From flawless coats to finicky feet, horse nutrition is critical
Over the last few decades, the horse feed market has exploded. Horse owners have been bombarded with shiny promises ranging from a flawless coat to the miraculous transformation from lame to sound. With all the noise from various advertisements, it’s hard to tell fact from fiction.
The science of equine nutrition continues to evolve as we learn more about equine health and digestion. Despite the changes, the foundation of optimizing a horse’s nutrition remains the same. This article will provide an overview of equine nutrition, helping you to sift through any advertising gimmicks and use a science-based approach when designing your horse’s feeding program.
Equine Nutrition 101
Understanding the basics of equine nutrition starts in the gut. Horses have a digestive tract similar to humans, including a stomach, small intestine, and large intestine.
It is important to understand that horses have only one stomach—they are not ruminants, like cows or goats.
Horses have evolved over the centuries to spend the majority of their day grazing. Although a horse’s stomach is small, relative to its overall size, it produces a constant supply of acid.
Horses need small, frequent meals to counteract the acid. They can be prone to stomach ulcers for a variety of reasons, including a lack of small but continuous supplies of food.
Although there are similarities between the human and horse digestive tracts, there are two distinct differences:
- First, horses are physically incapable of vomiting. Although unpleasant, vomiting is a valuable feature promoting the immediate removal of anything toxic to the body. The desire to avoid ingesting anything harmful may be why your horse is so picky about his treats!
- Second, horses don’t have a gallbladder. In humans, this organ holds a substance called bile. Bile breaks down excess fat in the diet. The absence of a gallbladder means horses don’t tolerate a high-fat diet well.
The basic nutritional requirements of horses and humans are the same and include proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, fats, minerals, and water. There are obvious differences in the form in which these nutrients are consumed.
Digestion of vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats occurs in the small intestine. The food then travels to the cecum, or beginning of the large intestine, where detoxification and digestion of fiber and carbohydrates occur.
Horses in the wild depend on forage for their entire nutritional intake. They spend the majority of the day grazing. Domesticated horses differ a bit. They often have either limited or no access to pasture.
Although it may sound appealing to have your horse’s needs 100% met by pasture alone, this can be logistically infeasible, generally due to land constraints. We can’t all afford a 100-acre farm with lush pasture, after all!
There are situations where certain nutrients must be supplemented, hence why we feed a combination of hay and grain.
When planning a nutritional regimen, it’s crucial to honestly analyze your horse’s activity level. Although being domesticated has benefits, it often means a more sedentary lifestyle for many horses. We must balance a horse’s caloric needs with our human schedules, while trying to mimic their natural feeding patterns as much as possible.
Unfortunately, equine veterinarians observe obesity in equines at alarmingly high rates. Obesity puts your horse at serious risk of insulin resistance leading to painful and possibly fatal diagnoses such as laminitis.
In general, and especially when it comes to equine nutrition, a little bit goes a long way!
In the wild, horses rely on forage for their nutritional requirements. Although horses in the modern world are frequently stalled with limited pasture access, forage in the form of either hay or pasture still forms the cornerstone of a solid nutrition regimen.
There are several different varieties of hay, typically due to your particular geography.
Different types of hay offer slightly different nutrient profiles—understanding exactly what hay you are feeding can be very helpful in creating and maintaining a feeding program.
Alfalfa Hay – This hay is highly digestible and provides your horse with protein, vitamins, and minerals. Alfalfa hay contains more protein than other types of hay and is, overall, a nutrient-dense type of hay. Alfalfa hay typically has higher levels of calcium than grass hay.
Due to the high protein content, your horse will likely drink and urinate more often. Visually, high-quality alfalfa hay should be deep green in color and will have a leafier appearance. Think of what dried clover might look like!
Alfalfa may not be appropriate for all horses, including some with kidney and liver issues. It also may not be ideal for easy keepers. Depending upon the maturity of the hay, alfalfa offers a somewhat variable nutrient profile. Alfalfa can be helpful for horses with ulcers, as the higher calcium levels can help buffer stomach acid.
Grass Hay – This type of hay is less nutrient dense and consists of more fiber. It can be a good choice for stalled horses since they generally need to eat more of it to meet their nutritional needs. (Think—it will keep them busy longer!)
Visually, grass hay looks like long stems of grass bundled together.
Pasture – Keeping your horse on pasture not only checks many nutritional boxes but also keeps your horse moving and his brain engaged. Mature horses that are sedentary or only used lightly may get most (if not all!) of their nutritional needs met without supplementing grain.
Energy and protein needs may change when a horse is in heavy work or lactating.
Pasture management is critical to ensure your horse’s nutritional needs are met. Various independent equine nutritionists and extension offices offer a pasture analysis to help you develop a more well-rounded nutrition regimen.
If you live in an area with snowy winters, you will need to rely on hay during those months.
Pellets & Cubes – Forage can be processed into more shelf-stable forms, such as cubes or pellets. Although cubes & pellets offer the benefit of requiring less storage space, they are more expensive than hay.
Horses can also easily become overweight on a diet of pellets and/or cubes. Forage processed into these forms is generally quicker to eat, which results in more downtime for your horse. If your horse is stalled, the incidence of vices such as cribbing is more common when feeding pellets or cubes than feeding hay.
If you decide to use pellets or cubes, always make sure you soak them before feeding to prevent choke (obstructions in the throat) or impaction colic (caused by a blockage in the intestines). Once you soak and see how much water these products absorb, this will make more sense!
Although convenient, this form of roughage may not be ideal for an everyday diet for most horses.
Grains & Concentrates
Although hay and pasture should provide the foundation for your horse’s nutrition, there may be situations when adding a grain or concentrate feed is appropriate.
These situations may include horses that are worked heavily and need additional energy to prevent weight loss.
Lactating mares also need more energy than your average horse. Providing the necessary energy from forage alone in such situations can be virtually impossible.
There may also be situations where your pasture or hay of choice doesn’t contain all the necessary nutrients. Consulting with an equine nutrition professional is always helpful when developing the best feeding regimen for your horse.
When feeding a premixed grain, always follow package instructions on how much to feed your horse. As a general rule, you should feed by weight and not volume. (For example, feed 3 lbs of grain twice a day versus “one large coffee can” or “one heaping scoop.”)
Although grains and concentrates can be expensive, investing in a high-quality product can translate to a healthier horse. Sometimes, you may feed more of the lower-quality feed anyway, which doesn’t actually save on overall feed costs.
Oats – Oats are widely available and are a great, safe source of energy in the form of calories. Oats may be an option for additional calories if your horse has difficulty maintaining overall weight.
That said, if your horse needs more protein, oats may not be the best choice, as they don’t provide a balanced level of amino acids appropriate to horses, or additional vitamins and minerals. You may also want to consider a ration balancer to ensure your horse’s overall nutritional needs are met.
Corn – Although corn provides more energy than oats, it is not easily digested by horses. Due to its high starch content, there is a significant risk of serious health issues if it’s overfed to a horse. Starch “leaking” into the hindgut can cause colic.[SW2]
If you need another reason to avoid adding corn to your horse’s diet, there is a mycotoxin called fumonisin that can infect grain, especially in higher moisture corn. If fed in high enough quantities, fumonisin can cause a neurological condition called equine leukoencephalomalacia (ELEM). Once infected, a horse can go blind, lose coordination, and possibly even die.
Beet Pulp – This is an excellent addition to your feeding program if your hay is poor quality or respiratory issues limit the amount of hay fed. Beet pulp is the fibrous part left when all the sugar is extracted from sugar beets, and it is highly digestible for horses.
When fed on its own, beet pulp should always be soaked before feeding. (Remember how we discussed soaking hay cubes and pellets? The same risks apply to beet pulp!) Soaking times are generally reduced if using hot water over cold water. Plus, in the winter, a hot beet pulp mash can make for an extra-special treat!
If you are concerned about the sugar level in your horse’s diet, drain the water and rinse the beet pulp after soaking—this will help remove any of the remaining sugar.
Soaking is a bit labor intensive, as you should only soak enough for one feeding at a time. Additionally, beet pulp ferments quickly, especially in hot weather.
Beet pulp does contain relatively high amounts of calcium, so feed with caution in younger and older horses.
Pellets – Many commercially prepared horse feeds come in pellet form, increasing the feed’s uniformity. Every pellet delivers the same nutrient profile. A horse can’t pick through the feed and eat what he wants, leaving the rest.
A downside of the pellet is that if your horse eats quickly, he can be at increased risk for choke. Watering pellets down before you feed them, or using a “slow feed” feeder can help slow your horse down and minimize the risk of choke.
Sweet / Textured Feed – The original commercial feeds to hit the market were known as “sweet feed” because they contained a mix of different ingredients coated in molasses.
Also referred to as “textured feeds,” these products generally consist of a blend of pellets and grains, such as corn or oats, covered in a liquid such as molasses.
Some sweet feeds may include vegetable oil as an exterior coating. Any grains are usually processed as well—digesting whole grains can be difficult. Corn is generally cracked, or steam-flaked, and oats may be rolled or crimped to make them more easily digestible. Always read the feed tag!
Sometimes textured feeds and pelleted feeds have an identical nutrient makeup; textured feeds may be a little more expensive since they contain whole grains, which have to be processed (cleaned and then cracked, rolled, or crimped) before added to feed.
Pelleted feeds generally include the same ingredients, just ground, creating a more uniform product that horses can’t sort through to pick out the pieces they like.
Extruded Feed – Extruded feeds are most similar to pelleted feeds, it is just a different manufacturing process, more similar to pet food. Extrusion is a form of pressure-cooking utilizing steam, moisture, and heat.
This process breaks down protein and starches, creating a feed that is easier to digest. After cooking, the feed is run through a die to create a nugget-shaped product.
Extruded feeds may be ideal for horses with difficulty maintaining weight, senior horses, or horses with digestive issues.
How to Read a Feed Tag
When using a commercially prepared feed for your horse, reading the feed tag is crucial!
The feed tag will tell you important features about the feed, including the horses for which it has been formulated and how much to feed. Animal feed tags are regulated by the FDA.
It can be helpful to review the ingredient list so you know exactly what you’re feeding your horse. Ingredients are listed in descending order of inclusion, by weight. It is common to see things like wheat middlings, dehydrated alfalfa, and oats listed first on the feed tag.
Comparing protein, fat, and fiber levels can be helpful when trying to decide between different products. A common ratio for horse feed is 12% protein and 6% fat.
Protein – The tag should list the minimum guaranteed percentage of protein. This percentage can vary depending on what the feed is designed to do. A high-performance feed for a horse in heavy work may be 14% protein.
A maintenance feed for an easy-keeper may be 10% protein.
Fat – Fat percentage is also listed as a minimum. Average fat percentages can vary drastically between feeds. An economy feed may have as little as 6% fat; a high-performance feed may have 13%.
Generally speaking, higher fat feeds will be textured—high fat levels are achieved by adding vegetable oil on the outside of a pellet, grain, or extruded feed.
Fiber – In contrast to protein and fat, fiber is listed as a maximum. Fiber is essential for proper digestive system function. Typically, as the fiber content increases, the energy content decreases.
Fiber levels will typically be between 7% and 15% depending on the feed’s formulation.
Starch & Sugar – These nutrients are broken down in the small intestine and then stored in the muscles or liver. Starch is an excellent energy source, but if fed improperly, can cause metabolic problems, colic, and laminitis.
An important acronym to know when researching equine feeds is NSC, which stands for Non Structural Carbohydrates. It sounds complicated but is really a simple equation: NSC = Dietary Starch + Sugar
Generally, a ‘low NSC feed’ would have 12% NSC or less.
Prebiotics & Probiotics – Research shows the importance of the gut microbiome to the overall health of horses and other animals. Probiotics are the live microorganisms that help maintain a healthy gut (or microflora). They can also be referred to as direct-fed microbials. Prebiotics are food for those microorganisms.
Think of these ingredients as yogurt for your horse!
Adding pre and probiotics to horse feeds is helpful to maintain a healthy digestive system—meaning your horse will be able to extract all the nutrients out of the expensive feed you are paying for.
That said, buyer beware! Heat can render pre and probiotics inactive. A manufacturer could still put them on the feed tag, since they technically did include them in the formula, but they won’t produce the desired end effect. Pre and probiotics can be heat stabilized to survive the pelleting process (which includes heat and friction).
Pre and probiotics should also be encapsulated to survive the acid levels in the stomach. They need to make it to the small intestine, where they “live” and do their job.
Higher end feeds, such as Nutrena Safe Choice or Tribute Kalm ‘n Easy contain pre and probiotics that meet all of these requirements.
Biotin – Similar to protein and fat, biotin is represented as a minimum percentage. Biotin is vital to hoof and haircoat health.
Vitamin A – Represented as a minimum percentage, vitamin A helps support the immune system, reproductive function, and vision.
Vitamin D – Supplementation of vitamin D is essential for horses with low sunlight exposure as it naturally comes from the sun. This vitamin is critical to calcium and phosphorus absorption and is represented as a minimum on most feed packaging.
Vitamin E – When deficient in vitamin E, horses can display impaired neuromuscular function. Like vitamins A and D, it is represented as a minimum on feed packaging.
Selenium – Represented as a minimum percentage, selenium is essential for muscle development and growth. Selenium is not salt! Although selenium may be added to trace mineral blocks in selenium deficient areas, salt should still be fed free-choice.
Copper – Also presented as a minimum percentage in feed packaging.
Amino Acids – Referred to as the building blocks of proteins, amino acids are considered either essential or non-essential. Essential amino acids must be supplemented; non-essential ones are those that a horse can independently synthesize.
We discussed protein overall earlier; amino acids deserve their own callout! While total protein is important, it doesn’t address the quality of the protein. Amino acids need to be balanced for the horse to effectively use that protein. Feed should provide the essential amino acids.
Limiting amino acids is also important to understand. The horse utilizes amino acids in order: if it doesn’t have enough of one limiting amino acid, it can’t utilize the next one in the chain, which can cause a deficiency.
Confusing? Yes. Buying a higher-quality feed from a reputable manufacturer helps. Big companies such as Nurtrena, Purina, and Kalmback [SW3] typically employ PhD level nutritionists that figure all this out for you.
There are a ton of great feed options out there—generally, spending a little more up-front for higher quality grain will save you in the future between vet bills and expensive top-dress supplements.
If you need another reason to read your feed tag, you may be spending money on supplements you don’t really need. If your feed already includes biotin at an appropriate level, you don’t need to pay for an extra biotin supplement.
Aside from the basic nutritional requirements horses need to stay healthy and maintain weight, there is a whole market of extra supplements for your horse.
Regulations around supplements are less strict than those around feed. If you choose additional supplements, use one with the National Animal Supplement Council seal of approval. Approval from the NASC means the supplement has undergone testing to ensure quality.
What are common equine supplements?
Although you can find equine supplements addressing a wide range of issues, three of the most common are to support joint, hoof health, and to help hard keepers gain weight.
Joint Supplements – Horses are athletes. Their joints can wear down over time, especially in physically demanding disciplines such as jumping and reining. Some owners choose to feed a joint supplement to protect their horse’s joints as they age.
Although helpful, joint supplements are not a cure-all! There may be a problem that needs immediate attention versus the watching and waiting that comes with supplementation. If your horse suddenly shows lameness, always consult your vet first.
Hoof Supplements – Supplementing for hoof health can be a good option if your horse struggles with cracks. Horse hooves grow very slowly; sometimes, you may need to wait extended periods before seeing noticeable differences when trying a supplement. In general, horses with a balanced diet have good hooves.
Remember that nutrition can’t fix everything. If your horse isn’t getting routine farrier care or his pasture stays wet in the spring, no amount of hoof supplement can remedy those types of issues.
Weight Gain Supplements – If your horse is a hard keeper or is worked heavily, you may need to use a fat supplement to maintain a healthy weight. Before selecting a supplement, use body condition scoring to identify where your horse needs to gain weight.
Does it look like the horse needs more groceries across the ribcage? A fat supplement is ideal. If your horse is just bony across their topline, with adequate cover over the rib cage, a protein supplement may help build muscle across the topline without adding weight unnecessarily.
Can you over-supplement a horse?
Yes! Always read your feed tag first before adding supplements. Certain vitamins, minerals, and additives can only be absorbed up to a certain point—feeding more than that can either cause harm or just be excreted out (and your money wasted).
Also, some vitamins/minerals (like Calcium/Phosphorous) must be fed in a specific ratio (2:1, in case you were curious). Your feed should be formulated to the correct balance; over-supplementing could throw this off and prevent proper absorption in the gut.
If you combined all the nutritional requirements a horse needs (other than water) in one bag, you would have what’s known as a complete feed.
This feed is adequate for older horses who may have trouble chewing roughage such as hay or pasture. It can also work for horses with limited access to hay and/or grass.
Because complete feeds contain a horse’s complete daily nutritional requirements, you will generally feed significantly more than you would for a pelleted or textured feed. Complete feeds typically include necessary vitamin and mineral supplementation but in lower concentrations, because the feeding rate is much higher than other types of feed.
Unfortunately, many manufacturers use the term “complete” on their products, and deciphering between them can be difficult. Actual complete feeds should contain at least 25% fiber.
Although complete feeds have benefits, the volume of feed per day is relatively small and concentrated compared to a roughage-based diet. Concentrated feeds don’t necessarily satisfy a horse’s natural urge to chew continuously throughout the day. This type of feeding regimen could cause or worsen cribbing behaviors.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What are the 5 types of feeds for horses?
The five types of feeds for horses covers all the different feedstuffs we’ve discussed—roughage, vitamins/minerals, ration balancers, concentrates, and complete feeds.
- Roughage and fiber form the cornerstone of any feeding program.
- Mineral and vitamin supplements are sometimes found in fortified grain. They can also be added via other forms to a horse’s diet.
- Ration balancers often contain vitamins and minerals in combination with protein.
- Concentrates add calories to horses who may be in heavy work or are hard keepers.
- Complete feeds have all the nutritional requirements a horse may need and are often helpful for older horses.
Remember that horses should always have free access to clean water.
Q: How do you read horse feed labels?
All horse feeds are required by law to have a label listing ingredients and guaranteed percentages of certain nutritional elements. The very first part of the label you should look at when considering a new horse feed is the intended feeding population. This is crucial because all feeds are not designed to be fed to all horse populations.
Once you determine that the feed is appropriate for your horse, look at the feeding instructions. Remember that you always want to feed based on weight, not volume, and follow the recommendations as set forth by the manufacturer.
If you doubt whether a particular feed is appropriate for your horse, consult your veterinarian or an equine nutrition expert.
Q: What is the terminology for feeding horses?
Terminology for feeding horses will be similar to most livestock—always read your feed tag! Only feed products formulated for, or safe for, equines.
Pay attention to protein, fat, and fiber levels when comparing feeds and “extras” like added biotin and pre and probiotics. Be aware that vitamin and mineral requirements vary by species. When in doubt, look up additional information on the topic or ask for help!
The world of horse nutrition is vast, but many of the principles are basic. Start with quality forage and supplement according to the individual needs of your horse.
Consider your horse’s age and activity level when designing a nutrition program because you want a good match between calories and energy expended. Too few calories and your horse will drop weight, while too many calories result in obesity.
Neither extreme is optimal. If in doubt, consult your veterinarian or an equine nutrition expert.
P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:
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- How to Soak Hay for Horses (And Why Bother!)
- 3 Types of Horse Feed Every Owner Should Understand
- Donkey vs. horse nutrition: What’s the difference?
- Which Herbs and Vegetables to Feed Your Horse (And Why)
- Tips & Tricks: How to Help Senior Horses Gain Weight
How To Read a Feed Tag:
- How to Read a Horse Feed Tag – AQHA
- How to Read a Horse Feed Tag or Label| Purina Animal Nutrition (purinamills.com)
- Nutrena Horse Feed FAQ’s | Nutrena (nutrena.com)
- Is Alfalfa a Wise Choice for Horse Feed? (horseandrider.com)
- Alfalfa for Horses: The High-Quality Hay for Horses
- Pasture and Hay for Horses (psu.edu)
- Understanding Fiber in Horse Feeds – Kentucky Equine Research (ker.com)
- The Scoop on Grains and Concentrates (psu.edu)
- Ask the Vet – The do’s and don’ts of feeding oats – YouTube
- Feeding Beet Pulp to Horses – Kentucky Equine Research (ker.com)
- Horse Feeds: Pelleted Versus Textured | Tribute® Equine Nutrition (tributeequinenutrition.com)
- Pelleted vs. Textured Horse Feed – The Horse
- Sentinel Ask a Pro: Kristyn – Equus Magazine
Vitamins, Minerals, and Additives
- Starches and Sugars in Horse Feeds | Nutrena (nutrenaworld.com)
- Prebiotics and Probiotics for Horses | Nutrena (nutrenaworld.com)
- Vitamin D in Equine Diets – Kentucky Equine Research (ker.com)
- School of Veterinary Medicine – Vitamin E In Horses (ucdavis.edu)
- Ratio of Calcium to Phosphorous – Oklahoma State University (okstate.edu)
- Amino Acids in Horse Feed – Nutrena (nutrenaworld.com)
- The Basics of Equine Nutrition | Equine Science Center (rutgers.edu)
- The 5 Types of Horse Feeds and Concentrates (thesprucepets.com)
- Feeding the Foot: Nutrition For Equine Hoof Health – The Horse
- Complete Feeds for Horses – Kentucky Equine Research (ker.com)