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Feeding Horses - General Guidelines

Feeding any age horse is a complex problem where each factor plays an important role in determining the nutritional intake of the individual horse. In the case of the senior horse, more complex situations come into play such as the loss of functional teeth and metabolic disease. For any horse, we have to start by assessing the situation and determining what is lacking and why.


For the most part, feeding a horse is 80% management and 20% nutrition. So, when recommending a feed, it really depends on the management involved: What is available? How frequently can they be fed? How many other horses are competing? What is the daily routine? What can be changed? If we just address the nutrition, but the horse doesn’t have access to it or is not eating it, then we are wasting our money and time. Let me give you an example, if a horse is anxious when in the stall and doesn't do well alone, then feeding in the stall when the other horses are gone will probably not result in much consumption. So keep this in mind when you decide what will work for your facility and your horse. Often times, basic changes to the schedule and management will fix many feed intake problems.


Getting Started 

There is a ton of information out there about how to feed horses. The first thing to do is educate yourself. A good source of information is through the University of Minnesota Extension Service. There are several fact sheets on their site that answer some of the more common feed (and general horse) related questions. 



Water needs to be offered to horses at all times. It is the most forgotten, but most important nutrient in a horses diet. Water containers (trough, automatic water, bucket etc) need to be clean, free of rust and algae. Frequent cleaning (even in the winter) is needed to maintain consumption. As the temperature falls, more water is lost by the horse through evaporation and thus, more is required. Horses drink more readily when the water temperature is 40-60 degrees.


The Value of Forages

Because hay or pasture is the primary feed source of all horses (60-100% of the total diet), it is really important that we know how much energy (calories) this is providing. Quite amazingly, hay alone can supply nearly 100% of the energy needs of a horse. The only way to completely determine what a horse is lacking is to have a hay analysis. This may sound expensive and time consuming… but it really isn’t. The cost is about $20. There are a few different companies that perform this service; We suggest Equi Analytical ( as they report information important to horses specifically. To get the sample you need core samples of 15-20 bales. You can often borrow a hay probe from your county extension office or your local feed mill.  


Putting it All Together

So what do I feed and how much does my horse need?  Unfortunately, there is no blanket statement we can give you. It is similar to asking how to feed a dog – the Chihuahua is going to need a completely different diet than the Great Dane.

Here are some general rules:

  • Horses need 60-100% of their total diet supplied as forage

  • Horses eat 1.5-2% of their body weight per day.

    • For example: an average 1000lb horse needs 15-20lbs of hay per day

    • For horses on an alternative forage diet (e.g. alfalfa pellets), the amount of pellet you need to supply must be equivalent to the amount of hay/pasture no longer in the diet.

  • To minimize the risk of colic, do not feed more than 0.05% of their body weight per feeding

    • For example: An average 1000lb horse should not get more than 5lb of feed at a time.

    • Divide feedings into at minimum 2, but ideally multiple (4-8) times per day. This is very important in horses that are unable to eat hay or pasture.

  • Consider a ration balancer – these products are formulated to supply horses with their daily mineral and vitamin requirements that hay alone cannot supply

  • Fresh clean water (temp 40-60 °F)

  • Salt – free choice, either in loose form (ideal) or blocks. 

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