What is Horse Feeding: 10 Best Tips for Feeding Horses

Horse Feeding is an important part of keeping it happy and healthy. There is no “one-size-fits-all” plan, unfortunately. Even though each horse’s nutritional needs rely on how they live, forage (plants) should be central to every horse’s diet. And some horses might need extra pelleted grain, feed, or vitamins to compensate for their missing.

Understanding How a Horse Digests Food

It takes between 45 and 72 hours for a horse’s food to go through its digestive system. There are two parts to the stomach tract: the foregut and the hindgut.

The stomach and small intestines make up the foregut. It mainly breaks down and processes most of the starches, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals in food. The cecum, the big colon, the small colon, and the rectum are all parts of the hindgut. This part of a horse’s digestive system has microbes, bacteria, and protozoa that help break down dietary fiber from roughage, which is hard to digest plant matter.

Compared to their body weight, horses have small bellies that can only hold a small amount at a time. Their abdomens have both glands and areas without glands. Humans only make stomach acid when they are busy digesting food, but horses always make it because they are meant to graze in pastures daily.

Horses must be fed at least twice daily on the same plan. Many horses do better when they are fed 3 or more times a day at different times. This is better for their digestive system and can help keep ulcers from forming in their stomachs.

Generally, a horse should eat grass that makes up 1-2% of its body weight. For instance, a horse weighing 1,000 pounds should eat between 10 and 20 pounds of grass daily.

If you need to change your horse’s diet or add something new to it, do so slowly over a period of 5 to 7 days. This is to help stop stomach problems like diarrhea, colic, or laminitis.

Required Nutrients for Horses

Nutrients can be divided into six different categories:

  1. Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are an important food that horses and all other animals use as their main energy source. Structural and non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) are two types of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates like cellulose can be found in hay and grass. Due to diseases like Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (PSSM) or Cushing’s disease, some horses may need to reduce the amount of NSCs (like starch or sugar) in their diet.

  1. Fats

Horses can also get their energy from fats or oils. The amount of energy in fat is more concentrated than the amount of energy in carbs. Because fats have 2.25 times more energy per gram than carbs, you should never give a horse more than 10% of its food in fats or oils. Fats can be used as the energy source for horses that don’t do well with NSCs.

  1. Proteins

Even though protein is listed on many bags of feed, amino acids are what the animal really needs to eat. Proteins are broken down into amino acids when the body digests them. The bowels release amino acids into the bloodstream, carrying them to all body parts. Muscles, organs, bone, blood, skin, hair, legs, and many other parts of the horse will be made from amino acids in the long run. Any amino acid that isn’t used to keep or build up a horse’s body is turned into energy or passes through its digestive system.

  1. Minerals

Minerals are inorganic substances that are needed in small amounts. They don’t have carbon-hydrogen bonds. Iron, copper, phosphorus, calcium, and magnesium are all minerals a horse needs to stay healthy. Iron is necessary for blood cells to deliver oxygen. Calcium and phosphorus are vital because they help build and strengthen bones and teeth.

  1. Vitamins

Even though horses only need small amounts of vitamins, they are still very important to their health. Many horses get enough vitamins from grass, but if this isn’t the case, giving them a vitamin pill may be important.

  1. Water

About 70–75% of the body is water, and it helps the body’s processes and keeps its temperature steady. Depending on their size, where they live, and how they live, a horse will drink between 10 and 15 gallons of water daily.

Types of Horse Feeding

Your horse can get the food it needs daily from a range of feeds. Most of the time, horses are fed a mix of the following types of food to keep them fit.

Hay

Hay is a type of grass, and a horse should eat mostly hay. Hay can be made from grass, like field grass, or from a crop called a legume, like alfalfa. Alfalfa hay is usually best for horses that do a lot of work or are pregnant. This is because they need a lot of calories and energy. Grass hay is excellent for horses that are easy to care for and don’t do much work. The leaves are where most of the nutrients in hay come from. Hay is a good source of nutrition.

Pasture

Horses can get a lot of good food from pasture. A well-kept field can save money on feed and give the horse the energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals it needs. So that it’s a good place to graze, a field shouldn’t be too thick or too long. A good field can also help horses get a lot of exercise every day.

Concentrates

Concentrates are things like corn, oats, and barley, all small grains. These tend to have less fiber and more energy than grass or hay. The quality of hay and grass is just as important as the quality of grain. Oats are usually the healthiest and easiest grain to feed with hay because they have more fiber, less energy, and more protein than, say, corn. Too much of these amounts can cause inflammation of the intestines and too much stomach acid to come back up, leading to colic. Most oats don’t have much calcium and a lot of phosphorus.

Supplements

Supplements are a big part of the horse food business today, but you shouldn’t give your horse supplements unless something is missing from its diet. Remember that carbs are a source of energy that can be added to a diet, mostly grass. Supplements should only be added to your horse’s food if something is missing. Talk to your vet before you add anything new to your horse’s food, including supplements.

Commercial grain / complete feed

Commercial grain is a mix of grains and other things added to make it more nutritious. Compete feed is a mix of grains with a lot of fiber. These can be based on the horse’s age or how it lives. Complete feed plans can be easy to use and are made with the right ingredients to give a horse all the nutrition it needs.

Horse Feeding Schedules 

No matter how your horse lives or how old it is, their feeding routine should always be the same. Always feed small amounts of food, and it’s better to provide several small meals throughout the day than one or two big meals.

A horse’s digestive system works best when it can eat hay or graze in a field whenever it wants. When adding or changing something in your horse’s food, you should always do it slowly over 5–7 days to avoid causing colic, laminitis, diarrhea, or other stomach problems. If you have questions about your horse’s food or nutritional needs, you should talk to your regular vet or an equine nutritionist.

10 Tips for Feeding Horses

Follow these horse feeding management best practices to keep your horses healthy.

1. Put Forage First

Feed your animals good food. The grass that leisure horses eat daily can be up to 2.5% of their body weight. Horses should get at least 1% of their body weight in grass daily when they eat a lot of concentrate. For a healthy gut, it’s essential to eat enough good-quality food. Good-quality hay usually smells fresh (not musty), is green, has a lot of leaves, and doesn’t have any weeds or other trash. The grasslands should be free of poisonous weeds and trees and have safe, tasty forages.

2. Maintain Clean, Fresh Water

On average, a horse drinks 8 to 12 gallons or more of water daily. Water should always be clean and fresh, especially before and after eating. After working out, horses should be given water right away, but they shouldn’t be able to drink too much at once until they’ve cooled down.

3. Feed by Weight, Not by Volume

Different feeds have different densities, so a scoop of oats weighs more than a scoop of seeds. Concentrates for sale can differ from one company to the next or from one batch to the next. The same is true for hay since not all flakes or blocks in a bunch weigh the same. A simple kitchen scale can help you ensure your horse gets the right amount of feed in the feed room.

4. Feed Small Meals

If you feed your horse small meals, it will be able to receive the nutrients better before the food goes to the back of its stomach to ferment. If a horse eats more than 0.75 percent of its body weight in concentrate every day, the concentrate should be split into at least two similar meals. Any food that is more than 8 pounds per day for an average 1,100-pound horse must be divided into at least two meals. Feeding multiple small meals can be even better.

5. Feed on Time

Feeding your baby regularly, ideally every 12 hours, helps them get the most out of the food and reduces the chance of colic. If a horse needs more than 1.5 percent of its body weight in concentrate daily, the total amount should be fed in three or four meals over 24 hours. Anything over 16 pounds of concentrate needs to be given to a 1,100-pound horse at least three times, 8 hours apart.

6. Maintain Proper Body Condition

When their bodies are in the best shape, horses feel and perform their best. This is a moderate body state for the average horse. The ribs are easy to feel but can’t be seen. The back is relatively flat, the withers are rounded, and the fat deposits around the head of the tail are slightly spongy. Broodmares should be kept closer to a fleshy body state with a crease down the back, spongy fat around the tailhead, and ribs that can still be felt despite fat between them.

7. Make Changes Slowly

It takes at least two weeks to change a horse’s grain safely. When switching foods, start by putting a small amount of the new feed in place of the old meal (based on weight). Gradually add more and more of the new feed until it’s the only one you’re giving them. To increase (or reduce) the amount of food delivered, change the amount by 1/4 to 1/2 pound per feeding each day, waiting 1 or 2 days between increases. Limiting grazing time to 2 hours per day when bringing horses to pasture and then slowly increasing it.

8. Keep Feeders Separated

When feeding a group of horses, each horse should have its own feeder. Place feeders close enough to each other that all the food can be put out quickly but far enough apart that birds can’t kick into each other. Giving each horse its feeder makes them less likely to fight over room at the feeder.

9. Maintain Proper Storage

Feed should be kept in the right way to keep it from going bad and getting dirty. Hay should be kept in a dry, closed place where it won’t get wet and grow mold that could be harmful. Keep grains and other concentrates in a safe place where mice, bugs, and horses can’t get in. Keep all feeds, supplements, and poisons away from each other. Use methods to keep rodents away to stop the spread of sickness.

10. Use Grazing Management as an Ally

Under rotational management, fields can be split into smaller areas called “paddocks” that animals can move between when they know the grass will have grown back. This ensures that the manure is spread evenly and gives the horses better quality feed. If you have more questions, talk to the Extension worker in your area.

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