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Feeding Horses: How Much, and How Often? [Feeding Chart & Guide]

Nicole Cosgrove

May 25, 2021

Horses are herbivorous. They do not eat meat and, while you must feed the right mixture of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protein, your horse will have a relatively simple diet. Generally, you need to ensure that you provide enough roughage, that the hay you provide is a good quality one, and that you provide water as well as nutritional extras like salt. Below, we cover the basics of how much you should feed to maintain good equine health.divider-horse

What Do Horses Eat?

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Credit: Alexas_Fotos, Pixabay

Foods To Offer

A horse can eat the following foods:
  • Grass or Haylage— Grass is a horse’s natural food, and hay is used to mimic its properties for those horses that do not graze a lot.
  • Concentrates— Concentrates are grains such as oats. They provide additional energy but they should be fed in moderation, according to the requirement of your horse, and are commonly only fed to pregnant, young, and old horses.
  • Salt and Minerals— Salt is a critical ingredient for most animals and it assists in muscle contraction, nerve health, and more. Provide a salt block or salt lick.

Foods To Avoid

Your horse should avoid the following foods:
  • Dairy— Most horses are lactose intolerant so you should avoid feeding any dairy foods.
  • Onions, Garlic, Leeks— All members of the Allium family, which also includes shallots and chives are toxic to horses because they contain N-propyl disulfide.
  • Tomatoes— Related deadly nightshade, all parts of the tomato plant are dangerous for horses.
  • Chocolate— Theobromine is toxic to horses and is found in chocolate. It causes colic, seizures, and internal bleeding, and should be avoided completely.
  • Bread— Bread is processed food and because your horse cannot break it down, it can cause colic.
  • Meat— Horses are herbivorous animals. They do not have the teeth, nevermind the digestive system or the liver, to deal with meat-based foods.

Water

Like all animals, horses need water to survive, and they should be given a constant and readily available supply of fresh water. At the very least, they should have fresh water twice a day and you should ensure that it isn’t allowed to freeze in cold temperatures.

horse eating-pixabay
Credit: Couleur, Pixabay

Horse Feeding Chart

Level of Work Hay Grains
No Work 20–25 pounds None
Light (1-2 hours/day) 15–20 pounds 1–3 pounds (1–1.5 pounds of grain per hour of work)
Medium (2-4 hours/day) 15–20 pounds 3–8 pounds (1.5–2 pounds of grain per hour of work)
Heavy (4 or more hours/ day) 15–20 pounds 5–10 pounds (1.5–2.5 pounds of grain per hour of work)

Source: https://extension.psu.edu/feeding-horses

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How Often to Feed Your Horse

A horse should be fed at least twice a day. Although it is common for people to feed their horses at the same time, there isn’t any physiological requirement to stick to a feeding schedule. It is worth noting, however, that your horse will become accustomed to a schedule.  So, if you feed at the same time every day, it can cause upset with your horse if you try and change the schedule too aggressively.

If your horse is in the pasture, they can graze at will, which is the natural way for a horse to feed and best suits their small stomachs.

Feeding everything in a single meal will cause digestive upset, including colic. The daily feed level should, therefore, be split across a minimum of two portions and fed over the day. Three meals are better, but not always practical for owners.

horse eating-pixabay
Credit: Alexas_Fotos, Pixabay

How to Switch Horse Feed and Feeding Schedule

Horses have delicate stomachs and digestive systems, so you must avoid making any sudden or extreme changes to their diet unless it cannot be avoided.

If you are considering changing feed, you need to do it gradually.

Changes should be made gradually over seven days.

  • Day 1 —     75% old feed and 25% new
  • Day 3— 50% old feed and 50% new
  • Day 5— 25% old feed and 75% new
  • Day 7— 100% new diet

Horses enjoy routine and they will learn a feeding schedule sooner than their humans, in most cases. Even after a few days, they will come to expect their food at the same time, and they can become stressed and angry if you change this schedule without warning.

Change a schedule gradually, in the same way you would change the feed itself. A slight change shouldn’t matter, and it is worth noting that horses do not need to be fed on a strict schedule, so you can feed at different times every day if needs be.

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Can Horses Feed on Pasture Only?

In the wild, horses would feed on pasture only. They would graze all day long and their systems have evolved to extract all of the nutrients and necessary ingredients from the grass. However, it is also worth noting that very few owners have top-quality pasture. The grass can be affected by everything from freezing conditions to humid conditions, and this prevents a horse from being able to extra what it needs.

Good pasture management will certainly help, but it is more common for horse owners to introduce haylage and even some concentrates to a feeding schedule. These make up for any dietary shortfall from the pasture. Ensure that you do not have too many horses grazing in the same pasture, keep an eye on horse condition to look for signs that they might be nutritionally lacking, and be prepared to supplement with feed, where necessary.

Do Horses Need Supplements?

In the wild, horses graze on pasture all day long, and this is how they survive while getting their daily nutritional requirements. But we also expect our domesticated horses to live longer than their wild counterparts, and part of the reason for this is that we can control their nutritional intake and ensure that they have the best possible diet that encourages good health and long life. Supplements, in a lot of cases, help towards this end and are considered essential for a lot of horses.

Provide supplements if your horse is not getting everything it needs from its diet. For example, if a pasture is over-grazed or has been negatively impacted by harsh weather conditions. You should also supplement if your horse is in high stress or unusual circumstances. For example, racing and eventing can place a horse under a lot of additional stress, both physical and mental, and it will benefit from supplementation.

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What to Do if Your Horse Isn’t Eating

Identify why your horse isn’t eating and then remove this obstacle. Reasons can include:
  • Illness — Illnesses such as gastric ulcers can cause a loss of appetite and should be treated as soon as possible. Consult your vet for advice.
  • Pain — Pain of any sort can reduce a horse’s appetite, but especially if the pain is around the mouth or face and is exacerbated by chewing or eating. Look for symptoms of pain and signs of injuries and treat them.
  • Vitamin B1 Deficiency — Various plant species can cause the B1 to be destroyed in the gastrointestinal tract before it is ingested and used by the horse. B1 deficiency is known to be a cause of a loss of appetite. Ensure that any pasture is well maintained and that you have removed species like bracken fern and horsetails.
  • Unpalatable Foods — Foods can become unpalatable in one of several ways. They can become contaminated with fungus. They can become moldy or stale, or they could contain too high a concentration of supplements or even medications, with the resulting flavor putting your horse off eating. Manually inspect the feed, replacing it if it is old or off. Reduce the amount of supplementation      included and consult with your vet over medication amount or a change of medication.
  • Stress —     Horses can become stressed by a change in routine, a change in diet, or other factors, and it can cause a loss of appetite. Minimize stress by introducing any changes to feed or routine gradually.
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Conclusion

Horses have relatively simple dietary requirements, and many of these can be met through regular grazing on pasture. Failing this, or to supplement this especially during harsh winter months, you should feed hay, supplements, and other dietary inclusions to help promote good health and prevent illness in your horse.


Featured image credit: blende12, Pixabay

Nicole Cosgrove

Nicole is the proud mom of Baby, a Burmese cat and Rosa, a New Zealand Huntaway. A Canadian expat, Nicole now lives on a lush forest property with her Kiwi husband in New Zealand. She has a strong love for all animals of all shapes and sizes (and particularly loves a good interspecies friendship) and wants to share her animal knowledge and other experts' knowledge with pet lovers across the globe.