Horse Care Riding Tips

3 Types of Horse Feed Every Owner Should Understand

Horse eating hay
Written by Aimee B.

Hay is for horses…right???

Does the horse feed aisle at your local co-op cause you to feel anxious about making the right feed choice? Are you overwhelmed by the sheer number of feed options? Have you tried understanding equine nutrition, but quickly became overwhelmed by confusing terminology and internet articles written for Ph.D. students?

If you’ve ever felt confused or overwhelmed about equine nutrition, you’re not alone! Understanding the topic of equine nutrition and, more importantly, feeling confident about your horse’s feeding regimen starts with knowing some basics about feed options. We’ll provide a high-level overview of this complex topic, giving you the confidence to delve deeper into the vast world of horse nutrition.

The Equine Diet

At its core, nutrition is about the exchange of energy. Nutrients come in, the body digests those nutrients, and energy is released.

Similar to humans, horses have energy needs that can be met with proteins, fats, and carbohydrates in the diet.

All horses, regardless of age or performance status, need access to fresh, clean water at all times. The nutrient needs of individual horses, however, can vary considerably depending on their age, activity level, metabolism, and other factors.

Although metabolic needs differ from one horse to another, there are only a few options for how to meet your horse’s nutritional needs. When in doubt, think back to how horses evolved.

Horses roamed many miles each day to graze and find water. Mimicking these conditions can be difficult, especially if you board somewhere with limited turnout. This understanding, however, can help shape today’s feeding routines.

Different Kinds of Horse Feed

Forage forms the cornerstone of any horse’s nutritional needs and can include pasture, hay, or a combination of both.

In the wild, horses spend most of their day grazing. A horse’s system is designed for small, frequent meals to counteract the constant acid production in their stomach.

Many horses in today’s world have only limited access to pasture, if at all. When pasture access is limited, hay is the next best alternative.


Hay is generally baled, although those bales can take several different forms. The most common format for horse stables are small square* bales. However, hay can also be purchased in large square bales and round bales.

To minimize waste when feeding hay, always use a feeder or hay net.

*The word square is used loosely—bales are actually rectangular in shape!


Photo cred: Canva

Although hay bales can come in various shapes, all hay should be free from mold and relatively dust-free. It should be stored away from moisture and protected from the elements.

In addition to different shapes, there are also different types of hay. The most common two types of hay fed in the United States are grass hay and alfalfa hay.

Grass hay looks like just that—stems of grass. Pieces will be long and generally light green to brown in color.

Flakes of grass in hay

Alfalfa hay has a leafy appearance and a reputation for being “richer” than grass hay. It is generally greener in color than grass hay, and will be higher in protein.

Alfalfa hay is higher in both protein and calcium than grass hay, making it an excellent choice for performance horses or horses suffering from ulcers.

Hay can also be processed into pellets or cubes. This creates a denser product that keeps longer and may be easier to store. These hay products should always be soaked before feeding to minimize the risk of choke or impaction colic.

Once you see how much water these products can absorb, you’ll understand why!

Alfalfa pellet progression

The progression of soaking alfalfa pellets!


Many horses can maintain a healthy body weight on simply good-quality hay alone. Other horses, such as those that are still growing, pregnant, lactating, or in heavy work, may need some extra calories.

Horses that may struggle to keep weight on are referred to as “hard keepers.” Grain can be a great way to keep weight on these animals.

“Grain” can mean everything from actual whole grains (such as oats) to more processed forms such as pellets or nuggets.


Grain comes in different forms, including pellets, textured, and extruded feeds. Pelleted feeds are nutritionally uniform. One pellet is the same as the next. If your horse likes to pick through feed, only eating his favorites, and leaving the rest, you may want to try a pelleted feed.

Textured feeds combine individual ingredients in their original form. For example, a textured feed may have a pellet, whole oats, and cracked corn. This type of feed is usually coated in a liquid such as molasses and soy oil.

Extruded feeds are created using a cooking process, like how pet food is manufactured. These feeds may be “fluffier” (less dense) than pelleted or textured feeds.

They can be easier to digest, as the ingredients are cooked to a specified temperature, which helps start the nutrient breakdown process.

Extruded fee

Historically, horses were used for heavy work in the fields and as the primary source of transportation. They needed extra calories to maintain weight. In today’s world, most horses are only ridden lightly a couple times a week, if at all. In those cases, feeding additional calories to your horse might not only be a waste of money but harmful to their health.

Equine obesity is a serious problem. Additional strain on hooves, tendons, and ligaments can cause lameness.

Developing an appropriate nutritional regimen should focus on evaluating your horse’s individual needs and feeding accordingly. Food does not equal love!


Raise your hand if you are regularly served online ads peppered with ads for horse supplements making miraculous promises. These ads promise everything from a full mane and tail to a completely sound horse.

Although supplements have a purpose, not every horse needs one.

A few more popular supplements include those for joint and hoof health and for horses who have difficulty maintaining an appropriate weight.


Supplements are feed additives, usually in powdered or pelleted form, fed in small quantities. They are usually “top-dressed” (poured on top of your grain) once or more per day.

The quality of supplements can vary dramatically. If you’re questioning whether a supplement may be beneficial, consult your veterinarian for a recommendation. The market for supplements isn’t as regulated as animal feed (similar to the relationship between human supplements and food!)

If your horse has a health or soundness issue, always call your vet first before trying to remedy the issue through diet alone. Your horse may have a serious medical problem that should only be addressed by a veterinarian.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is the best type of feed for horses?

Forage in the form of pasture and hay should form the cornerstone of any nutritional program. Aside from forage, feed should depend on your horse’s age, activity level, and several other individual factors, such as pregnancy status.

Some horses do well with a forage-based diet and a simple ration balancer to supply nutrients missing from their forage. Others need grain to maintain an appropriate weight.

Older horses or horses who can’t chew properly may benefit from a complete feed that combines the fiber from a forage diet and extra calories from the grain component.

Q: What is hard feed for horses?

Although there are slight differences in what is considered “hard feed,” most people consider it anything other than forage. Examples would be commercially prepared or specially mixed grain and supplements.

Q: What are 3 things horses eat?

Horses eat hay, grain, and many types of grass. Feed treats in moderation, and always make sure your horse has an ample supply of fresh water. If you’re looking for a natural treat, try apples or carrots.

Q: What food gives a horse energy?

Carbohydrates in the form of cereal grains, such as oats, supply horses with energy. A horse can also derive energy from protein and fat, although their bodies metabolize those nutrients differently than carbohydrates. Horses don’t tolerate a high-fat diet.

Q: What is the best horse feed for horses with ulcers?

First, talk to your vet! Horses with ulcers will do best on a forage-based diet. Alfalfa hay is especially good for horses with ulcers, as it has a higher calcium content than grass hay.

Calcium helps to act as a buffer in the horse’s stomach. Eliminating concentrate feeds (grains) from the diet is generally recommended.

Parting Thoughts

Although the topic of equine nutrition can seem overwhelming, the basics are simple and very similar to human nutrition. Keep reading and learning, and if you’re ready for the next step, check out our post on horse feed terminology.

P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:


Nutrient Requirements for Horses – Extension Horses

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About the author


Aimee B.

Aimee grew up riding and showing in western pleasure and horsemanship through 4-H. She began riding dressage 7 years ago and is currently training her 3.5-year-old Friesian/Quarter Horse.