Horse Nutrition and Feeding Management: Feeding Tips for Healthy Horses

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 Basic feeding tips
  • Horses graze by nature. Feed smaller amounts more often.
  • Good quality hay or forage should form the basis for all feeding programs.
  • Make no sudden feed changes. Alter the diet over a 7 to 10 day period, so the digestive system can adjust.
  • Provide free choice access to salt (preferably trace-mineralized) at all times.
  • Provide mineral supplementation.
  • Provide free choice clean water at all times and in all seasons. Eating snow is not sufficient as a water source in winter.
  • Assessment of body condition is an important indicator that the horse is getting enough nutrients. You should always feed your horse to maintain a body condition score from 4 to 5 (on the 9-point scale, with 1 being extremely thin and 9 being extremely fat). Adjust feed intake accordingly.
  • Remember, horses are individuals and should be managed and fed as individuals. Segregation of horses may be necessary.
Horses on pasture
  • Three to five acres of good pasture are required to graze one horse during the summer.
  • Spring growth is more nutrient rich than summer or fall growth.
  • Avoid alsike clover in horse pastures and hay, because it can cause liver damage and photosensitivity.
  • Mature horses generally get fat on good pasture. Pasture may need to be restricted.
  • Overfeeding and related problems are more common than underfeeding.
  • Horses still need access to minerals, free choice salt and fresh clean water while on pasture at all times.
  • In winter, provide supplementation with hay and possibly grain.
Feedstuffs contain the nutrients energy, protein, minerals and vitamins. The right combination of feedstuffs needs to be chosen to meet the nutrient requirements of your horse.

Energy is the main component of horse feeds, and it includes the starches, sugars, cellulose (fibre) and fat in plants. If the horse does not receive enough energy, it will lose weight, or with young horses, it will not grow. Excess energy is stored as fat.

Hay forms the basis for all horse rations. Depending on your horse’s physiological state and the hay quality, extra energy may need to be provided.

Oats are the grain of choice for horses. Oats can be fed whole except for those horses that are old or have poor teeth. Corn, barley or commercial feeds are also high in energy and can be used. To avoid digestive upsets, grain should be fed in small amounts (e.g. 1 kg) at a time unless the owner has experience feeding higher levels.

All soft tissue, such as muscle, is composed of protein. Protein in diets is required for growth and maintenance of muscle, hair and organs. Legume hays, such as alfalfa, generally have a high protein content (16-18%). Grass hays (bromegrass, orchardgrass, timothy) are lower in protein (5-12%), but generally meet protein requirements for mature horses. For young horses (less than 2 years old), protein supplements or soybean meal (48% protein) need to be added to the ration to meet the protein needed for growth.

Horses require minerals such as calcium and phosphorus as well as trace minerals such as iodine, copper, iron, manganese and selenium for bone development and general health.

Horses have an appetite for salt (which is sodium and chloride), and most feedstuffs are low in salt. Also, salt requirements go up in hot weather or during exercise, when horses are sweating. Salt can be mixed into the diet or fed free choice in block or loose form. The brown salt block is trace-mineralized and contains added iodine, manganese, cobalt, iron, copper and zinc.

Calcium and phosphorus are the two minerals most commonly added to horse diets. Hays and grasses are generally adequate in calcium, but deficient in phosphorus, By contrast, grains are low in calcium and higher in phosphorus. Commercial feeds will typically already have the appropriate amount of minerals and vitamins added to meet a horse’s requirements.

Livestock mineral that has a 1:1 ratio of calcium:phosphorus (such as an 18:18 mineral) can be added to the grain mix, top-dressed or fed free choice. A deficiency in calcium and phosphorus will restrict growth in young horses, and it will reduce bone density and strength in mature horses.

The vitamins usually supplemented to horses are Vitamins A, D and E. Good quality hay often has all the horses’ vitamin requirements. Vitamin A may be deficient in the diet if the horse is not eating green grass. Vitamin A is readily available as a supplement. Read the supplement label.

Hay and grass notes
The horse’s digestive system is made so that the horse needs some long stem roughage (such as hay or grass) in the diet for normal digestive function. Horses need a minimum of 1% of their body weight per day in forage (a 1,000 lb horse needs 10 lbs of hay).

Feed horses hay that is bright-colored, leafy and is free from dust, mold and weeds. Common hays include alfalfa and grasses such as timothy, orchardgrass, bromegrass and native grasses, or a mix of alfalfa and grass hay.

Feeding management
The horse’s requirements for energy, protein, minerals and vitamins will change depending on the horse’s age, size and workload. Table 1 shows feeding guidelines for different types of horses. Keep in mind that the hay guidelines are for good quality hay and that voluntary intake of hay will decrease as the hay quality diminishes.

Table 1. General guidelines for feeding hay and concentrate (normal, good quality hay).
Physiological State
Kg hay/100 kg of body wt
Kg grain/100 kg of body wt
Mature Horses
1.5 - 2.0
0 - 0.5
1.5 - 2.0
Pregnancy, 9 - 11 months
1.0 - 1.5
0.5 - 1.0
1.5 - 2.0
Lactation, early
1.0 - 2.0
1.0 - 2.0
2.0 - 3.0
Lactation, late
1.0 - 2.0
0.5 - 1.5
Light work
1.0 - 2.0
0.5 - 1.0
1.5 - 2.5
Young Horses
Nursing foal
1.0 - 2.0
2.5 - 3.5
Weanling foal
0.5 - 1.0
1.5 - 3.0
2.0 - 3.0
1.0 - 1.5
1.0 - 2.0
2.0 - 3.0
2-year old
1.0 - 1.5
1.0 - 1.5
1.75 - 2.5

Mature Horses
A healthy, mature, idle horse often requires nothing more than good quality hay, mineral supplementation, free-choice salt and water. Exercising or growing horses will have an increased demand for energy, so you need to adjust feed intake accordingly.

Pregnant and lactating mares
Mares in late gestation (9-11 months) have increased energy, protein and mineral requirements due to the rapid growth of the fetus. Because of the reduced space in her digestive system for hay, the mare will probably need to be supplemented with a grain and minerals or a commercial grain mix (such as a 12-16% grain mix).

In early lactation, the mare’s energy requirements double. Protein and mineral needs also increase substantially. She cannot eat this much in hay alone, and grain needs to be fed to meet her nutrient requirements. If she is on good alfalfa/grass hay, she will get enough protein on hay and oats alone. If she is on grass hay only, she will need a supplement higher in protein, such as a 16% grain mix. As well, the mare’s requirements for water will double due to her milk production. Extra minerals are needed.

Growing horses
Improper feeding of young horses can affect their growth and development permanently. High quality hay and supplements should form the basis of the diet for a weanling to a yearling. Foals should be supplemented with a commercial foal supplement to provide the extra protein and minerals they need for satisfactory growth. Young horses that do not receive enough energy, protein and minerals will not grow well and will have poor, rough hair coats.

Tips for feeding under-nourished horses
Increase the feed gradually over a 2-week period, starting with about 2/3 of the high quality hay needed, and increase to the feeding guidelines in Table 1. At this point, start adding some grain into the diet to increase the level to 4 to 5 lbs per day. Do not give more than 5 lbs (1 gallon) of grain at a time!

This information was prepared by Susan Novak PhD.

For further information, please visit the Alberta Agriculture Ropin' the Web website:

Les Burwash
Manager. Horse Programs

To call long distance:
Use the Rite line 310-0000 free-of-charge

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For more information about the content of this document, contact Adrienne Herron.
This information published to the web on April 14, 2005.
Last Reviewed/Revised on April 15, 2015.