Animal Care

Horse Food

Horses have very specific dietary needs because they are herbivores, and have a unique digestive tract quite different from ours. Their long digestive system requires a high-fiber diet that is consumed in small amounts over a long time period.

Rather than a few large meals like we should eat, horses eat many, many small meals. Horses actually spend most of their time eating! Here is a quick rundown of what horses eat and a few things they shouldn’t.

Pasture Grass and Tender Plants

The natural diet of the horse is pasture grass and tender plants. Good pasture contains most of the nutrition a horse requires 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. Pasture grass isn’t necessarily the problem; the type of horses we’ve developed and the lack of exercise are.

Those of us with easy keepers need to limit the amount of fresh grass our horses have access to. Introducing lush pasture suddenly to a horse not used to it can cause serious problems as well. For the horse that is a hard keeper, however, good pasture provides the best nutrition.

Dietary needs

We know horses need to eat either grass or hay. When horses eat grass, you will need to keep on an eye on their condition and make sure that they are not eating too much or too little. Horses can overeat on grass, especially if the pasture is lush, but it is also easy to let a horse get too fat eating hay. And, sometimes too little hay can mean a horse will lose weight. So, what is the right amount of hay for your horse?

Just how much your horse will need will depend on its weight. According to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, a full-grown horse should eat about 12 to 15 pounds (5.4 to 6.8 kg) of hay a day. That is 1.5 percent to 3 percent of its body weight if it weighs about 1,000 pounds (450 kg). This is a very rough average, and horses will require more or less depending on their metabolism, workload, what else they may be eating, and the time of year. Ponies will require considerably less, while large draft breeds can eat 30 pounds (13.6 kg) a day or more.

How to Feed Hay

Having small amounts of hay available fed frequently mimics the natural grazing instincts and is healthiest for your horse’s mind and body. So try not to feed your horse a full day’s worth in one meal. It will probably gorge on the best parts of the meal, leaving the least tasty, then trample what’s left into the ground. For the healthiest digestive system and the happiest horse, it is best to have hay available all the time. Most horses are self-regulating, but there are many that are not. These horses will need their hay diet restricted to prevent obesity. Feeding these horses means small, more frequent portions. For many horses, hay is all they need, and they won’t need concentrates such as oats or sweet feed, or particularly rich hay that contains legumes like clover and alfalfa.

Small Square Bales

The next question, however, is: how much of a small square bale is that? What you will have to do is weigh an average bale of hay. It should weigh approximately 60 lbs or 23 kg. The exact weight will depend on how dry the hay is, how long the bales are, and how tightly packed they have been baled. Next, count how many flakes are in the bale. The flakes are the easily divided sections that form when a square bale is picked up by the baler. There are usually about 12. Now divide the weight of the bale by the number of flakes in it. You’ll now be able to calculate the approximate number of flakes you should feed your horse daily. So if a flake weighs about four pounds, you’ll need to feed your 1000 lb. horse five flakes every day. Remember to feed in as many small portions as possible.

Ponies and Draft Breeds

Because ponies have a slower metabolism than horses, they’ll need a lower percentage of their body weight of hay, unless they are working very hard, which few ponies do anymore.2 Small ponies may only need a couple of flakes every day to keep them in good condition. But, conversely, some draft horses, especially ones that work hard, will need rather more than the normal ratio of hay. This is why it is so important to regularly monitor your horse’s condition, and make adjustments depending on how hot or cold it is, how hard they are working, how old they are, the richness of the hay, and the horse’s overall health. 

Hay

Many of us don’t have the luxury of being able to let our horses graze on pasture throughout the whole year. When grass isn’t available, hay is the next-best choice. Finding good horse hay can be tricky. It helps to have hay tested, so any shortfalls in vitamins and minerals can be compensated for with supplements. For some horses, rich hay can be a problem in the same way rich pasture grass can be. ​Easy keepers may need to be restricted from 24/7 access to a bale feeder.

Grains

Oats are a traditional grain fed to horses. However, horses may also be fed small amounts of other grains like corn. Some grains, like wheat, aren’t 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 the chewing time or contain the silica grass does and this can contribute to things like ulcers and dental problems. A horse that over-eats a large amount of grain may have colic or founder.

Concentrate Mixes

Concentrates are usually a mixture of things like grains, flaxseed, beet pulp, molasses for energy and flavor, 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).

Concentrate mixes, like grain, help make up for any shortfall in nutrition and provide a quick source of energy. Mares in foal, nursing mares, performance, or working horses often benefit from being fed concentrates in addition to grass or hay.

Salt and Minerals

Supplements such as salt and minerals may be included in a concentrate mix or may be offered separately. 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 it can be added into the horse’s grain or concentrate meal. Many people find that salt is consumed more during the summer months than in colder weather.

Treats

Many of us like to feed our horses treats. These tidbits may include things like apples, carrots, or other favorite fruits or vegetables, handfuls of grain, sugar cubes or candies, or sometimes odd things like a bite of a hot dog or boiled egg. However, it may not be advisable to feed horses meat or too many sugary treats, including fruit. Horses are herbivores, and 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.

Of course, a horse won’t make the connection to the hamburger they ate an hour ago and the discomfort they’re having now, so they’ll probably eat any food they like over and over again. This is why it’s important to feed treats in small amounts. Treats need to be considered as part of the overall feeding plan and kept to a minimum if your horse needs to watch its weight. Your horse also needs to be respectful when being fed treats.

Water

Of course, a horse doesn’t really “eat” water. However, water is an essential part of the equine diet. A horse eating pasture grass probably won’t drink as much water as one on a hay-only diet. However, fresh, clean water is essential for both.

Plants Toxic to Horses

Brans, including wheat and rice bran, are not recommended as a major part of your horse’s diet. All can cause mineral imbalances.

WARNING: Don’t be tempted to throw lawn clippings, garden refuse, or compostables over the fence. All can contain plants toxic to horses.

Toxic Plants to Horses

If you have horses and a garden, you’ll have to be careful that you do not have certain plants on your property. These common weeds, trees, plants, and shrubs, shown below, are toxic to horses and ponies. Learn to identify these plants in your pastures and yards and be sure to remove them as soon as possible to keep your horses safe.

  • Deadly Nightshade
  • Buttercups
  • Bracken Fern
  • Horse Tails
  • Lamb’s Quarters
  • Lily of the Valley
  • Milkweed
  • Weed
  • Red Maple
  • Red Oak
  • Wort

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The divine scriptures are God’s beacons to the world. Surely God offered His trust to the heavens and the earth, and the hills, but they shrank from bearing it and were afraid of it. And man undertook it.
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