Feeding of Horses

Beginner’s Guide to Feeding a Horse / The Digestive System / Hay / Grains
How Much Food? / Pasture/ Feeding Hints


Beginner’s Guide to Feeding a Horse

The horse requires energy foods that will keep his body warm, and provide fuel to keep his body functioning and full of energy. He also requires food elements that are necessary for building, maintaining and repairing the cells of his muscles, bones and body organs. The bulk of the horse’s diet is made up of carbohydrates and fats, which provide heat and energy, and proteins, which promote the building and repairing. Vitamins, in very small quantities, are also necessary for the horse’s good health. Vitamin A, for example, ensures good eyesight, as well as healthy respiratory and digestive systems.

As this is a very basic discussion of the horse’s diet, (and acknowledging that there is a lot of
scientific data out there on this very subject), we simply suggest that the new owner feeds the horse grass in summer (assuming there is access to pastures), hay in winter, and grains all year round. The horse must also have access to all the water he needs, which is generally about 10 gallons a day. Water cannot be denied or limited, as it constitutes the greater part of the blood, which
delivers the nutritive elements in the horse’s system, and it carries away the wastes. Water also stabilizes the horse’s temperature.

Feeding a horse is fairly easy, but care must be taken to feed him properly. All feed must be
of good quality.

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The Digestive System

Digestion serves to break down foods into elements the body can assimilate, and eliminate the waste. It all starts with the chewing, where food gets mixed with saliva, which is 99% water and 1% proteins. Oats absorb about their own weight in saliva, while hay absorbs four times its own weight. Speaking of saliva, a horse can produce about 10 gallons of it every 24 hours — no wonder horses need so much water!

Although the horse eats about the same amount as ruminants, he does not have their multiple-stage digestive system, and so must chew his food longer before swallowing. A horse needs 15 to 20 minutes to eat a pound of hay. The food travels from the mouth to the cardia, which is the organ which controls the amount of food entering the stomach. Since a horse’s stomach is small, and can only contain a little food at one time, it is advisable to feed him two to four times a day.

The stomach is a very delicate organ. The horse is not equipped with stomach muscles that will
allow him to vomit anything that disagrees with him. If a horse tries to vomit, there are serious consequences:

  1. The feed will be forced out through the nostrils in a sneeze or snort,
  2. The pressure can cause a rupture of the stomach (possibly fatal condition),
  3. The chewed food, if forced back into the pharynx region, may go into the windpipe and the
    lungs, which would cause pneumonia (possibly fatal condition).

Because spoiled, moldy or dusty food could make the horse try to vomit, it is imperative that your horse is fed only the best quality of grains and hay. Since the stomach is small, the filling and evacuation of the stomach is slow, and any disturbance will bring difficulties. The stomach can become unsettled by an abrupt change of food, irregular feeding times, over-eating of grain, or drinking too much water. Any change of diet should be spread out over at least 15 days. Grain tends
to swell when wet, so if the horse is watered after a grain feeding, it could suffer from a case of colic. It is advisable to water the horse before feeding it grain. However, if water is available at all times, the horse will only take in a mouthful or two at a time, so he may be safely fed grain.

From the stomach, the food travels into the intestines, where digested food is assimilated. The caecum (pronounced seekum) is the first part of the large intestine, and it can contain up to 25 litres of liquid. The large colon is 9 feet long, and contains microbes for digestion. The small colon measures 6 to 9 feet in length, and wastes are carried from here to the exit, i.e. the rectum. The rectum functions five to twelve times a day, ridding the horse of several pounds (33 to
50 pounds) of waste matter. (Clean that stable!)

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Hay varies in food value and should be carefully chosen. Categories of hay include grass hays, grain
hays and legume hays. Grass hays include brome, millet, prairie grass, Sudan grass and timothy. The grain hays, wheat or oat, are cut when just about to ripen, and should include the kernels. The legume hays, which include clover and alfalfa, are high in protein, vitamins and calcium. Legume hays are very rich, and if they are fed exclusively, the horse could get an upset stomach. A mixture of the legumes with timothy or other grass hays is most satisfactory.

Hay should be of good quality, but how to tell? Good hay should have a pleasant odour to it, and be green and leafy, and easy to pull apart. Good hay is not dusty. If you pick up a bale and drop it, and the dust is enough to blind you and make you cough, the hay is not good. Dusty hay is not good for a horse’s health, as it can cause respiratory problems. If you absolutely have no choice and must feed the horse dusty hay, be sure to dampen it carefully before feeding. If the hay is brownish and hard with whitish stains of rot, it can endanger the horse’s health. Moldy hay is poisonous and can kill the horse.

The hay you feed your horse must not have too many weeds. A lot of weeds are dangerous, and even
more so in large quantities. Examples of weeds to avoid are horsetail, ergot, hare’s ear mustard, and stinkweed.

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Buying grains from a reputable dealer is the best way to be sure of getting good grains. Oats are the preferred grain for horses, because they are easily digestible, but they must be supplemented by minerals. Crushed oats are the most easily digested.

Crushed barley provides good energy, and can be fed in very cold weather, but not too much. Horses that eat too much barley tend to shed their winter hair prematurely. Barley may also be hard to digest.

Another energy food is cobs of corn. The horse must do a lot of chewing on the cobs, and this
slows down his eating, and prevents him from stuffing himself. 

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How Much Food?

The amount your horse should be given to eat is determined by his weight. But how to weigh the horse? A height-weight tape is advised for this exercise. Saddle horses more or less have the same proportions, and the chest girth gives a fairly accurate measure of the horse’s weight.

A 1,000 pound active horse needs 10 to 12 pounds of hay and 6 to 10 pounds of grain a day. If the
horse is idle, the hay ration should be increased to 12 to 15 pounds, and the grain ration should be reduced to 4 to 8 pounds.

This table can be used as a general guide:

  Ration for idle horse Ration for idle horse Ration for working horse Ration for working horse
Weight of horse Hay Grain Hay Grain
600 7.2-9.0 2.4-4.8 6-7.2 3.6-6
700 8.4-10.5 2.8-5.6 7-8.4 4.2-7
800 9.6-12.0 3.2-6.4 8-9.6 4.8-8
900 10.8-13.5 3.6-7.2 9-10.8 5.4-9
1000 12.0-15.0 4.0-8.0 10-12 6-10
1100 13.2-16.5 4.4-8.8 11-13.2 6.6-11
1200 14.4-18 4.8-9.6 12-14.4 7.2-12


In addition to the hay and grain, give the horse plenty of water (at least 5 gallons a day), salt in block form or mixed with the grain, and minerals available at all times.

For efficiency, weigh out the grain ration once a day, and divide the amount up into three or
four equal portions.

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The summer pasture is most desirable for the horse, and the green grass contains many essentials for his good health. A horse that has been kept off grass for a considerable period of time should be allowed to get used to grass gradually or an upset stomach may result. Too much grass causes gas. Freshly cut grass may be fed to the horse, but grass that has been cut and allowed to lie for a time may ferment in the horse’s stomach and cause colic.

On pasture, the horse also gets sunshine and exercise, both of which are important to his health
and well-being.

Good pasture grasses include Kentucky bluegrass, Bermuda grass, timothy, meadow fescue, Canada bluegrass, orchard grass, brome grass, Johnson grass, carpet grass and redtop. Pasture seeding will depend on location. Departments of Agriculture can advise on the best choices of grass.

Pasture grass should be nutritious, vigorous, hardy, drought resistant, and able to renew itself through reseeding.

How large a field does your horse need? You must consider that each horse has four hoofs, and the
grass that gets trampled underneath take several days to straighten up. The horse drops his waste whenever and wherever he wants to, and being a fussy eater, he won’t eat the grass on which it has fallen for several years. The more hoofs and the more waste you have, the larger the pasture you will need.

A one- or two-acre pasture will provide grazing for one horse for three to six months, depending
on the climate. Weeds have to be kept under control, so mowing twice a year will help. Overgrazing can greatly damage pasture land, so the horse should be moved when grass is grazed down to about four inches.

The fertility of the soil decides how well the grass will grow, and also the nutrient value of the
grass to the horse. It is a good idea to have the soil tested, and fertilized as recommended by the local agronomist.

Rotational grazing is a good idea. Allow the horses to graze a field down to about two inches, and then move them to another pasture while the first has the opportunity to recover and regrow. Avoid overgrazing a pasture. Too many horses on too small an acreage will lead to overgrazing. A good pasture can quickly lose its nutritive value if it is overgrazed, so it is advisable to stable some of the horses rather than ruin the pasture.

Another problem with the pasture occurs in the spring, when the plants grow too fast, and don’t
get eaten down. The plants become too mature, and lose their succulence. An overgrown pasture should be clipped to a two-inch height, and this will allow succulent regrowth, and help maintain a balance of legumes with grasses. It will also help control weeds.

Remember that lots of clean water must be available to the horse out in the pasture, as it drinks
five to fifteen gallons per day depending on the weather and the amount of work.  

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Feeding Hints

  1. Study the horse to get to know his feeding habits: feed him as an individual.
  2. Consider the horse’s age, condition, temperament, and the type of performance.
  3. Feed by weight and not by volume.
  4. Feed two or three times a day if at all possible. Divide the amount of grain equally among the feedings. Feed the larger amount of hay at night. In a twice daily feeding schedule, give one third of the hay in the morning, and two thirds in the evening. In a thrice daily feeding schedule, give one fourth in the morning, one fourth in the afternoon, and half in the evening.
  5. Feed at the same times every day.
  6. Any changes to the rations should be made gradually.
  7. Feed only quality hay and grains.
  8. Always have an abundant supply of clean water available.
  9. Do not overfeed, or allow the horse to become very fat.
  10. Keep the feed box clean – never let old and moldy feed accumulate.
  11. Decrease the amount of grain when the horse is idle, and increase it when the horse works.
  12. Horses consume about 2 1/2 percent of their body weight in feed.

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