Wild horses spend the majority of the day grazing. They are natural herbivores, relying on plants for all their nutritional needs. But as you stand in the aisle at your local feed store, you might find yourself with more questions than answers. What feed is best for your horse? Do they really need those expensive supplements?
Every horse has unique dietary needs. A racehorse in heavy training, for example, has different nutritional needs than a family trail horse. There is no one-size-fits-all diet for horses — but there are some general principles a horse owner can follow to design a good feeding plan.
Forage Comes First
Forage is defined as grasses and legumes. Bermuda grass, timothy grass, clover, and alfalfa are all examples of forages. These feeds should be the base of every horse’s diet. They are high in fiber — which horses can digest for energy. Munching on forage also keeps the horse occupied and satisfies their instinct to graze. Horses that are fed plenty of forage are therefore less likely to develop vices like cribbing and weaving.
How Much Forage to Feed
Horses need at least 1.5% of their body weight in feed per day. For example, a 1000-pound horse will need at least 15 pounds of feed per day. Horses in work often need even more. The majority of this feed should be forage, and if a horse is idle or in light work, they may thrive on a diet of forage alone.
Types of Forage
Forage can be hay, pasture, or a combination of both. If your horse is out on pasture by day, they may only need a few additional pounds of hay at night (and may not). Horses kept on good pasture 24 hours a day often don’t need hay at all.
If your horse is older or has poor teeth, you can feed hay pellets or cubes in lieu of long-stem hay. Make sure you soak the pellets or cubes in water to soften them before feeding.
Legume forages, like alfalfa, tend to be higher in protein and calories than grasses. Horses in heavy work and underweight horses do well on legumes. Those in light work and those prone to obesity often do best on grass.
Read the Feed Bag
Grain-based, commercial feeds are known as concentrates. There are hundreds of different concentrates available these days. For most horses, these feeds should be a smaller part of the diet. For example, you might feed a horse in moderate work 15 pounds of hay plus 5 pounds of concentrate.
Select a Feed Based on Horse Class
The easiest way to select a concentrate for your horse is to read the bags. Look for a feed made for horses in the same “class” as your horse. For instance, if you’re feeding a broodmare, look for feeds designed specifically for broodmares. If you’re feeding a hard-working jumper, look for a feed for horses in heavy work. These feeds are specifically formulated with the right amounts of protein, fat, fiber, and other nutrients for horses with certain lifestyles and dietary needs.
Check Feeding Instructions
Once you’ve selected a concentrate, check the bag for feeding instructions. The bag should tell you how much to feed based on your horse’s body weight. For instance, it may tell you to feed 0.5 – 1.0 pounds of feed per 100 pounds of bodyweight. Follow these instructions.
Adjust the amount you feed if your horse seems like they are gaining or losing weight. And remember — almost all of these feeds are designed to be fed in addition to good forage.
Use Supplements Sparingly
As a horse owner, it’s tempting to add supplements to your horse’s diet “just in case.” However, many horses don’t need supplements if they are eating good-quality forage and a concentrate designed for their needs.
Here are some instances in which you might consider a supplement:
- You had your hay tested and know it is low in certain nutrients.
- Your vet advised you to add a certain supplement.
- You’re looking to treat or prevent a specific ailment or issue.
If you do feed supplements, make sure you read the label carefully and feed the recommended dose. Too much of certain nutrients can be just as harmful as too little.
Designing a good feeding program is one of your many responsibilities as a horse owner. Keep the tips above in mind, and contact an equine nutritionist for more personalized advice. Once you’ve designed an appropriate diet for your horse, you should find they are happier and more responsive. That’s the perfect time to visit Easy Horse Fix to make the relationship between you and your horse even better!