Feeding Horses 101


Each horse is an individual and has different needs. …Several factors come into play. Is your horse old or young, what breed, what state do you live in? These questions represent just a few of the issues affecting how to keep your horse in good weight.

Provide plenty of roughage

Horses were designed to exist on forage and forage is the VERY BEST thing they can eat! The equine digestive system is designed to efficiently use the nutrition in grassy stalks. A horse should eat one to two percent of his body weight in roughage every day.This means that if at all possible, your horse should exist SOLELY on grass and hay. The average horse does NOT need grain; good quality hay and pasture is quite enough to maintain them in a healthy manner. Grazing and walking here or there all day long is the most natural way for a horse to live and will keep their digestive system in the best order. Horses who are grazing on good pasture the majority of the day don’t need much hay, if any. .
If the pasture is thin or If hay isn’t enough, grain can be added, but the bulk of a horse’s calories should always come from roughage. During winter time or a drought, it will probably be necessary to supplement pasture grazing with a good quality hay.

Horses who spend much of their time in stalls aren’t doing much grazing, but their natural feeding patterns can be replicated by keeping hay in front of them for most of the day. They can nibble at it for a while, take a break and snooze for a while, and then come back to it; keeping some constantly moving through their systems. If you must feed your horse grain, give it in multiple smaller meals rather than one large one. Most horses kept in stalls are given grain twice a day for the convenience of their human caretakers. This is not optimal and a horse should not consume more than 3 pounds of grain per feeding. If for some reason you must give your horse a large quantity of grain, please consider an additional lunchtime feeding. Small, frequent meals are not only more natural for the horse, but they also allow the horse to better digest and use his food. When a horse is fed too much at once, the food isn’t digested as effectively and there is serious risk of colic as well. Often horses fed large amounts at one time will shed a good portion of the grain, undigested, in their poo.

With grain, less is always more and the hope is that a horse can still be maintained primarily on forage. Start with the minimum amount for 3-4 weeks and adjust it upward if necessary. With a little bit of tweaking, you’ll find the right balance of pasture, hay, and grain for your particular horse’s needs. (we have posted a separate article on how to safely change a horse’s feed or adjust up or down) A good quality, forage based grain is the best with a low NSC number (non structural carbohydrates). The NSC number will ideally be 14% or less. We like to recommend Kalm & EZ, or Nutrena Safechoice, but there are others out there that are adequate. Sweet feed is not a good choice for a horse. Many many studies now indicate that sweet feed over time puts a horse at a much greater risk for Equine Cushing’s Disease. Addtionally, corn is very hard on the equine digestive system, and contains way too much starch. We know many who will argue they have always fed sweet feed and been just fine. Well our great grandparents always smoked too….

Measure feed accurately and feed consistently

Start off measuring your horse’s feed by weight using a kitchen or postal scale, or using the scale at your local feed store. Once you figure out how much your horse’s typical ration weighs, measure that portion at feeding time using a scoop, coffee can, or whatever suits your needs.
The average thousand-pound horse who relies on hay for all his forage typically eats fifteen to twenty pounds of hay per day. Most hay is dispensed in flakes; however, the amount of hay in a flake can vary greatly, depending on the size of the flake and the kind of hay. If you don’t know how much the bales of hay you are feeding weigh, you can use a bathroom scale to check, then feed that portion of a bale that your horse needs, without waste. You would be surprised how many owners contact us each week about having trouble keeping weight on their horse. Most of the time, it is just a case of them not understanding how to properly portion the horse’s feed.

Feed and Exercise

If you have just finished working your horse, you should not feed them for at least an hour. If you have worked them hard, it is best to wait 2-3 hours before feeding. Having the digestive system full of food gives the horse’s lungs less room to work, and makes oxygenation harder on him. In addition, blood flow is diverted away from the digestive organs during periods of exertion, so gut movement slows and colic may be a real danger.


ALL horses should have access to a good, free choice, loose mineral. If you cannot manage this type of mineral, it is VERY important that they have access to BOTH a red block mineral and a plain salt mineral whenever they wish. DO NOT add minerals to your horse’s feed. You can actually overdose a horse on minerals and cause serious physical harm. Left to his own devices, very very rarely will a horse overdose himself.

First time horse owners can have a tricky time figuring this feeding thing out. We are always available to answer questions to the best of our ability should you need some input. 

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