Feeding a horse

The basics of feeding a horse

The foundation of any good feeding program is roughage and access to fresh water. Roughage means high quality hay and/or grazing. Here at The Stables at South Molton, we generally provide our horses with free choice hay or grazing depending on the season.

To meet other equine nutritional needs, we supplement with free choice minerals.

Oats and feed supplements we strictly reserved for active working horses. This for us means they are receiving active training and exercise. The only exception to this in for our foals, mares in foal, and stallions that require higher energy needs to support their higher energy needs.

How much does a horse eat?

In terms on hay: we have most of our horses on free choice hay in the winter and grazing grass in the summer and fall. We go through roughly 3/4 of large round bale per horse per month during the winter months. Each bale weighs about 1000-1200 pounds so that equates to roughly 20-25 pounds a day accounting for supplementary feeding during grazing months for our horses in training.

Another estimate based on a study titled Pastures and Forage Crops for Horses by C. G. Chambliss, E. L. Johnson and I. V. Ezenwa (1997 University of Florida) states that horses will consume 1-2% of their body weight per day. We have seem this same figure of 1-2% in countless other publications.

In terms of oats, other grains, corn, sweet feeds, and manufactured feeds :

Oats: It is our supplement of choice on South Molton. It is middle of the road in protein, energy, and fiber. It is the safest of all the grains and manufactured feeds for horses. It is also readily available in Alberta and usually economical. For horses on free choice hay/grazing, we find one gallon per horse per day is great for horses in training.

Corn: It is great stuff. However, in Alberta its expensive. It is a great substitute for oats, but feed no more than 2/3 oat equivalent by volume as corn is much heavier by volume. Note, that corn quality seems to vary more than grain quality so be selective when making corn purchases.

Wheat: It is very expensive compared to other equally good supplements. We do not have any experience with wheat. However, we read that it is a viable equine supplement but usually recommended mixed with oats.

Barley: We have read enough clinical materials to convince us that it is a viable equine supplement. We have never used it as it was always taboo in what we were taught when we were young. But we no longer rule out using it for our horses. It is energy dense so care must be taken in administering quantities. Therefore, we would suggest it not be fed in herd/group situations where dominant horses could over consume.

Sweet feed and manufactured feeds: do not necessarily need to be part of every horse's diet. We only provided grain feed to our horses that are working hard in our training program and our young horses for their development.

We will occasionally use sweet feeds to enhance the horse's coat appearance, but we have not found any nutrition advantage in clinical studies that we have read to justify the substantial added costs of sweet feed or other manufactured feeds. However, these feeds do have their benefits, especially for active performance and show horses.

Oil additives have their advantage especially when added to high energy foods like oats and other grains by adding additional energy and increasing fat content by about 10%. The downside, of course, is costs. We have used vegetable oil added to oats for mares in foal, foals post weaning, horses receiving heavy workouts, and on the trail.

Minerals for horses:

Regardless of feed, it is important that horses have access to free choice minerals, especially salt, to round out their nutritional needs.

To roll grains of not?

You have likely always heard that you should feed your horse rolled oats or grains. But that it not necessarily true. Rolled oats only gain a maximum additional 5% digestive advantage over non-rolled oats. Therefore, unless the cost of rolled oats is within 5% of non-rolled there is no advantage. However, corn and barely should be rolled due to their hard exteriors and the digestive advantage of rolling/cracking is usually worth the increased costs.

What if you cannot provide free choice hay/graze?

The foundation of our feeding program is free choice hay. But we realize that for many horse owners this is impractical. Like any feeding program (as with free choice as well), there is no one way to do it every day. Your goal is to maintain your horse's body condition score in the healthy range (4 to 6).

Always use good quality hay as your foundation at ±20 pounds (about 1% - 2% of their body weight) and use supplements such as oats, etc as needed to maintain a healthy weight as needed. Feed them more supplements to fatten them and less or none to lose weight.

Is there a place in the diet of a horse for poorer quality hay?

We sometime it to mix it in with higher quality hay as filler or an alternative choice to horses we have on rich hay like alfalfa. While they love the alfalfa, they will choose the lower quality hay during their "social eating". But obviously, lower quality hay should not be used as the basis of a diet.

However, be sure to avoid feeding any hay that is dusty or moldy as this could lead to respiratory problems.

Additionally, you can use poorer quality hay in cases where your horse is over weight as long as they are getting their base nutritional needs as well. They still get their need for chewing satisfied without additional weight gain.

The only hay that has no place in any diet is slough hay as it has very little food value and animals will reject it. But be careful for we have seen many people pay top dollar thinking they were getting good hay when it was in fact slough hay. The only use we have seen for the stuff from a government source was for cow food when heavily supplemented (>50%) with oats or barley.

Does cold weather impact the diet of a horse?

Yes. Studies show that a horse needs 1% more feed for each degree below 16F.

Are horse supplements effective?

Care must be taken when considering use of supplements in your horse's diet.

P Harris' "Nutritional supplements in support of equine welfare"(2005) makes the following points with respect to effectiveness of supplement:

  • "Unfortunately many substances are marketed without adequate understanding of their function in the horse"
  • "Very few have any proven science in the horse to back their product claims"

While supplements certainly have there place in certain performance classes, we personally do not subscribe to use of supplements. So if you are considering using supplements, do your research carefully.

Key references:

  1. Oklahoma State University publication #1716, Round Bale Storage
  2. University of Minnesota Extension, 1999, Preserving the Value of Dry Stored Hay