FAQ Horse Care

Food or Foe: What Do Horses Eat (And Why)

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Written by Susie W.

What kind of foods do horses eat, and how do they impact equine health and happiness? Let’s dig into the equine diet.

Nutrition plays a critical role in your horses’ overall health and well-being. As herbivores, horses have evolved to graze continuously throughout the day; it’s important to try and mimic this when designing a feed and supplement program.

Because pasture is generally not readily available year-round, most horses in the U.S. eat a combination of hay and grain. Grain is meant to supplement the hay and serve as a good source of vitamins, minerals, and extra calories for horses that have higher metabolic needs.

Another important component of your horse’s diet is water. Did you know your horse needs to drink about 10 gallons of water per day? Access to fresh, clean water is critical!

How to Feed Horse Hay

On average, horses need to consume about 2% of their body weight in hay each day. For a 1,000 lb horse, this would equal 20 pounds of hay per day.

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Feeding round bale hay free-choice

There are two categories of hay commonly found in the US; legumes and grasses.

Alfalfa hay falls under the legume category. Typical grass hays include timothy, Kentucky bluegrass, and orchard grass. Grass hay is lower in protein and higher in fiber than alfalfa.

Hay can be harvested several times throughout a typical growing season. It’s common to hear people refer to “first cutting,” “second cutting,” and, in a good year, “third cutting.” The time of year, growing conditions, and harvesting conditions all affect the quality of the hay.

Once cut, hay is typically baled into square bales or round bales.

Square bales are divided into flakes. Round bales are generally fed free choice, which means the horse can decide how much and how often to eat. Square bales are common for horses kept in stalls, as they are easy to divide up during feeding time.

Want to learn more about horse hay? Check out our article on Horse Hay FAQs (List of Types of Hay, The Best Hay for Horses, etc.

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Hay quality is critical

Checking the quality of your hay is essential.

If not dried or stored properly, hay can become moldy. Moldy hay is extremely dangerous to horses—never feed moldy hay to your horse! It can cause colic, which basically means abdominal discomfort or pain. Unlike people, horses can’t throw up—so if they eat something they shouldn’t, it can cause major problems.

Always check hay visually for mold. If the hay has a musty odor or smells like mildew, don’t feed it.

Note: If you’re feeding round bales, be sure to use a durable slow feed net. They cut down on waste (a LOT!) and keep horses from eating too quickly.

How to Feed Horse Grain

Grain can be fed as a supplement to your hay.

Horses in light work receiving high-quality hay may not need any grain. “Hard keepers” (horses that have a high metabolism) may need additional grain to maintain a healthy body weight.

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Grain is a supplement to hay, not a replacement

Typically, grain comes in two forms: pelleted feed or texturized (sweet) feed.

Sweet feed is generally a mix of pellets, oats, and corn, coated in molasses. Nutritionally, these two forms can be similar if not identical; it’s more a matter of personal preference.

There are a lot of different choices when it comes to selecting grain for your horse. The two most important factors that I consider when evaluating products are price point and life stage.

Price Point: Feed companies typically price feeds at three levels.

  • Economy: Meets basic nutritional needs
  • Mid-line: Base nutritional needs + added biotin for hoof quality, organic trace minerals, added amino acids for muscle development
  • Premium: Mid-line + guaranteed amino acid levels, pre and probiotics to aid in digestion, and likely has more calories per pound

Life Stage:

Horses require different nutrition depending on their age and workload.

  • Young horses & brood mares: Adequate nutrition early on plays an important role in horse health later in life. Nursing mares need extra calories to provide for their foals
  • Easy keepers and maintenance horses: Horses in light work can thrive on concentrate feed that provide vitamins and minerals without excess calories
  • Senior horses: These feeds are generally higher in fiber and calories to help keep weight on older horses. For seniors that have trouble chewing hay, a senior feed could completely replace hay in the diet
  • Performance horses: The equine athlete has additional caloric requirements as well as the need to build and maintain muscles and joints. High-quality grain is an important part of feeding a competition horse
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Performance horses typically have higher caloric needs and benefit from a high-quality grain

Wondering how to feed in the winter? Check out Winter Hay 101: How Much to Feed Your Horse (And Why).

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Horse Feeding Strategy Considerations

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Every animal’s feeding plan is unique.

When it comes to your feeding strategy, feed by weight, not by volume. This applies to both hay and grain!

Grain: Most feed companies compile their feeding requirements based on weight.

  • For example, an active horse weighing 1,000 lbs might need 6 pounds per day of a premium grain. You need to know exactly how much “a scoop” of grain weighs to make sure you are providing the correct amount.
  • Too much can cause intestinal upset (colic) and, long-term, lead to obesity; too little means your horse is missing out on key nutrients and may not maintain a healthy weight.

Hay:

If you feed bales of hay, they are generally divided into flakes. All flakes are not created equal—the thickness can vary.

  • Total up how much feed your horse needs per day and divide by the number of feedings to know how much to give at each meal.
  • Feed hay first! You want your horse to have a little hay in his stomach before putting rich, calorie-dense grain in there. This will help slow down digestion so your horse gets more out of his grain.

Want to learn more about horse hay? Check out our article on Horse Hay FAQs (List of Types of Hay, The Best Hay for Horses, etc.

Timing:

Space out feeding times and be consistent. Small, frequent meals mimic what the horse would experience in nature. Many people feed twice per day for convenience. While this is adequate, it would be even better to feed three times per day at 8 hour intervals.

If you are going to feed twice per day, try and space it out as much as possible—for example, feed at 7 am and 7 pm.

  • I have a friend who used to board at a barn in Indiana. He mentioned they had an unusually high number of horses diagnosed with ulcers. I asked about the feeding program and found out they were feeding the horses at 6 am and 2 pm… and that was it! The horses were going 16 hours between dinner and breakfast. This is a recipe for trouble—I suggested waiting to visit his horse until later in the evening and feeding additional hay until he was able to move to a new barn.
  • Consistently feeding around the same time of day is also important; horses are creatures of habit and abrupt changes to the feeding schedule could trigger health issues such as cribbing, ulcers, or even colic.

Make changes gradually. The horse has a delicate digestive system and the flora in the gut need time to adapt to new feed.

  • A good guideline when changing grain is to mix the old feed with the new feed at a rate of 10% per day. On Day 1 you would introduce 10% of the new feed mixed with 90% of the old. By Day 5 you would be doing a 50% blend of the old and new feed, and your horse would be completely changed over 10 days later.
  • This principle applies to hay as well! When switching suppliers, or from one cutting to the next, it is a good idea to phase in the new hay as well.

What NOT to Feed Horses

  • Grass clippings. Lawns can be treated with chemicals which are not meant to be eaten by your horse. The sugar level in grass changes throughout the day; depending on when the grass was cut, it could cause laminitis.
  • People food. If you’re not sure about whether a food is safe, err on the side of caution and don’t feed it. A simple treatment for colic starts at about $350 and goes up from there. Colic surgery can easily range between $5,000 and $10,000.
  • Carrots and apples are fine—in moderation. Feeding large quantities of fruits can cause problems to your horses’ digestive tract.
  • Dusty hay. This can damage your horses’ lungs.
  • Cattle feed, or feed formulated for other animals. Cattle feed often contains ionophores, which are drugs that are helpful to ruminant animals. Horses are not ruminants; they are monogastric animals. These medications, even in small amounts, can be toxic to horses.
  • Never feed someone else’s horse without permission.
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Yes, it IS safe to feed your horse an occasional beer! #rookietestedhorseapproved

Happy trails… and happy feeding!

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

P.P.S. Not sure what treats to buy? My horse looovvveees these low-sugar snax from Nutri-Good. They’re perfect for carrot stretches after our rides, too!

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About the author

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Susie W.

Horses are my first love, but travel is a close second! I grew up riding in 4-H and went on to ride on my college equestrian team. As an adult, I've ridden and shown Quarter Horses for 20+ years, including several wins at Quarter Horse Congress. I also worked for 7 years at a leading horse feed company, and I'm passionate about equine health and nutrition. Lastly, I have a big soft spot in my heart for senior horses!