Knowing what to feed our horses can be confusing, since there’s so much choice as to the types of feed, supplements, and forage available!
What is a healthy diet for a horse?
Our horses’ diets must be balanced to suit their individual needs. For example, what’s healthy for your horse may not be healthy for another horse.
We should consider the following factors when feeding our horses:
- Age (e.g. younger horses may need more protein, while older horses might require softer food that’s easier to chew).
- Time of year (horses often require extra food during the winter).
- Workload (e.g. horses in hard work need more energy than those in light work).
- Temperament or behaviour.
- Turnout situation.
While deciding what to feed our horses, some horses have health concerns (such as laminitis or gastric ulcers) to consider, while others may be sensitive to certain types of food (for instance, cereal-based feeds can make certain horses excitable).
In general, a healthy diet for a horse should include the following:
- Protein – for growth and tissue repair.
- Energy – for normal body functioning and to fuel activity.
- Fibre – to keep their digestive system healthy and for energy.
- Vitamins and minerals – to support all bodily functions and processes.
- Water – as an essential nutrient to maintain their entire body.
When there is a nutritional imbalance in your horse’s diet, they’re put at greater risk of problems such as colic, psychological stress (which can lead to behavioural issues), and weight-related illnesses (due to being underweight or overweight).
The amount of water your horse drinks will vary every day, according to:
- Weather – they’ll naturally drink more water in warm weather.
- Workload – horses who exercise a lot will drink extra water.
- Food – if their food is drier, horses will feel thirstier.
- Size – bigger horses require a larger amount of water than small ponies.
Did you know? Your horse (or pony) should be drinking around 25 to 55 litres of water on a daily basis, which is the equivalent of around 45 to 97 pint glasses every day!
All horses and ponies should have constant access to fresh, clean water. There are different ways to provide your horse with water in the stable and field, such as use of non-toxic water buckets and automatic drinkers.
Although grass is important for horses, it isn’t enough to turn a horse into a field and expect them to stay happy and healthy while eating just grass.
Wild horses once roamed miles every day to find food, but modern equestrian practices mean our horses are kept in fenced fields for their own safety. Our horses are also exercised through various disciplines, from hacking to dressage, so will require special diets to keep them healthy.
There isn’t enough grazing to sustain our horses all year ‘round on most livery yards in the UK, which is another reason we need to provide our horses with extra forage (like hay or haylage), feed, and supplements.
It’s important to check your horse’s field, by making sure it has:
- Safe fencing (preferably post and rail, without barbed wire!).
- A fresh, safe water source.
- Enough shelter for all horses.
- No poisonous plants.
- No droppings.
- No hazards.
The amount (and type) of forage you feed your horse should suit their unique requirements. For advice on feeding forage, speak to your vet or a qualified equine nutritionist.
Always aim to provide fantastically fresh forage for your equine!
There are a few types of hay to choose from (such as alfalfa hay, seed hay, or meadow hay), though, normally, the features of high-quality hay include:
- A soft texture.
- Long, thin strands with a hint of green (unlike straw, which has thicker, coarse strands that are yellow).
- Pleasant, sweet scent.
- No (dried!) poisonous plants.
- No debris or spiky sticks.
Why is forage so important to horses?
Horses require forage because they are naturally ‘trickle feeders’, who eat small amounts through the day and night, instead of big meals a few times a day.
Forage, such as hay and haylage, contains essential fibre that maintains your horse’s digestive system and keeps it moving, thanks to a wave-like muscular movement called ‘peristalsis’.
Knowing exactly which hard feed to choose to suit our horse’s needs can be a challenge. To confuse us even more, some people refer to hard feed as ‘bucket food’ and others call it ‘concentrate feed’, regardless of which type!
One way to help narrow down the options is to understand the different sorts of feeds available for your horse:
- Straight feeds – these are cereals (e.g. oats, barley, bran, etc.) that are not mixed with anything else and do not have added vitamins or minerals.
- Concentrates – as the name suggests, ‘concentrate’ feeds contain a concentration (lots!) of nutrients and energy by mixing different elements, like cereals and chopped alfalfa (e.g. cool mix).
- Compound feeds – ideal for fussy eaters, compound feeds combine all the ingredients of concentrate feeds into pellet form, to limit the possibility of horses picking through their feed and missing out on key nutrients (e.g. pony cubes).
- Complete feeds – are packed with plenty of vitamins, minerals, and other essentials (like protein) in a small ration; making them great for horses who are prone to putting on weight (e.g. balancers).
If you’re still confused about the best choice of feed for your horse, have a chat with your vet or a qualified equine nutritionist.
Please note: Many feed companies employ equine nutritionists to offer advice about their specific brand of horse feed. Therefore, it’s worth speaking a few equine nutritionists from different feed brands, if you want a wider perspective about what’s most suitable for your horse!
Supplements are designed to provide your horse with nutritional support in addition to their diet. Most supplements are added to your horse’s daily ration of bucket feed.
There’s an incredible array of supplements available for your horse, from standard vitamin and mineral supplements to supplements designed specifically to support so many different aspects of your horse’s wellbeing, such as:
- Respiratory health.
- Joint health.
- Hoof health.
- Coat condition.
- Itchy skin.
- Gastric ulcers.
Brand-new supplements are released every day, which can make it a little tricky to choose the right one for your equine friend!
Always ask your vet for advice about the best supplements to feed your horse.
Is there anything horses can’t eat?
Food that’s unsuitable for your equine friend:
- Lawn clippings (extremely toxic).
- Meat (including traces of meat in other foodstuffs).
- Dairy products.
- Cruciferous vegetables (e.g. broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, etc.).
For more information on this topic, visit at our article about things you should never feed your horse.
- Deadly nightshade.
- Yew trees.
A significant step towards keeping your horse healthy is based on both what you feed them and how you feed them:
- Allow constant access to fresh, clean water.
- Provide ad-lib forage, where possible.
- Only use good-quality food and forage.
- Make changes to their diet gradually.
- Feed according to your horse’s specific requirements.
- Avoid exercising them for at least one to two hours before and after their bucket feed (forage, like hay, is fine for them to eat during these times, because it can reduce the acidity of their stomach during exercise!).
- Use food-safe buckets for feed and water.
- Keep feeding utensils clean.
- Store all feedstuff in a dry barn or feed room, in pest-proof, non-toxic containers.
Always ask your vet, or a qualified equine nutritionist, for advice about feeding your horse if you need extra support!