Skip to content

June 2, 2011

The optimal way to feed your horse – Part 3: “The ideal feeding plan”

by DePaolo Equine Concepts

Despite the fact that most horses live in stalls, every owner should aim for a feeding program that closely matches a natural feeding program according to the design of the horse’s digestive system.  There are many possible alternative feeding plans that are commonly used for stabled horses.   No matter what plan is being utilized, it is important to remember that horses were designed for continuous grazing of small amounts of food.  As such, it is recommended that horses be fed at minimum two times a day and as often as four or more times a day.  The more feedings that are fed, the smaller the portions that are distributed all at once and the less incidence of digestive upsets.

There are five classes of nutrients that are required for a horse to maintain health.  They are water, energy, vitamins, minerals and protein.[1]  While horses can subsist with minimal success when these nutrients become disordered, it is far preferable to feed horses with balance of nutrients in mind.

Processed Feeds: Almost all horses are fed some version of a processed feed in the form of grain.  This provides them with necessary vitamins and mineral content that can be lacking in forages.  There are a vast array of feeds available on the market that are made by many different companies.  Selecting one can be a difficult process to say the least.  While most are formulated according to certain ages or lifestyles, there are four basic types of processed feeds.

  • Processed concentrates (pelleted or extruded)
  • Textured Concentrates (sweet feeds)
  • Complete feeds
  • Supplements (combinations of vitamin and mineral supplements usually in pellet or powder form that is top-dressed on the horse’s feed.[2]

All grains are required to have a tag attached to them that gives the minimum amounts of nutrients that are contained in the grain.  Since the tag lists the minimum and not the actual contents of each individual bag, some room for error must be taken into consideration when feeding these types of grains along with supplements.

Complete feeds can be the answer for many geriatric horses who have lost their appetites, or their teeth or both. This type of grain can also be useful in feeding picky eaters of very high activity performance horses.  The draw backs to feeding this way is that a horse’s digestive tract is designed  to process forage only and needs to process small amounts of food slowly and over a long time period. Complete feeds are not set up to be fed in this way, causing boredom, stable vices and digestive problems like ulcers and even colic.  It is recommended that such feeds be fed along with some portion of the diet in the form of a forage.

Textured concentrates in the form of sweet feeds must be fed sparingly as they tend to be loaded with sugar content and only intended for horses on a very active work program.  There is always greater risk when feeding sweet feeds of causing laminitis and metabolic imbalance in horses on this type of diet. Regular concentrates are not typically as sweet but should not be fed as anything other than a supplement to a horse’s forage-based diet.

Supplements should be chosen to complement requirements not met by the concentrate that is being fed to the horse and care should be taken to avoid over-supplementation.

Sugary feeds vs Fatty Feeds: There has been much attention lately given to the way in which we feed our horses the concentrate portion of their diet. Now that we can accurately identify metabolic conditions such as Cushing’s Disease, we have been able to link the disease to a tendency to overfeed sugary grains and supplements. Many experts now recommend balancing the diet of stabled horses toward “cool” energy sources that are higher in fats than starches and sugars. An example would be rice bran.  What cannot be ignored is that foods that are high in fat may not deliver an active horse their appropriate protein requirements.  A 1,100 lb horse will require about 1.6-1.7 pounds of crude protein a day.  Some of this protein will be available in forage alone, as in the example of a mix hay like orchard grass with has between 1.36 and 1.22 g of protein per pound.  If an average horse eats around 25 lbs of feed a day and at least 50 % of this ration is forage in the form of orchardgrass, the horse’s protein requirements are being met without adding any more to the diet in the form of concentrates. Timothy hays comes in around .59 to 1.13 g of protein per pound, which may indicate that the horse will require more protein to be added to its diet in the form of concentrates.[3]

It is recommended that owner purchase hay that has been cored by the seller, or else open at least 5 bales and collect handfuls from the center of each to be taken to a lab for analysis.  Once the nutritional content of the forage is known, it is much easier to balance the rest of the ration.

The Importance of Fiber:  Horses are designed to ferment their forage in their cecums in order to extract the necessary nutrients from the fibrous matter that they cannot actually digest. Proteins and carbohydrates are intended to be absorbed and digested in the upper gut.  The cecum is then intended to extract the volatile fatty acids that contribute 30-70 % of the horse’s total energy needs[4].  One of the problems with feeding complete feeds or other all-concentrate diets is that the horse’s digestive system is not designed to process concentrates in the cecum.  When a large amount of concentrates hurry through the digestive tract, they can cause founder, excessive gas or lactic acid.  It is recommended that horses receive less than 1 % of their daily diet in the form of concentrates.

Hay Color: Many horse owners purchase their hay simply on sight appraisal.  This can be useful addendum to an actual nutritional analysis of the content of the hay.  Different varieties of hay will have different typical appearances.  Grass hays tend to be lighter in color than alfalfas or other legume hays.  As a rule of thumb, the greener the hay, the more available digestible energy contained within it.  Hays that are yellow or brown were either baled while still too wet, or bleached out in the sun after being baled. Even hay that has been properly baled will lose between 30-70% of its nutrient content.  Hay that is yellow or brown may impart little more than simple roughage to the diet.  Horses tend to be much pickier eaters than cows for example, and are not likely to eat hay of poor quality unless very hungry.

Selective Grazing: Horses are very selective grazers ad are prone to over grazing of the same locales due to preference for the forage quality located there.  Pasture maintenance guidelines suggest that you remove horses from grazing areas that have been grazed down within 3-4 inches from the ground.  Horses much prefer this portion of the grass however, because they ferment their food in their hindgut and cannot effectively utilize the stemmy portion of most grass varieties.[5]  This behavior pattern also indicates a useful axiom of proper hay selection: choose hays that are not stemmy and coarse.

Picky and Finicky Eaters: Picky eaters come in two varieties.  One type is the horse that is in a healthy weight and still picks at its feed, leaving much of it behind after each feeding. The other is the horse that chooses not to eat most of its daily ration in spite of being too thin. Ulcers are an ailment common to all stabled horses to one degree or another and are easily identified via a simple scope examination.  Other physical ailments such as injury can also contribute to poor appetite. In addition, in order to maintain body condition, horses that are being worked very hard or who are very old will require more feed than a horse that is simply standing or doing light work. All horses need regular dental care for true health and often horses who are “picky eaters” actually just have tooth problems that can be corrected by a veterinarian.

All picky eaters need to be fed a balanced and correct ration.  Many of these horses are being fed improper ratios of concentrates to forage.  Horses with stomach discomfort often self-perpetuate their poor body condition by refusing to eat forages and selecting to eat concentrates only. Without the presence of fiber in the diet, improper digestion leads to gut discomfort and a lack of appetite. Other than horses who are advanced in age and usually have trouble chewing their feed, it is not recommended that any horse on a maintenance feeding plan be fed complete feeds or anything more than a small part of their daily ration in concentrates.

Weight gain supplements are available at most feeds stores and often include natural additives like aloe vera which soothe digestive upsets. These daily supplements can help a picky eater to maintain a healthy weight without adding unnecessary sugar to the diet.  Nervous horses in particular benefit from weight gain supplements as well as many small feedings throughout the day.  A picky eater may also thrive on a cubed hay diet. Hay cubes are often easier to digest than other forms of forage and can be fed in the bin where the horse receives its grain and supplements.

Exercise:  Exercise is an integral part of horse health. Horses were designed to graze as they moved and are inclined to be very active when allowed to self-exercise. For horses that are not allowed turn out where they can self-exercise, being worked in some fashion on a daily basis is necessary for mental and physical health. Exercise is key to digestive health . Horses who do no physical work of any sort often have poor appetites, poor body condition and can be nervous or unsettled.  Horses that are fed too many concentrates and not exercised are at high risk for founder and a variety of other metabolic conditions that result from excessive sugars not utilized in the diet.  Horses that are not exercised may fall prey to digestive upset caused by the unnatural act of standing or lying down all day.

If you feel your horse is lacking nutrition or not getting the most from your feed program, you might want to think about Horse Hair Analysis®.  HHA, part of DePaolo Equine Concepts’ holistic equine health care approach, is a cutting edge process for evaluating the cause of puzzling health problems and horse nutrition deficiencies, culminating with a customized horse supplement.

DePaolo Equine Concepts is passionate about our equine health care products — we offer the best horse joint supplements, digestive aides for horse ulcers, comprehensive equine vitamin and mineral supplements, as well as nutraceutical supplements for horses with Endocrine, Neurologic and Mental issues.

**Next week we will complete this blog series with Winter Vs. Summer Feeding Programs and for more on equine nutrition, please visit the health library on the DePaolo Equine Concepts website.


[1] Purdue University extension. Nutritional Management for horses.

[2] The horse.com Feeding Horses: Art, Science or Both? Ray Geor

[3] Purdue University extension. Nutritional Management for horses.

[4]The Horse. Com. Hay FAQ by Karen Briggs

[5] C.G. Chambliss. Horse Pasture Management.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Note: HTML is allowed. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to comments

%d bloggers like this: