Feeding your horse:
Their size, horses have delicate digestive systems. They are grazing animals with small stomachs designed to process small amounts of food almost continuously. When we confine horses and feed them relatively large amounts according to our schedules, we have to be very careful with what and how we feed. The amount of food your horse needs varies according to activity, age, breed, weather, quality of feed, quality of shelter, condition of teeth, etc.
What should I feed my horse?
For our purposes, feed for horses can be divided into three categories: pasture, hay and concentrates.
Pasture: The most natural food for horses is good quality pasture. Most mature pleasure horses doing light work will do well on pasture alone if they have sufficient grazing. However, horses are selective grazers and need a large area to meet their nutritional needs. Just because a field is green does not mean it contains sufficient grazing for a horse, and depending on where you live, for a large part of the year pasture is not available. You can optimize the amount of grazing available by dividing your pasture into sections and rotating your horses through the different paddocks. That way, you give the grass a chance to grow back and can pick up the manure.
Hay: Hay is the basic food of domestic horses. Only feed good quality hay to horses. Inspect hay carefully before buying it, asking the seller to open a bale. Make sure the bales are green and dust and mold free. Stick your hand down into the centre of a bale to make sure it’s not warm. Feeding moldy hay can cause colic and dusty hay can cause respiratory problems. (To avoid dust, it’s a good idea to pull the flakes apart and shake them out well before feeding. As a precaution, you can also soak hay before feeding.) The type of hay available varies according to the area you live in. Three basic types in Alberta are grass hay, alfalfa hay and grass/alfalfa mix. Common grasses are timothy and brome. Alfalfa has a higher protein content than grass. Many horse people consider a grass/alfalfa mix the best for horses, and timothy/brome/alfalfa is a common combination. Alfalfa is also available in cubes and pellets. However, horses need chew time to be content, so except for veterinary reasons, most people feed some hay. Some horses have a tendency to choke on cubes. To be safe, you can soften cubes with water before feeding.
Do not feed your horse grass clippings as they can cause founder.
Concentrates: Hay alone cannot provide enough nutrition for hard-working horses, pregnant and nursing mares, or growing youngsters. They need concentrates to supplement the hay. However, hay should still provide the bulk of the diet. Feeding too much grain can cause problems. Concentrates include grains (whole, rolled or cracked), sweet feed (grain mixed with molasses), and manufactured feeds (pellets, cubes, or extruded). You can buy bags of feed specially formulated for every stage of a horse’s life from creep feed for foals to feed for senior equines. Beet pulp provides additional bulk. Beet pellets must be soaked before feeding to allow them to expand. If you use hot water, they expand in about an hour, but with cold water, allow overnight soaking. Only prepare enough for one day’s feeding at a time.
Does my horse need anything else?
Horses need lots of drinking water and an adequate amount of salt and minerals.
Water: Fresh water is a vital part of your horse’s diet. Horses drink from 5 to 10 gallons a day. Clean water should be available at all times except when the horse is very hot from work. As you cool out your horse, allow him to take several small drinks rather than giving him free access to water. While horses can survive on snow in the winter, it is far from ideal. The horse’s body has to melt a lot of snow to get enough water, thus wasting body heat. A horse not getting enough water is more liable to impaction colic. An inexpensive stock tank heater can keep the water trough ice-free.
Salt and Minerals: A mineralized salt block should be available free-choice. You can also buy a variety of other vitamin, mineral and herbal supplements. Consult your veterinarian.
How much food does my horse need?
The amount of food a horse needs will depend on such things as size, breed, age, and activity. In cold weather, a horse living outside needs more food just to keep warm. As a general rule, a horse needs 2 to 2.2 pounds of feed for every 100 pounds of body weight. (You can buy a weight tape to measure how much your horse weighs.) For example, an average 1000 lb horse would need 20 to 25 pounds of feed a day. Most of that should be hay. A typical diet for a horse being ridden for one hour five days a week would be 2 to 5 pounds of grain and 15 to 20 pounds of hay a day, split into at least two separate meals. Common sense and ongoing awareness of your horse’s health and body condition should let you know if you need to make changes. Use a weight tape on a regular basis and keep a record. If your horse is gaining or losing, adjust his feed. Your horse’s weight should remain stable regardless of how much work he is doing or how cold the weather is. As a responsible owner, it’s up to you to adjust the amount you’re feeding accordingly. In winter, look with your hands as well as your eyes. A heavy winter coat can easily hide a thin horse. Feel under that hair. If you are unsure about how much to feed your horse, ask your veterinarian for advice.
How often should I feed my horse?
The basic rule for feeding horses is to feed little and often. The more meals you can split the day’s feed into, the better for the horse. For practical reasons, most people feed two or three times a day. Keep to a regular schedule and allow the horse an hour between work and feeding.
Can a horse eat too much?
Overfeeding can be a problem. While some horses will eat only what they need, most will eagerly overeat if given the chance. This can lead to founder or laminitis. Keep an eye on your horse’s weight and adjust meal size as required. Don’t feed concentrates unless your horse needs them. If your horse is pastured, it may be necessary to confine him in a dirt corral for part of the day. In some ways, a fat horse is as unhealthy as a thin one.
How can I can tell if my horse is the proper weight?
A system called “body condition scoring” has been developed to determine just how fat or thin an animal is. To a large extent it is based on common sense, looking at the amount of flesh on the ribs, on the base of the tail, between the hips and on the bony prominences. These are the bones that stick out from the spine behind the rib cage. In a horse carrying ideal weight, the ribs have a slight fat covering but you can feel them. The base of the tail has a smooth shape with slight fat covering. The neck is firm but, except for stallions, has no crest. You can learn more about body condition scoring by going to the web site of the Equine Research Centre at Guelph, choosing “Horse Health Care” from the first menu, then “Management” from the second.
I have several horses. How do I make sure they’re all getting their share?
If you are feeding more than one horse, you’ll have to make sure each horse gets enough food. Horses have a strong social order and the top horses will take more than their share. To give the bottom horses a chance, spread the hay out with one more pile than the number of horses. It’s best to physically separate horses to feed the grain ration. At the very least, use separate feed bins spaced wide apart. If you don’t, there’s a high risk of injury as each horse fights for his spot at the feeder, and the bottom horse will probably stay away altogether.
Is there anything else I should know about feeding my horse?
Find a diet that works for your horse and stick to it. Make any changes in feed slowly, spread out over several days. If your horse is not doing well even though you are feeding him enough, the problem might be teeth or worms or your horse might be sick. Check with your veterinarian.