Feeding Minis, Ponies, Draft Horses, Mules, and Donkeys

Feeding Minis, Ponies, Draft Horses, Mules, and Donkeys

"Mules bred and used similarly to Quarter Horses should be fed in a similar matter to a Quarter Horse (and the same with other breeds) but perhaps less," Pugh said.

Photo: Photos.com

We know not all equids are alike, but how do a pony's nutritional needs differ from, say, a donkey's? As it turns out, caretakers must consider the special nutritional needs of the different equid species.

David Pugh, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACT, ACVN, a clinician and researcher at the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine, presented a lecture on feeding other equids at the 2012 Kentucky Equine Research Conference, held May 17-18 in Lexington, Ky.

Because the majority of equine-focused research is carried out on light-breed horses, Pugh said veterinarians and scientists base feeding recommendations for Miniature Horses, ponies, drafts, mules, and donkeys on a combination of "literature, experience, and some guesses."

Draft Horses

Pugh first discussed feeding draft horses. He relayed that more than 30 draft breeds exist worldwide; the most common breeds in the United States are Belgian Drafts, Clydesdales, Shires, and Percherons, he said. Healthy draft horses can range in weight from about 1,400 pounds to upwards of 2,600 pounds, he said.

As with light breeds, Pugh recommends aiming for a body condition score of 5 to 6 (out of 9), although he notes this is a challenging task. Because draft horses can become overweight very quickly ("They're not going to miss a meal," he said. "They're like a fat boy eating cake."), use a careful dietary analysis to ensure the horse receives enough nutrients while not overeating.

Researchers believe draft horses have a similar metabolic rate as ponies, Pugh relayed. Thus, they likely require less energy than light breed horses. Pugh suggested a healthy, mature draft horse consuming a maintenance diet requires about 30 kilocalories of digestible energy (the usable portion of the total energy in the diet, gained primarily through carbohydrates and fats) per day, whereas light breed horses require about 33.3 kilocalories per day.

Pugh recommends feeding healthy, mature draft horses at a rate of 1 to 2.5% of body weight per day in dry matter (mostly moderate- to good-quality forage). He suggests feeding 1 to 1.5% of the horse's body weigh in roughage. For a draft horse on a weight management diet, he said he's fed as little as .75% of body weight in high-quality forage to promote weight loss. Consult a veterinarian and/or equine nutritionist if additional questions about draft horse weight management arise.

Pugh cautioned that research indicates draft horses could be prone to laminitis, tying up, polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM), equine metabolic syndrome (EMS or equine Cushing's), metabolic bone diseases, and other diet-related conditions. Therefore, he recommends avoiding high-carbohydrate diets when possible and using extreme caution if using a high-carbohydrate feed to provide extra calories.

He also cautioned that, because of their size, draft horses are prone to heat stress and dehydration, and he recommended caretakers use extra caution to avoid these complications.


Next, Pugh discussed feeding considerations for donkeys. About 20 different donkey breeds are used for various practices including guard animals, pack animals, and companion animals, among others, he said. A female donkey is called a jenny or jennet, and a male is called a jack.

Donkeys evolved in arid and semiarid regions, so they've developed a high heat and dehydration tolerance, Pugh said. Citing previous research, Pugh explained that donkeys appear to have higher digestibility for dietary dry matter and fiber than horses and ponies, especially those fed low-quality forages. He said donkeys have a longer gut retention time and greater microbial cellulolysis (the process of breaking down cellulose into smaller polysaccharides or glucose units) in the cecum compared to ponies. Donkeys also appear to use dietary protein efficiently, he added. This suggests owners can maintain donkeys on lower quality forage than horses or ponies.

Pugh explained that veterinarians evaluate donkeys' body condition based on the amount of fat covering the back, flank, and neck. He suggested aiming for a body condition score of 5 or 6 out of 9. To achieve this, donkeys must typically be fed less than horse and ponies of comparable sizes. A dry matter intake of 1.75% to 2.25% should be appropriate to maintain a donkey's weight; however, some require lower quantities to achieve weight loss. Pugh added that protein should make up 6 to 10% of the donkey's diet.

He cautioned that donkeys are prone to hyperlipemia (elevated fat concentrations in the blood plasma) in times of stress and feed deprivation, and hypothermia (low body temperature). He also advised owners to use care when feeding carbohydrates, as these could put donkeys at risk for obesity and related problems.


Pugh touched briefly on mule nutrition. Humans first identified mules--a product of a male donkey and a female horse--as infertile in 350 B.C.

Generally speaking, mules require more food than similar sized donkeys, but less than similar sized horses, Pugh said. Also, he said owners can typically base a mule's feeding program on the mule's dam's breed.

"Mules bred and used similarly to Quarter Horses should be fed in a similar matter to a Quarter Horse (and the same with other breeds) but perhaps less," he said.

Overall, mules' energy, protein, and mineral requirements are similar to the horse, he said.

Obesity is a major problem in mules, Pugh said, and he cautioned owners against overfeeding.

Miniature Horses

Miniature Horses--measuring less than 32 inches at the withers and often weighing less than 200 pounds--can live upwards of 25 to 35 years, Pugh said.

There are few controlled studies on Miniature Horse nutrition, but he recommended some guidelines based on experience:

  • Miniature Horses tend to be easy keepers, so avoid overfeeding and aim for a body condition score of 5 to 6;
  • Energy requirements for maintenance horses can typically be met by feeding 1 to 1.8% of the horse's body weight in dry matter from a good-quality forage; and
  • Miniature Horse owners often underestimate the animal's daily calorie intake and/or overestimate the horse's body weight.

Overfeeding Miniature Horses can lead to obesity and other related health concerns, just as in their larger counterparts, he added.

"The general guidelines are similar to horses," Pugh said. "But pay attention and avoid overfeeding."


Finally, Pugh discussed considerations to make when feeding ponies. These equids, which stand 14.2 hands or smaller, reach 75% of their mature weight by the time they are yearlings, he said.

Pugh said researchers have published copious amounts of scientific information about ponies' nutritional needs and that ponies are generally easier to maintain than horses.

Ponies on a maintenance diet should consume 1.5 to 1.8% of body weight in dry matter per day, Pugh said. He cautioned that ponies appear to have a higher voluntary intake rate than horses, so it's advisable to monitor how much a pony consumes daily.

Many ponies are prone to developing metabolic conditions, including hyperlipemia, laminitis, and EMS, Pugh noted, so monitor their dietary habits closely.

Take-Home Message

Managing the diet of any equid can be a challenge, but caretakers of draft horses, donkeys, mules, Miniature Horses, and ponies can simplify the task by familiarizing themselves with their animals' special nutritional considerations.

About the Author

Erica Larson, News Editor

Erica Larson, news editor, holds a degree in journalism with an external specialty in equine science from Michigan State University in East Lansing. A Massachusetts native, she grew up in the saddle and has dabbled in a variety of disciplines including foxhunting, saddle seat, and mounted games. Currently, Erica competes in eventing with her OTTB, Dorado.

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