Horses are herbivores, meaning that they eat plants. They eat grass, hay and haylage. Salt, supplements, concentrates, vegetables and fruits enhance their diets, depending on their energy requirements and amount of work they do.
Your horse has an extremely long — and sensitive! — digestive tract that requires him to consume a lot of fibre. He needs to eat little and often, meaning that he’s going to continually eat small meals throughout the whole day.
Any rapid changes to your horse’s diet can cause him to become ill. Sudden changes in diet can specifically cause colic, so you should always change his food gradually over two to four weeks at least. If you notice changes in your horse’s feeding habits, notice that he’s losing or gaining weight, or notice that his feet are sore, call your vet as soon as possible.
What is the basic feed for horses?
- Grass is your horse’s natural food and good for the digestive system. However, your horse evolved to live off of poor quality grasses, so be careful when letting your horse out onto lush spring grass, which is full of sugars, and can quickly cause laminitis. Also make sure you clear out harmful plants from your paddocks, such as ragwort.
- Hay is preserved grass and a staple in your horse’s diet and fed during the months when pasture isn’t available or when the grass has too much sugar. Hay is conserved by using dehydration. It requires a prolonged period of sunny days to completely dry out. Hay requires 88% dehydration and this is achieved by keeping it completely dry.
- Haylage is also preserved grass, but the method of preservation and moisture content are different than in hay. Haylage is cut earlier than hay: it’s at a younger stage of growth when it’s cut, and it’s left to wilt instead of completely drying out. Haylage is preserved using fermentation, and is baled and wrapped in several layers of plastic so it’s moisture content remains high. This is done to stop oxygen from reaching it, preventing harmful mould and spores from growing inside.
- Fruit or vegetables add moisture to the feed and give your horse variety. Carrots and apples are the traditional snacks we offer horses, but make sure to only offer them as occasional treats.
- Supplements are used in horse feeding when your horse is old, young, nursing, pregnant, in hard work or competing. Supplements can be things like grains (e.g. oats, barley, corn) and can contain additional oils and minerals. Supplements are designed to give your horse energy and should not be fed to horses that don’t need them. You need to also be aware that supplements can be dangerous if you mix the wrong amounts or combinations, causing mineral imbalances.
- Salt is an electrolyte, and the most crucial mineral in the equine diet. It helps to maintain optimum pH levels, and sodium levels are measured by the brain, which signals your horse to drink. If sodium blood concentration is low, the signal to drink water will be greatly diminished and your horse will get sick. Salt blocks are an easy way to offer supplemental salt for your horse. Especially, in the summer you need to make sure your horse gets enough water and salt.
A note on feeding horses supplements.
Oats are a traditional grain fed to horses. However, horses may also be fed small amounts of other grains like corn. Some grains, such as wheat, aren’t always good for horses. The seed head of grasses would be the closest thing a wild horse would come to eating grains in their natural environment.
Grains that are grown, harvested, and processed using modern-day methods are not natural foods for horses. It is easy to feed too much grain to horses. Grain also doesn’t require a similar length of chewing time, nor does it contain the levels of silica that grass does. This can contribute to issues including ulcers and dental problems. A horse that over-eats a large amount of grain may have colic or laminitis.
Other concentrates can be in the form of powders or pellets, and be for specific things like arthritis, or supplements such as salt and minerals may be included in a concentrate mix. A salt block or loose salt in a pasture or stall allows horses to help themselves when they have a craving. Some salt may come mixed with minerals. Some people offer free-choice minerals as well, or they may add them into the horse’s grain or concentrate meal.
Always check the contents of processed supplements and consult your vet if you’re unsure of your horse’s needs.
What do horses drink?
Clean, fresh water is your horse’s main source of moisture. Horses are very sensitive to taste in the water and can refuse to drink water from a new source, but there are some tricks to help with that. For instance, if you’re driven your horse to a competition and your horse refuses to drink the water from the competition grounds, you can mix in some apple juice to hide the taste.
Some electrolytes are also mixed into drinking water, and are usually for use in summer when it’s hot and when your horse is working hard. Your horse will ingest some moisture from things like fruits, veggies, and fresh grass, but you’ll want to make sure your horse always has access to clean water so he stays hydrated.
In winter, you’ll want to make sure the water doesn’t freeze. If it’s been cold enough for the water in the troughs to freeze overnight, go around the stables and pastures and break the sheet of ice that has formed on the surface of the water. If you live in a cold country that gets a proper winter, you’ll want to use heated water troughs to make sure the water doesn’t freeze solid.
How much should horses eat?
An average adult horse should eat dry matter (what remains after all of the water is evaporated out of a feed) weighing around 1.5–3% t of its body weight. This depends on the horse’s activity and the quality of the food.
Your horse’s diet should be at least 50% (usually more) low-sugar content hay or haylage and pasture grass. If your horse isn’t being ridden at all, an all-hay/grass diet can be enough and you won’t need supplements. It’s better to feed more low-sugar hay/grass than to feed less high-sugar hay/grass.
Basic rule of thumb: more fibre, less sugar.
Good pasture contains most of the nutrition that your horse needs to be healthy. It also contains silica, which is important for dental health.
Primitive horses can live on sparse rations and often have to make do with less than ideal pasture and living conditions. This is likely why problems like obesity, equine metabolic syndrome, and laminitis are rare in wild horses but occur frequently in our modern horses.
The grass in your pasture grass isn’t always the problem, the type of horses we’ve developed and the lack of exercise are, but you should still be very aware of what kind of grass you’ve got in your pasture and manage it accordingly. If you get a chance to switch it out for forage that’s more horse friendly, do so.
If you’ve got an easy keeper, you’ll need to limit the amount of fresh grass your horse has access to. This can include turning them out with a grazing muzzle and turning them out in the grassy paddocks for only a few hours a day. However, if you’ve got a hard keeper, good pasture is the best nutrition.
If you ride your horse, add grains or other supplements as needed. You should avoid feeding your horse a few large meals in a day, and aim instead for him to constantly forage; i.e. eat small amounts but constantly. A healthy horse gut is one that is constantly being fed more fibre and which makes a low, continuous gurgling noise.
If you do feed your horse larger meals, avoid working him right after he’s eaten a larger meal. This can negatively affect his digestion and cause problems. Also make sure that when you do work your horse that you feed enough. If your horse starts losing weight when being ridden, you can first add more hay to his diet and see if that makes a difference. If that isn’t enough, start feeding a good quality supplement to help maintain his energy and body condition.
Supplements are usually a concentrated mixture of things like grains, flaxseed, beet pulp, molasses for energy and flavour, bran, vitamins and minerals, and other ingredients. Commercial mixes may have a number of ingredients in them, or some feed mills will mix concentrates to your specifications (only practical when you have a large number of horses to feed).
How do I calculate how much hay I need to feed my horse?
To determine how much hay your horse needs, it depends on its weight. A full-grown horse typically requires 5-6 kg (12-15 lbs) of hay per day, which is about 1.5% to 3% of its body weight if it weighs around 450 kg (1,000 lbs). This is a rough estimate, and individual horse requirements may vary based on factors like metabolism, workload, diet, and the season. Ponies will need less hay, while large draft breeds might consume 13 kg (30 lbs) or more daily.
Feeding hay in small, frequent portions is ideal as it mimics natural grazing habits and promotes digestive health. Avoid giving your horse a full day’s worth of hay in one meal to prevent wastage. Some horses may require portion control to prevent obesity. In many cases, hay alone is sufficient, and there’s no need for additional concentrates like oats or sweet feed or rich hay containing legumes, like clover and alfalfa.
When using small square bales, it’s essential to determine the weight of an average bale, usually around 23 kg (60 lbs). The number of flakes in the bale can vary, but there are typically about 12. Divide the bale’s weight by the number of flakes to calculate the approximate daily amount to feed your horse.
Formula for calculating how much hay to feed your horse.
I remember struggling with percentages for the longest time. It wasn’t until I went and worked in retail and needed to quickly calculate how much my staff discount was on things that I got the trick of percentages. The trick is to skip the tedious part of the calculation and get right down to the meat.
You do this by adding zeroes in front of the percentage. If I want to know what 20% is, I type 0,20 into my calculator and just multiply with the horse’s weight. If I want to know what 3% is, I type in 0,03. And if I want to know what 1,5% is, I type 0,015.
Here’s the basic formula: [%] * [horse’s weight] = amount of feed
To calculate 3% of a horse that weighs 450 kgs: 0.03 * 450 = 13.62. Your horse needs 13,62 kgs of hay a day. If a bale weighs 23 kg and has 12 flakes, (23/12=1,91) each flake weighs about 1,9 kg. You’ll need to feed your horse about 7 flakes a day (13,62/1,9=7,1).
The same in pounds:
To calculate 3% of a horse that weighs 1,000 lbs: 0.03 * 1000 = 30. Your horse needs 30 lbs of hay a day. If a bale weighs 50 lbs and has 12 flakes, (50/12=4,16) each flake weighs about 4 lbs. You’ll need to feed your horse about 7,5 flakes a day (30/4=7,5).
Free calculator to estimate how much hay your horse needs.
Please note that this is a rough estimate and does not take into consideration the sugar-content of the hay. To find out how much sugar your hay contains, have it tested. That is the only reliable way to find out the sugar content.
Horse Hay Calculator
Fill in the calculator:
How to feed a horse.
Your horse should be fed little and often, all day. When you work your horse, be mindful of how long of a break he’s had since he last ate something. Take a break and let him rest and eat for a bit before you continue working if you’re doing something that takes a long time.
If your horse has a tendency to go through hay really quickly, use some kind of slow-feeder (hay nets with smaller holes or hay bags/pillows with only one opening). Also remember that your horse is designed to eat with his head down, so keep the feed as close to the ground as possible for optimum functioning of his throat and airways.
If your horse is kept in a stable for most of the day (which is a bad idea because it will shorten your horse’s lifespan and increase the risk of illnesses), he’ll need to be fed several times a day. Stopping by just a few times a day isn’t enough, and you’ll want to divide up the feedings into as many as you possibly can.
What do wild horses eat?
Wild horses, like domestic horses, are herbivores, which means they primarily eat plant material. Their diet typically consists of a variety of vegetation found in their natural habitats. What wild horses eat can vary depending on their location and the availability of food, but here are some common components of their diet:
- Grasses: Wild horses often graze on a variety of grasses, which make up a significant portion of their diet. They can consume different types of grasses, including native grasses in their habitat.
- Forbs: Forbs are broad-leaved plants, such as wildflowers and herbs, that can provide essential nutrients and variety to their diet. Wild horses may browse on these plants when available. Further reading: What is a Forb?
- Shrubs and bushes: In some regions, wild horses may consume shrubs and bushes, especially during times when other vegetation is scarce. They may eat the leaves, twigs, and even the bark of certain plants.
- Aquatic plants: In areas with access to water sources like rivers or ponds, wild horses may feed on aquatic plants, such as water lilies and cattails.
- Trees: In harsh environments with limited food resources, wild horses may resort to eating tree bark and leaves. However, this is not their preferred food source.
- Seeds: Wild horses may also consume seeds from various plants as they forage, providing them with additional nutrients.
It’s important to note that wild horses have evolved to adapt to their specific environments, and their diet can vary greatly depending on factors like climate, geography, and the season. They are opportunistic feeders, meaning they will eat what is available to them at any given time.
In many cases, wild horses rely on their natural instincts to find the most nutritious and suitable food sources in their environment. Their ability to adapt their diet to changing conditions helps them survive in the wild.
How many hours a day does a wild horse eat?
The amount of time wild horses graze can vary depending on several factors, including the availability of food, the season, and the specific region they inhabit. On average, wild horses may graze for about 12 to 16 hours a day. However, this is a rough estimate, and there can be significant variations.
In areas with abundant and nutritious forage, wild horses may graze for shorter periods since they can meet their nutritional needs more efficiently. Conversely, in regions with sparse or lower-quality forage, they may need to graze for longer hours to obtain enough sustenance.
Wild horses are also known to graze during the cooler parts of the day, such as early morning and late evening, to avoid extreme heat and conserve energy. They are adapted to a nomadic lifestyle, continually moving to find fresh forage, water, and suitable shelter, which influences their grazing patterns.
What horses eat can seriously affect their health.
Unlike many other animals, the anatomy of a horse’s digestive system makes it physically impossible for them to vomit. This is due to several factors:
- One-way digestive system: Horses have a one-way digestive system that includes a muscular ring called the cardiac sphincter at the junction of the oesophagus and stomach. In horses, this ring is very strong and does not allow food or stomach contents to regurgitate back up the oesophagus.
- Lack of a gallbladder: Horses also lack a gallbladder, which means they have a continuous but slow secretion of bile into the small intestine. This helps to digest food, but it also means there’s less of a mechanism for reversing the flow of stomach contents.
- Strong muscular contractions: Horses have powerful muscular contractions in their digestive tract to move food in one direction, from the mouth to the stomach and through the rest of the digestive system. These contractions do not allow for the reversal of food flow.
Because of these factors, if a horse ingests something toxic or experiences a digestive issue, they cannot expel it by vomiting like some other animals can. Instead, they may show signs of discomfort, colic, or other symptoms that require veterinary attention. It’s essential to monitor a horse’s health closely and provide proper care to prevent digestive problems.
Horses have several natural behaviours and instincts that help them avoid eating unsuitable or toxic substances.
They possess a foraging instinct, making them natural grazers that tend to feed on a variety of plants and grasses. Over thousands of years of evolution, they have developed an innate ability to select suitable forage and avoid toxic plants.
In the wild, horses often live in herds, and social learning plays a crucial role in their dietary choices. They observe the behaviours of their mother and other horses in their group, learning which plants are safe to eat and which should be avoided. In a human-controlled environment, it’s our job to make sure we remove all toxic and harmful plants so that the horses can’t get to them.
Horses rely on their keen sense of smell and taste to identify potentially harmful substances in their environment. They can detect unusual odours or tastes in their food, leading them to avoid consuming anything that doesn’t seem right. That’s why you can try to hide one tiny pill in a bucket of grain, and your horse will eat every last grain and leave the pill on the bottom.
Occasionally, young horses may engage in “taste-testing” behaviour, where they sample different plants. However, if they experience negative effects from consuming a particular plant, they are less likely to eat it in the future, demonstrating a form of trial and error in their learning process.
Furthermore, horses have specific dietary needs for essential nutrients like fibre, protein, and minerals. They often naturally seek out plants that provide these nutrients, helping them avoid less nutritious or potentially harmful options.
Despite these natural mechanisms for avoiding unsuitable plants, horse owners and caretakers must provide a safe and well-managed environment for their animals. This includes regular inspections of pastures and feeding areas to remove toxic plants, proper storage of feed to prevent spoilage or contamination, and the provision of a balanced and appropriate diet to meet the horse’s nutritional requirements.
Whenever you’re unsure about the safety of a particular plant or feed, consult your vet or an equine nutritionist.
DO NOT feed these things to your horse.
Feeding a horse the wrong foods can lead to various health issues, so it’s crucial to be aware of what they should not eat.
Here is a list of foods and substances that horses should avoid:
- Toxic plants: Many common plants are toxic to horses, including ragwort, bracken fern, oleander, and yew. It’s essential to regularly inspect pastures and remove any toxic plants.
- Mouldy or spoiled feed: Mouldy hay, grain, or other feed can contain mycotoxins that are harmful to horses. Always provide fresh and clean feed.
- Chocolate: Chocolate contains theobromine, which is toxic to horses. It can lead to digestive issues and other health problems if ingested. Cats, dogs, birds and rodents should also stay away from chocolate for the same reason.
- Caffeine: Like chocolate, caffeine is harmful to horses and should be avoided. It can overstimulate their nervous system and lead to health issues.
- Onions and garlic: These vegetables, when consumed in large quantities, can damage a horse’s red blood cells and lead to anaemia.
- Avocado: Avocado contains a substance called persin, a natural, oil-soluble fungicide, which can be toxic to horses and cause digestive problems.
- Lawn clippings: Freshly mowed grass clippings can ferment quickly and cause digestive issues if consumed by horses. It’s best to avoid feeding them lawn clippings. Although giving horses freshly cut grass might seem like a good idea, you can’t be sure what other garden waste could be in there and your horse might eat the grass much more quickly than if naturally grazing. Colic could be a result.
- Fruit pits and seeds: The pits and seeds of fruits like apples, cherries, and peaches can contain cyanide, which is poisonous to horses. If your horse eats a few apples, it won’t be enough to harm them, but it’s a good idea to not feed too many treats too often.
- High-sugar treats: Excessive sugar intake, such as from candies, can lead to insulin resistance and laminitis in horses. It’s best to limit sugary treats.
- Meat and dairy products: Horses are herbivores and should not be fed meat or dairy products, as their digestive system is not adapted for these foods. Even though a horse may not show outward signs like colic when fed meat, they may still feel some discomfort and strange foods could affect the intestinal flora.
- Bread: While small amounts of bread may not harm a horse, it’s not an ideal feed because it lacks essential nutrients and can be high in sugars.
- Dog and cat food: Pet food is formulated for different animals and can contain ingredients that are inappropriate for horses.
- Alcohol: Alcohol can have a toxic effect on horses’ systems and should never be given to them.
- Human medications: Never administer human medications to horses without veterinary guidance, as many can be harmful or even fatal to them.
- Mouldy forage: Mouldy hay or bedding can contain mycotoxins that are dangerous for horses. Always provide clean and mould-free forage and clean out stalls daily.
- Potatoes and tomatoes are both members of the Nightshade family should not be fed to horses.
- Garden waste. There are so many risks from garden clippings, including plants, weeds and toxins from garden sprays that may be poisonous.
And remember to keep an eye on your horse’s weight.
Regularly check the body condition score of your horse. Like underweight horses, overweight ones are at risk of many health conditions, and it’s much cheaper and easier to prevent illness than it is to fix it. Whenever you have questions about your horse’s food or exercise, consult your trainers and vets. The goal is to have a happy, healthy horse that will be a source of joy rather than a source of stress in your life.