Feeding Your Horse: 5 Horse Nutrition Tips and Advice for a Healthy Horse

Horse Eating - Horse Nutrition Tips

Keeping a horse well-fed is a big responsibility. To ensure nutritional balance, horse owners must understand all the ins and outs of their horse’s nutritional needs.

Above all else, we want your horse to be getting the right food when they need it. Just like us humans, your horse is what they eat. To help you keep your horse happy, healthy, and active we’ve put together our top horse nutrition tips.

As always, if you have any questions about horse health, feel free to contact us. And remember, do not make any changes to your horse’s diet or routine before checking with your veterinarian.

Remember these 5 horse nutrition tips to help keep your horse healthy and active.

1. Always Aim for a Balanced Diet

The bulk of your horse’s daily nutrition comes from fresh or dried grass. With this said, you want to make sure you’re providing your horse with high-quality forage or hay. High-quality forage or hay contains nutrients integral to horse health. But horse’s diets are much trickier to maintain than that; you must maintain a balance between all the nutrient classes, including:

Photo credit: Laura Kenny, Danielle Smarsh, Penn State
  • Carbohydrates
  • Fats
  • Proteins
  • Vitamins
  • Minerals
  • Water (5-15 or more gallons per day)

Each of these is crucial to your horse’s health for varying reasons. For example, carbohydrates are one of the most important nutrients your horse needs. Carbs provide many things, including fiber, which is necessary for a normally functioning gut.

Other nutrients are essential for energy production, muscle development, immune system health, and much more. To ensure your horse is getting the right nutrient balance, you need to work with your trainer and veterinarian to determine the ideal portions of these key nutrients.

2. Everything in Moderation

Carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of energy and a great source of fiber. Foods like corn, oats, and barley are particularly rich sources of carbohydrates. If you do want to stay away from grain, you can also rely on plants for carbohydrates. This nutrient is present throughout your horse’s food – including pellets and hay.

While carbs are a key nutrient for horses, they contain starches and sugars that may be counter-productive in high amounts. A horse that eats too much starch or sugar in a short period might be at risk of colic (abdominal pain from gastrointestinal issues) or laminitis (inflammation of a part of the hoof).

Similarly, fats are also crucial energy sources in moderate amounts, producing as much as three times the energy compared to grains and carbs. Most premixed feeds have about 2-6% of fat, but some can get up to 10-12%. You may opt to integrate fat supplements into your horse’s feed to support your horse’s energy levels further. Even in these cases, the fat content in your horse’s diet should stay below 10%.

Not all horses will be able to adapt to the same diet plan, though, so take some time to get to know your horse’s unique needs. You may learn that your horse is more sensitive to dietary balances than you initially realized. If so, experts report that horses with high carbon content sensitivities will do best with carb contents of 10-12% or lower.

3. Increase Protein Based on Lifestyle and Activity Level

Proteins are essential to your horse’s muscle development and overall growth. Most horse owners use soybean meal and alfalfa as their go-to protein source. Be mindful of the type of alfalfa you offer your horse, though.

Second- and third-cutting alfalfa can get up to 25-30% protein, which can throw off the balance of your horse’s diet. Most adult horses only need about 8-10% protein, but lactating mares and young foals will need more.

You’ll most likely see protein measured in crude protein (CP) instead of digestible protein (DP) on horse feed. Soybean meal, flaxseed meal, and grass and legume pastures have the highest protein concentrations of some of the most common foods for horses.

Horses’ will have varying protein needs, depending on their lifestyles and activity levels. Here are some examples:

  • Working horses: 10-12% CP
  • Juvenile horses: 11-14.5% CP
  • Pregnant or lactating mares: 11-14% CP

The average maintenance diet for horses requires a modest 8.5% of crude protein per day.

4. Add Minerals and Vitamins

Regardless of how high-quality your forage or hay might be, there are some vitamins and minerals that grass, and other plant material just can’t provide in suitable quantities. Typically, high-quality forage has enough of the following minerals to sustain your horse’s health:

  • Magnesium (Mg)
  • Potassium (K)
  • Sulfur (S)

However, they don’t quite have the sodium (Na) and chloride (Cl) your horse needs. In these cases, a salt lick can help your horse get these nutrients.

During the winter, your horse’s vitamin A and E levels likely drop. To help keep these nutrients at the right level, talk to your veterinarian about the best way to supplement for these needs over the winter.

5. Avoid Feeding Too Much Grain

Excessive grains in your horse’s diet may be a major cause of common afflictions like colic and gastric ulcers.

Ulcers are a significant point of concern among horse owners and affect a staggering 90% of racehorses and 60% of show horses. Experts suggest that a key part of a successful ulcer recovery is the reduction of grains in the diet. This lowers the amount of volatile fatty acids that can irritate the stomach lining.

Additionally, the feeding frequency of grain diets is harmful to your horse’s digestive health. Horses on a grain diet typically only eat about twice daily. This means they’re going unnaturally long periods without a continuous flow of feed, which is not how their bodies evolved to operate.

Since horses constantly eat throughout the day, their stomachs are adapted to always secrete gastric acid. The nonstop food consumption ensures that this acid is put to good use and doesn’t harm the stomach lining. With no food for the acid to break down between feeding times, it degrades the sensitive lining instead.

This is one of the main reasons you should avoid introducing too much grain into your horse’s feeding routine. If you’re concerned that your horse’s hay or forage diet isn’t providing everything it needs, it’s best to consider talking to your veterinarian about the best nutritional options.

Keeping your horse well-fed is a critical responsibility, one you must treat with care. We know that it can be overwhelming to have to manage your horse’s nutritional needs along with their overall health and wellness needs.

We urge you to rely on your network of horse experts. Talk to you veterinarian, trainer, farrier, horse-owning friends, and contact us with your questions. If we don’t know the answer, we’ll direct you to someone who does.

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by Nick Hartog

In 1994, Nick Hartog became an owner and President of Grand Meadows Equine Supplements bringing his talents and extensive background in domestic and international equine sales and manufacturing. He has a reputation for plain speaking of the truth. In 1997, when the US horse supplement market was something akin to the Wild West with a complete lack of standards, Nick personally tested 32 different horse joint supplements to see if they matched the label. Unsurprisingly, to him at least, only 2 products matched the label claim. Read more...