horses
It’s fine to feed your horse the odd carrot or apple. Sugar cubes and horse candies are also okay – now and again. Just like us humans, too many sugary fruits and snacks can harm your horse’s digestive system, and cause obesity, laminitis, or colic.
As a general rule, avoid feeding your horse more than two pieces of fruit or vegetables per day. No matter how much your horse tries to get your attention, you shouldn’t overfeed it on treats.
Are you wondering “what can horses eat as a treat”?
Try some of the following (on an irregular basis and in small amounts):
Apples (without the core)
Apricots (without the stone)
Melon (without the rind)
Peaches (without the stone)
Pears (without the core)
Plums (without the stone)
Feeding Horses At Different Life Stages
Your horse’s eating habits and dietary requirements will change as they mature.
Pregnant mares should be fed as normal up to the last three months of their pregnancy. At this point, they should be kept off any pasture that contains fescue grass, which can be detrimental to foals.
Instead of fescue grass, pregnant mares should be fed hay and a high-protein grain mix. Portion sizes should get gradually bigger the closer the mare gets to giving birth. To find out exactly how much to feed the mum-to-be, it’s best to seek the advice of an equine nutritionist or specialised equine vet, who can structure a sound feeding plan.
You need to make sure that your lactating mare’s meals are protein-rich. To do this, switch to Lucerne or chaff hay. A specialised broodmare concentrate feed will provide a sufficient amount of additional protein and nutrients. You’ll be able to find serving suggestions on the concentrate bag.
What do Foals eat?
The main source of nutrition for a newborn foal is the mare’s milk, which gives them antibodies, protein, potassium, and calcium, amongst other nutrients. Ideally, foals need a healthy amount of mare’s milk for the first six to eight weeks of their lives.
The only way you can ensure they’re getting enough is by watching them. Make sure that the mare is eating quality broodmare feed, and that the foal is actively looking for milk every one or two hours.
Eventually, a foal will start nibbling on its mother’s feed. At the age of one to two weeks, foals can start eating forage – but make sure you only feed them 1% of their weight each day. You should also divide this meal up into several small portions to be eaten throughout the day.
Check out this video of my dad feeding his mares and foals, you can see they really like their feed
What should I feed Young horses?
Young horses need to be fed a steady diet rich in protein (particularly amino acid lysine), zinc, calcium, phosphorus, copper, and magnesium. This will facilitate their rapid growth and minimize the risk of developmental orthopaedic diseases (DODs).
At one year old, switch your horse to a diet of 50% forage and 50% concentrate (or a junior supplement). Forage portions should add up to 2% of the horse’s weight, while the concentrate should equate to around 1.5%.
If you notice your young horse nodding its head while chewing, don’t worry! Horses nod to help them chew.
What should I feed Senior horses
A horse’s feeding habits change as it grows older (much like us humans). Most horses reach their full height by the age of five, but this can differ, depending on the type and breed of horse.
Once your horse has reached maturity, alter its diet to suit its slower rate of growth (and its dental health). A mature balanced diet consists of 60% forage and 40% concentrate.
As your horse reaches seniority, it may struggle to digest high levels of protein, phosphorus and fibre. For this reason, you need to make sure both the forage and concentrate consist of plenty of easily digestible fibre and vitamin C.
If your senior horse has bad or missing teeth, it’ll likely need to be fed pellets mashed with warm water. This will make it easier to chew.
If your horse has joint issues, check out our guide to the best supplements here
Seasonal Feeding for horses
As if all of that wasn’t enough, a horse’s feeding schedule also needs to change throughout each year, between the cold and hot months.
In colder months, horses need to eat more food to keep warm. In other words, you must increase your horse’s food the further below freezing that temperatures drop. In freezing temperatures, you need to increase your horse’s feed by between 15 and 20%.
You’ll also have to supplement grass to hay or haylage in winter. Not only does grass grow less, but the available grass has higher stored sugars, which can lead to digestion issues. Make sure the commercial feed you give your horse contains all the nutrients that hay lacks. The feed should also contain plenty of oats and corn, providing them with the energy to keep warm.
Managing horses with Laminitis can be a challenge throughout the year. It’s the sugar content in grass that is the problem. In summer, the sugar content is higher in the afternoon than at night due to the sun. We keep our horses in during the day to combat this.
In winter, a different problem arises, Fructan. It’s a type of sugar the grass stores when it is cold, and can cause laminitis to flare up. Be careful on frosty mornings with short grass, as this is when the fructan is the highest. Short grass is a problem because the fructan is stored in the lower part of the grass, near to the ground. So be careful on those frosty mornings.
Be careful on frosty mornings, the grass sugar level can be high
In spring, you can either encourage or restrict grazing depending on whether your horse gained or lost weight during the winter. Spring grass has a high sugar content, so you need to observe how much they eat while also monitoring their weight gain if you don’t want an overweight horse on your hands!
Additionally, you need to provide your horse with more water. Fill up their water bucket whenever necessary and keep it in the shade. Due to increased sweating, horses also require more salt in the summer.
Diet-Related Health Concerns
Fresh grass and nutrient-loaded concentrate will keep your horse in good shape, but there are still some diet-related health problems to watch for:
Caused by: High-grain and low-forage diets; a sudden change in feed; mouldy feed; lack of water; parasites.
Symptoms: Bloating, rolling, pawing the ground, sweating, signs of unease and distress, reduced interest in food and water, no gut sounds, sitting or frequent stretching.
Treatment: Depends on the type of colic or severity, and ranges from medication to urgent surgery.
Caused by: An inflammatory response, which can be caused by a carbohydrate overdose (such as too much grain or too much spring grass).
Symptoms: Reluctance to walk, difficulty turning sharply, frequent shifting weight when resting, lameness, stiffness, awkward walking on hard ground.
Treatment: Pain relief, therapeutic shoeing, changes in diet.
Caused by: A sedentary lifestyle and overfeeding.
Symptoms: Use Condition Scoring to determine if your horse is obese; can’t feel ribs, back legs rubbing together.
Treatment: Minimise energy-dense grains, avoid lush grass, don’t feed oil-containing food, and moderate daily exercise.
Caused by: Diets high in hay can cause periodontitis.
Symptoms: Tooth decay, reluctance to eat, bad-smelling breath.
Treatment: Antibiotics to fight the infection.
What are the types of feed horses shouldn’t eat?
Horse owners should not feed their horses any of the following: ragwort foxglove, deadly nightshade, acorns, yew, laburnum, privet, or ivy. You should also avoid feeding your horse fruit with pips and seeds, chocolate, potatoes, bread, and yoghurt.
What do wild horses eat?
Wild horses eat grass, and a lot of it! They have been known to graze for up to 17 hours per day. While grazing, a wild horse eats grass, shrubs, and whatever other plant material they can find. Normally, horses in the wild will position themselves near a freshwater supply. Their grass is not the lush grass that grows on pasture, but drier, higher fibre grass with tough stalks. Most of the dietary issues horses face are due to poor management and misunderstanding of your horses needs. Rememebr that lush green grass is like candy for horses, so ration it wisely.