Eating like a horse. A guide to feeding a horse

Feeding a horse shouldn’t be a chore. Get the basics right and you’ll have a happy and healthy friend.

There are numerous horse feeds and supplements on the market for every type of horse. Deciding on the right one for your equine friend can be tricky. Here’s our guide to the basics to help you find the right diet for your horse.

Feeding a horse: the basics

Grazing is the natural way for a horse to feed in the wild. Horses have small stomachs, so left to himself a horse will take in what he needs in small amounts throughout the day. However when you put a horse to work, it reduces his grazing time, while increasing the demands on his energy. Concentrated foods give him the energy to work without adding too much bulk. That said, grass and hay and other types of forage should still form roughly 50% or more of your horse’s intake.

horses with laminitis


Types of horsefeed

Food for your horse falls into roughly six categories:

  • Forages.  These include grass, meadow hay, seed hay, clover hay, pea plant stalks, Lucerne hay (alfalfa) and haylage. This will form the bulk or all of what you feed, and should be of the highest quality i.e. clean and free from mould and dust. Always check the inside of your bales for this. Soaking hay removes nutritional value, however steaming it will destroy mould and bacteria without reducing nutrients. Meadow hay is lighter and can be easier to digest. However, grass clippings should never be fed as they cause colic. Haylage is semi-wilted grass that has been sealed into bags immediately after harvest so that it ferments. It is richer than hay and should be consumed within 3 days of opening the bag. Lucerne hay/chaff should always be green and leafy.
  • Cereals.  Also known as ‘concentrates’, these include oats, barley and maize. All are high energy (or ‘heating’) foods and should be given in direct proportion to the amount of work your horse does, so that he doesn’t become too lively and excitable. They’re usually treated by boiling or rolling in order to make them more digestible. Oats have the highest carbohydrate content and therefore provide the most energy, making them the best food for horses doing strenuous work. They also have the most roughage and so are easily digested. Barley makes a good substitute where you cannot feed oats, but maize stays in the stomach a long time and should be avoided before strenuous exercise.
  • Protein feeds.  These include milk pellets, beans, peas and linseed. The latter must be cooked as it is poisonous to horses in its raw state. However, when fed in small amounts i.e. a handful a day, it helps to develop healthy hooves, bones and a good coat. Larger amounts have a laxative effect. Eggs are also a good source of protein and one or two can be fed daily when the horse is working hard.
  • Bulk feeds.  These include bran, chaff (chopped hay), molichaff (a mix of molasses and chaff) and sugar beet. They are low protein, low sugar, high fibre foods that help to aid digestion, and are useful for bulking out smaller amounts of concentrate. Molasses makes feed more palatable to horses who are fussy eaters. Bran, which is a by-product of milled wheat, is high in phosphorous, so calcium (such as limestone flour or alfalfa) must be fed with it. It is easily digested and when fed wet can be a useful laxative. Sugar beet is a slow release energy food which is high in calcium and fibre. It should be soaked before feeding a horse, (1 litre of water to 200g of beets) but is also very palatable to fussy eaters. However, take care to balance feeds as a high sugar and starch content in feeds can lead to behavioural and health problems.
  • Compound feeds. Also known as ‘coarse mixes’, these are a mixture of protein, cereal and bulk feeds designed to be a ‘complete’ food. There are many types to suit every sort of horse, from high protein to high fibre, yearling and brood mare formulas. They are designed to replace all other foods and are high in fibre. However, this means that fairly large amounts need to be fed, making them expensive.
  • Supplements and occasional foods. In addition to the main part of your feeds, you can introduce supplements when needed. For instance, garlic will aid respiratory health and has antibiotic properties. Mint aids digestion and cider vinegar aids suppleness, while cod liver oil gives a healthy shine to the coat. Equally, electrolytes, pre-biotics and pro-biotics can be useful to keep your horse healthy when needed. However most healthy horses will do just fine on a good basic diet that’s well tailored to them. Apples and carrots, as well as other fruits and vegetables are healthy treats for horses, but do make sure you slice them lengthways, as round edges make them more likely to stick in the throat.

Good feeding practices

1. Try to feed little and often in imitation of the way a wild horse would eat.

2. Remember to include enough bulk in order to help digestion.

3. Feed the correct level of concentrates for the amount of work your horse is doing and always have plenty of clean water available to him.

4. Try to keep to the same feeding times each day, and make any changes to your horse’s diet slowly, over a period of weeks.

5. Just like humans, horses should not exercise for an hour after eating. It diverts blood away from the gut, and may cause colic.

Follow these rules and you will keep your horse happy and healthy!


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