What should a horse eat daily?

Horses require a balanced diet to stay healthy. Their nutritional needs depend on their age, breed, activity level and overall health. When feeding a horse, it’s important to provide the right amounts of roughage, concentrates, vitamins and minerals. This article will provide detailed guidelines on constructing optimal daily diets for horses in different life stages and activities.

Quick Facts on Horse Nutrition

  • Adult horses should consume 1.5-2.5% of their body weight in dry matter per day
  • Forage or roughage like hay and grass should make up the majority of a horse’s diet – at least 50%
  • Concentrates like grains and pellets should make up the remaining portion to meet energy needs
  • Vitamins and minerals are required in much smaller amounts but are essential to balance the diet
  • Water, salt and access to pasture or hay should be available at all times

Roughage – The Foundation of Good Horse Nutrition

Roughages are high in fiber and provide the bulk that keeps the digestive system functioning properly. They include:

  • Grass – Fresh pasture grass is great roughage if not overgrazed. Rotate grazing areas to maintain nutrient quality.
  • Hay – Dried grasses or legumes baled for year-round feeding. Grass, alfalfa, clover and oat hays are common.
  • Chaff – Dried chopped hay used to add fiber to concentrated feeds.
  • Beet pulp – Dried sugar beet material that provides highly digestible fiber.

Mature horses should get a minimum of 1% of their body weight in roughage daily. Feed good quality, fine-stemmed leafy hay for adequate nutrition. Provide hay free-choice or divide into multiple small meals.

Concentrated Feeds – Balancing Nutrient Needs

Grains, pellets, oils and supplemental feeds are more calorie-dense than roughages. They provide energy, protein, vitamins and minerals. Common concentrates include:

  • Grains – Whole or crushed grains like oats, barley and corn supply carbohydrates for energy.
  • Sweet feeds – Processed grain mixes with molasses. These are higher in sugar and not ideal for some horses.
  • Pellets and cubes – Made from compressed grain meals, these are lower in sugar and convenient to feed.
  • Oils – Added to boost calorie intake. Vegetable oils like soybean and rice bran oil are commonly used.
  • Supplements – Balancing vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.

Feed concentrates in amounts tailored to the horse’s needs. Performance horses may need grain rations up to 50% of daily intake. Limit non-working adult horses to 25% or less. Divide concentrate meals into 2-3 smaller feedings.

Vitamins and Minerals – Micronutrients with Major Impact

Vitamins and minerals are required in smaller amounts but are crucial for optimizing health and performance. Some key micronutrients include:

  • Salt – Sodium and chloride needed for nerve function. Provide free-choice salt block at all times.
  • Calcium – Needed for bone health. Alfalfa hay is a good source.
  • Phosphorus – Works with calcium on bone/tooth formation. Found in grains.
  • Magnesium – Helps nervous system and electrolyte balance. Added to commercial feeds.
  • Vitamin E – Antioxidant for muscle and immune function. Abundant in green hay.
  • Vitamin A – Supports vision, skin, coat and immunity. Found in green feeds.

Browse-based hay can provide many micronutrients. Still, some supplementation is often needed, especially for hard-working horses. Feed a quality vitamin/mineral supplement or balancer pellet daily or as recommended.

Water – The Most Crucial Nutrient

Water may not provide any calories, but it is the most essential nutrient for horses. Some key facts on horses’ water needs include:

  • Horses should have unlimited access to clean, fresh water at all times.
  • Requirements vary from 5-12 gallons per day based on diet, workload and climate factors.
  • High-quality water is just as important as high-quality feed.
  • Horses lose additional water through manure, sweat and respiration.
  • Dehydration causes serious health consequences including colic and kidney damage.

Check water troughs multiple times a day. Provide water in multiple locations. Clean troughs regularly to prevent algae buildup and diseases. In winter, take precautions to prevent freezing.

Feeding Specific Classes of Horses

While the basics of good horse nutrition remain the same across the board, some classes of horses have additional considerations. Here are some feeding guidelines tailored to horses in different classes:

Feeding Growing Horses

  • Foals – Mare’s milk provides complete early nutrition. Start offering hay and grain at 2-3 months.
  • Weanlings – Feed high-quality hay, limit grains to 0.5-1% of body weight.
  • Yearlings – Transition to adult horse ration by 18 months old.
  • Provide abundant roughage, pay close attention to vitamin/mineral intake.
  • Feed a 14-16% protein commercial feed or top-dress with ration balancer.

Feeding Senior Horses

  • Select softer, highly digestible hay like grass or alfalfa.
  • Ensure adequate fiber intake to prevent GI issues.
  • Offer cubes or soaked feed if chewing is difficult.
  • Increase vitamin E, C and selenium.
  • Restrict non-structural carbohydrate content.
  • Limit lush grass; divide turnout time into multiple short sessions.

Feeding Performance Horses

  • Sport-specific calorie needs can be 2-3x baseline requirements.
  • Provide high-quality, leafy roughage free-choice.
  • Grain intake scaled according to training program and weight.
  • Performance feeds with added fat for energy and muscle recovery.
  • Electrolyte supplementation to replace sweat losses.
  • Generous protein sources like soybean meal to build muscle mass.

Feeding Underweight Horses

  • Free-choice access to good quality grass or hay.
  • Slowly transition to an energy-dense ration with corn oil or rice bran.
  • Feed multiple small meals spread throughout the day.
  • Consider alfalfa hay or beet pulp for added calories.
  • Address underlying health issues impacting appetite and nutrient absorption.

Daily Feeding Schedule

When constructing a daily feeding schedule, it’s important to mimic a horse’s natural grazing patterns. The following timeline helps optimize digestion and provide mental stimulation:

Time Meal
6:00 – 7:00 AM Hay meal
8:00 – 9:00 AM Grain concentrate meal + vitamins/minerals
11:30 AM – 12:30 PM Hay meal
2:00 – 3:00 PM Hay meal
5:00 – 6:00 PM Grain concentrate meal
9:00 – 10:00 PM Hay meal

Keep in mind that this is a general guideline. Adjust exact feeding times and amounts to suit your individual horse’s needs. The key is to offer small meals spaced over regular intervals throughout the day.

Signs Your Horse’s Diet May Need Adjustments

Being alert to your horse’s health, behavior and manure gives important feedback on how well their current diet suits them. Some red flags include:

  • Weight loss or gain
  • Lethargy or lack of stamina
  • Change in manure consistency
  • Increase in behavioral vices like cribbing or wood chewing
  • Dull hair coat or skin conditions
  • Changes in drinking water intake
  • Digestive upset like diarrhea or colic

If your horse displays these signs, consult your veterinarian and equine nutritionist. Adjustments like changing hay sources, adding probiotics or increasing concentrates may get things back in balance.

Key Takeaways on Feeding Horses

Here are the key points to keep in mind when feeding horses:

  • Forage should make up the bulk of adult horse diets – at least 1% of their body weight daily.
  • Grain concentrate amounts should match activity and fitness goals.
  • Vitamins, minerals, salt and water must be constantly available.
  • Divide meals into multiple small servings throughout the day.
  • Tailor diets to horses’ age, health status and discipline.
  • Monitor horses closely for signs of their nutritional needs changing.
  • Work with a trusted vet and equine nutritionist when making diet changes.


Proper equine nutrition provides the foundation for keeping horses healthy and performing their best. Ensure they get adequate roughage, concentrates, micronutrients and water. Pay close attention to their condition and behaviors for clues on fine-tuning their diet. With some diligence and expert guidance, you can meet your horse’s nutritional needs for every stage of life.

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