Everything You Need to Know About Feeding a Horse

Like almost all animals, horses love to eat! However, they have sensitive digestive systems, so it’s important to carefully consider not only what you are feeding them, but also how much you are feeding them, and when.

What do horses eat? Most horses do well on a diet completely of forage, which can be provided through pasture or hay. Horses that have specific dietary requirements may also require supplemental grain, or a “complete feed” ration. Being herbivores, horses eat only plants and don’t have the digestive systems to process meat or dairy products. 

A lot of different people have a lot of different opinions about what and how you should feed your horse. In this article, I’ll share the most natural methods for feeding your horse, and also things to consider when working out their diet. Keep reading!

Can Horses Live On Grass Alone?

A horse’s natural diet is forage, and they obtain this by grazing. Horses have been surviving on forage for their entire existence, and there are millions of horses around the world that still live this way in the wild. That said, horses that live in the wild are not confined to a maintained and irrigated 2-acre pasture, and the grazing opportunities on a pasture will not be as varied. 

Many domestic horses thrive on pasture alone, but an adequate pasture should consist mainly of grasses. Because horses ingest far fewer calories per hour through grazing than they do through hay, it is important that if a horse is going to live on pasture alone, they must be turned out at least 17 hours per day. A general rule of thumb is that each horse requires 2-4 acres of pasture to avoid over-grazing. 

Maintaining a pasture means more than just irrigating it. Pasture maintenance can include mowing (though your horse does this largely for you, there are times extra clean-up may be necessary), manure maintenance, and occasional re-seeding. One tool that makes managing your pastures easier is a manure spreader. These machines mulch up manure and spread it over the pasture; this creates a nice fertilizer while also causing the manure to break down more quickly. If you are looking for a reliable manure spreader, check out Conestoga Manure Spreaders at this link.

If you keep your horse on pasture, know that there are many benefits to utilizing rotational grazing. Breaking your pasture into smaller sections allows ground to rest and recover, and inhibits parasitic population. Rotational grazing generally results in healthier pastures and more efficient use of the land.

Not every horse owner can maintain enough healthy pasture to sustain a horse year-round, and these horses will require a supplemental food source – hay.

When to Feed Your Horse Hay

Where adequate pasture is not available, hay is the main food source for horses – in most cases, it’s the only food source. There are various types of hay available, but most horses will require grass hay – timothy, brome, orchard, etc. The specific type of hay available is often determined by region. Legume hay, such as alfalfa, is an option for horses that need to put on some weight, but it is very rich and is usually not recommended for young, healthy horses. 

While most horses don’t “overeat” on pasture, the same can’t be said with hay. Horses should eat approximately 2% of their body weight each day. This means that a 1,000-pound horse will eat about twenty pounds of hay daily. A 60-pound bale of hay will last about three days for a horse of this size. 

Hay can also be used if your horse is being stabled and doesn’t have access to grass. Horses are designed to be grazing for at least 12 hours a day, and their digestive systems are made to constantly be working. By putting a pile of hay in the stall, your horse can continue to munch away.

How to Tell if Your Horse Needs Hay

In the area I live in, most horses can live on just pasture grass during the Summer; however, when the Winter rolls around and the grass stops growing, horses will be fed hay. So, how do you tell if your horse needs hay?

Time of Year

If you live in an area where grass does not grow year-round, you can expect to start feeding hay in the colder months. Research when the grass in your area usually dies, are look out for the first frost. Most grasses will stop growing after the first hard frost.

Around October or November is when many horse owners in my area start feeding hay. However, if you have a lot of pasture space and a lot of grass left in your field, you may be able to get through the winter without having to feed it. When I just had my one riding horse and my miniature pony, they were not able to eat all the grass down, so the grass lasted all winter!

Weight Loss

If there is limited grass in your pastures and you notice your horse has started to lose some weight, it may be a sign that you need to start feeding hay. If it were me, I would add hay to their diet and see if that improves their weight. If not, you may want to call a vet and get their opinion.

The Hay Test

This is a test I have come up with to determine whether or not a horse out on pasture needs hay. It’s important to remember that most horses prefer good grass over hay. If you put a flake of hay out in the pasture and your horse doesn’t eat it all, that probably means that they still have enough grass in their field. However, if you throw out a flake of hay and the horse eats it all up, that’s a good indication that they don’t have enough good grass to sustain their diet and you should start regularly feeding hay.

Should Horses Eat Grain?

There are many different grain options for horses, from single-ingredient options like oats to grain mixes that have been carefully formulated for horses of different ages, stages, and disciplines. In its most basic form, grain comprises the seeds of cereal grasses like oats, corn, and barley. While these grains come from the same plants that horses can graze, they are much higher in energy (calories) and, in most cases, should be fed sparingly.

That’s not to say that grain is unhealthy for horses; there are several reasons a horse will require grain as a supplement, or even as a replacement for forage. Grain is helpful for horses that require extra calories or who need to put on weight. I used to have rescue horses on our property and when they would first arrive, I’d feed them grain daily along with their rations of hay to help them put on weight. We had one Belgian who came to us at least 500 pounds shy of what she should weigh; I was happy to supplement this girl’s (grass-alfalfa combination) hay with grain. 

Brood-mares may benefit from grain at the end of their pregnancies and during lactation. This isn’t a hard rule, however – mares who are fed too much during their pregnancies can experience problems. A veterinarian who knows the condition of your horse can best say whether she will benefit from additional calories during this stage.

Older horses are often fed a “complete feed” – especially those who are lacking in teeth. When a horse no longer has the teeth to help her adequately digest the fiber in the hay, grain may be necessary. Soaked hay pellets may also be an option in this scenario.

Finally, many show horses require supplemental grain to meet the caloric needs required for the high level of exercise in their particular discipline. A show horse, or a “working horse,” may not be able to meet his nutritional needs on forage alone due to his exercise schedule. In this case, he may need not only additional roughage but also supplemental feed to provide him with the energy he needs.

Do Horses Need Mineral Supplements?

Many commercially formulated feeds contain the vitamins and minerals that a horse requires. If a horse is fed only forage, however, he may be lacking in essential minerals. Common deficiencies found in horses include sodium, vitamin E, selenium, zinc, copper, and manganese. The mineral content in the forage your horse eats will vary greatly.

Most deficiencies can be resolved with a free-choice supplement. I prefer loose minerals over blocks because they are able to get significantly more nutrients when ingested this way. I have a covered dish that is secured to the outside of my barn. I keep it filled with a loose mineral formula and my animals take advantage of this as needed.

Feeding Schedules – When to Feed Your Horse

Horses should be fed at least twice daily and spread out as evenly across 24 hours as practical. In the wild, horses spend the majority of their days grazing, and this is how the digestive system of a horse is designed to eat. Eating an entire day’s worth of feed in one sitting is not good for a horse’s GI tract, and is not supportive of natural behavior. Horses are designed to graze, and not having this opportunity can lead to mental stress and behavior that is not desirable.

Ideally, it is best to feed your horse at the same two (or more) times each day. This means that when determining a feeding schedule for your horse, make sure you take into consideration both weekdays and weekends – horses can’t tell the difference. If your horse is accustomed to being fed at 7 am on the weekdays, trust that she will be at the gate talking to you (or yelling at you) a little before 7 am on the weekends. If you have no feeding schedule, your horse can become frustrated, which can lead to the development of behavioral issues. 

Is Your Horse Eating Too Fast?

It’s beneficial for a horse to eat her hay slowly – both for her digestive system and also to keep her “busy.” Using a hay net, or a slow feeder, can help the hay at each feeding last longer. This works by allowing a horse only a small amount of hay in each “bite”. This extends the time it will take a horse to eat her meal, which is not only better for her digestion but also mimics more closely the act of grazing. Hay nets also help to control parasites, as the hay is off of the ground.

Feeding Horses the Right Way

A horse’s health is determined by multiple factors – not the least of which is their diet. When we take on the responsibility of keeping an animal, we should do everything we can to ensure they are getting everything they need to thrive. Horses love to eat, and they spend the majority of their days doing just that. I like to consider my animals’ natural behaviors when determining how I care for them, including how, what, and when to feed them.

Most horses thrive best on forage alone and prefer multiple smaller meals (or 24/7 pasture turnout). While I love the idea of my animals living on pasture alone, my property doesn’t allow for that, so my animals have 24/7 access to pasture but receive supplemental hay. Providing them with the nutrition they require while allowing them to graze throughout the day is what works for us. What works for you will depend greatly on your land and your horse, but sticking as close to your horse’s natural behavior as feasible will result in a happy and healthy animal.

While horses eat A LOT, there are also a lot of things they shouldn’t eat! To learn more, visit my article The Ultimate Guide to What Horses Can (And Can’t) Eat.

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Carmella Abel, Pro Horse Trainer

Hi! I’m Carmella

My husband and I started Equine Helper to share what we’ve learned about owning and caring for horses. I’ve spent my whole life around horses, and I currently own a POA named Tucker. You can learn more here.

Thank you for reading, and happy trails!

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