Ten Tips for Feeding Horses

Feeding horses can take up a great deal of time and money. Yet the subject is often not given the attention it deserves.

  1. Maximize the forage in your horse's diet. Horses need to have a minimum amount of forage in their diet. However, for many recreation horses that are not overly active, a diet of good quality hay or pasture can provide a large percentage of their nutrient requirements. This allows you to feed more than the minimum amount of forage, and feed much less concentrate. In many cases, the forage component will be the most inexpensive source of nutrients for your horse.
  2. Hay must be mold and dust free. Hay for horses must be free of mold and dust. Moldy hay and bedding is considered a leading cause of heaves (a respiratory disorder) in horses. This respiratory condition can greatly reduce a horse's ability to perform and prevention is better than treatment.
  3. Don't feed hay on the ground. Use a hay feeder for feeding hay (especially when feeding outside). Putting hay on the ground results in wasted feed. Horse owners waste 20% or more of the hay they feed on the ground. In addition to the wasted hay increasing your feed bill, feeding on the ground increases the horse's exposure to parasites.
  4.  Read the label on the feeds you buy. Commercial grain mixes and supplements come with feeding instructions for proper use. Read the label so you can use the feed appropriately. Many times horse owners will make adjustments in how a product is used which can result in over--or underfeeding the horse.
  5. Feed by weight, not volume. Horse owners generally feed the concentrated portion of their horse's diet by the scoop, quart, coffee can, or some other measuring device. The amount of feed provided will depend on the size of the scoop and the type of feed pellets (sweet feed, whole or rolled grain). By not knowing how much feed is in the scoop, you can easily overfeed your horses which could result in digestive problems. Weigh out a scoop of the feed you are using to know how many pounds or kilograms you are feeding.
  6. Keep hay/pastures available. Horses are grazing animals--taking in small amounts of feed frequently. It has been estimated that horses will spend 70-75% of each day grazing. Having hay available on a free-choice basis can help reduce boredom and digestive problems. Note: A limit on how much feed is available may be necessary for horses that are overweight.
  7. Make changes in your horse's diet gradually. When you are changing feeds, you need to allow your horse time to adapt. This is particularly important in the spring when horses are being turned out on lush pasture after a winter of eating hay. You will need to regulate turnout to prevent problems such as laminitis when horses over consume lush pasture. Gradually increasing time on pasture will help, as well as allowing the horse to have a meal of hay prior to being turned out, so you are not turning a hungry horse out on lush spring pasture. With grain, also make increasing amounts gradually to allow your horse time to adapt to the new diet; 10-14 days is a reasonable time frame for this change.
  8. Limit the amount of concentrate per meal. The horse is designed to consume and digest a high forage diet. Concentrate meals should not exceed 0.5% of the horse's body weight per meal to prevent over loading the large intestine with starch. For the average 1,100 lb horse, that means 5.5 lbs of grain per meal.
  9. Provide free-choice salt to all horses. Free-choice salt should be available to the horse in the stall and pasture. It can be loose or block depending on what works best for you and your horses. As with the hay, block salt in the pasture should be kept in a holder off the ground to reduce waste. Free-choice salt for stabled horses could be a block or lick to help reduce overconsumption due to boredom. Horses have some nutritional wisdom about salt and will regulate their daily intake.
  10. Watch your horses. Keep track of how your feeding programs are working by either routinely weighing, estimating body weight with a weight tape, or Body Condition Scoring the horses in your care. Just eyeballing them may not be enough. Horses that are gaining weight might not need as much feed as you are giving. You may need to provide more exercise to use up the extra energy provided.

About the Author

Bob Coleman, PhD

Bob Coleman, PhD, grew up showing horses and harness ponies in Brandon, Manitoba. He worked as an animal nutritionist for two feed companies in Western Canada before joining the Alberta Horse Industry Branch, where he worked for 18 years as the provincial extension horse specialist. He is currently an associate extension professor in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences in the College of Agriculture at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

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