Types of Horse Feeds

Types of Horse Feeds

Forage should be the basis of every equine diet, but concentrates are useful in many cases.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Not sure what options you have for feeding your horse? Not to worry. Here's a rundown of some different types of feed you can include in an equine diet.


Horses can meet their nutritional requirements through a variety of feeds, though forages are the primary source of most nutrients. Forages include hay and pasture, and should be the main part of every equine diet. Hay made of cut and dried grasses or legumes and is available in a variety of forms, including bales, cubes, and pellets.

Taking a Hay Sample for Analysis

A hay sample is the best way to generate information about the nutritive content of your hay. It is very important to take a representative sample of the hay, which is easily accomplished with the use of a hay core sampler. The core sample allows the hay to be sampled from within the center of a bale (small rectangular or round) and allows all parts of the plant (stem and leaves) to be collected (if you were to simply grab a sample with your hands, the brittle leaves might be lost).

Collecting approximately 20 small samples from many different bales will also give you a better representation of your entire supply. You then send your total sample (about 200 grams) to an agricultural laboratory for analysis. Your county extension office should have information on locations in your area. Most analyses cost about $20.

Shannon Pratt-Phillips, PhD

Haylage is hay that has been placed in plastic (with no exposure to oxygen) and allowed to ferment. This feed can be very nutritious and is good for horses that are sensitive to dust. There is a small risk of spoilage and botulism, and horse owners may consider vaccinating against botulism if haylage is a mainstay of their horses’ diets.

Hay cubes and pellets are simply cubes or pieces of processed and cut hay, which may be easier for some horses to eat (especially if water is applied).

Pasture and hay nutritive content depends largely on the types of plants it is derived from. For example, grass hay or pasture (timothy, orchard grass, Bermuda grass, bluegrass, fescue, etc.) has lower nutrient content than legume hay or pasture (alfalfa, clover, etc.), particularly with respect to protein and calcium. Season also plays a significant role in the nutritive content of the plant, with spring and summer plants tending to have higher nutrient concentrations.

While knowing the kinds of plants that make up your pasture and hay can give an indication to their nutritive quality, the best way to get accurate information is through a hay or pasture sample. The nutrient breakdown for representative grass (timothy) and legume (alfalfa) midbloom hay is shown on the previous page (in dry matter). As indicated, timothy is lower in energy, protein, and calcium than alfalfa. Either type of hay may be suitable for a horse, depending on its needs.

Energy Feeds

Energy feeds are those primarily fed for their relatively high calorie content (greater than 2.5Mcal/kg), and include cereal grains, beet pulp, rice bran, and oil. In addition to supplying calories, these grains also provide other nutrients such as protein, vitamins, and minerals. Energy feeds (and commercially available feeds, described below) are often called concentrates because of their concentrated nutrient density compared to forages.

In most cases, cereal grains alone are not adequate for equine diets because of their nutrient imbalances, in particular calcium and phosphorus. Also, the protein quality (amino acid content) is not ideal for all horses. Vegetable oil is a good calorie source, but does not have protein, vitamins, or minerals; thus, it should be fed to horses carefully (so as not to “dilute” the diet).

Commercially Available Feeds

Commercially available feeds are often a mix of cereal grains, by-products, protein, vitamins, and minerals. There are three main classes of feed form: textured, pellets, or extruded feeds. Textured feed or “sweet feed” has clearly visible individual grains and particles and often include molasses. Pellets are processed feed that come in various sizes; and extruded feeds are processed even further with heat and pressure. These three forms often have the exact same nutrient profile (within a given class of feed), but are just processed differently. Some owners choose textured feeds because they prefer to see (and smell) the particles within the feed. However, some horses will sort their feed and would therefore be best suited for pelleted or extruded feeds.

Most of these commercially available products are designed to be fed along with hay and may be chosen based on the quality of the hay (another reason why a hay analysis is helpful; it can help owners better choose the proper concentrate). Most commercially available feeds are relatively high in energy density, and have variable levels of protein, vitamins, and minerals suitable for the type of horse they are designed for. Some commercially available feeds are considered “balancers” in that they are fed in relatively small amounts and are designed to balance out the nutrients (mainly protein, vitamins, and minerals) not present in sufficient quantities in forage alone. It should be noted that because balancers are fed in small amounts, they are not designed to provide substantial energy to the horse’s diet (which is useful for a horse with low energy requirements).

Vitamin and/or mineral supplements may also be fed if hay provides all of the energy and protein but maybe not the vitamins and minerals required. Also, a huge array of “nutraceuticals,” herbs, or other supplements is available for purchase and may or may not be suitable for your horse.

Many companies design feeds specifically formulated for various classes of horses. For example, they may have a “mare and foal” diet, a “senior horse” diet, or a “performance horse” diet. These products will have variable amounts of energy (usually 2.8–3.5 Mcal/kg), protein (8–16%), vitamins, and minerals specific to the horse’s needs. It should be noted that digestible energy content does not need to be included in information provided on the feed tag, so you should contact your feed company representative to get this information.

Other Feeds

Protein supplements contain high-protein ingredients and are often included in commercially available feeds, or mixed with cereal grains to increase the protein quantity or quality of a horse’s diet. Soybean meal, sunflower seeds, or flaxseeds are often fed for this purpose. The different seeds have different amino acid profiles, with soybean meal having the highest quality of protein. Animal protein sources (fishmeal and casein) have even higher protein and better quality, but aren't palatable to some horses. Flaxseeds (or flax oil) may also be fed because of their high omega-3 fatty acid content (note, the oil wouldn’t have any protein). It is also becoming common for many horse feeds to have yeasts added to them. These are fed with the intention of enhancing the microbial population within the large intestines in effort to improve digestibility. While proven effects on digestion are minimal, they may be important for horses with impaired digestive function such as older horses.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from TheHorse.com. Learn More