Horse Feed Management

All horses have certain nutritional requirements. The amount of protein, energy, vitamins and minerals that horses need to keep their bodies functioning normally are known as the maintenance requirements. These are the nutrients needed just to keep your horse alive and his body functioning normally.

When you or the environment starts placing more demands on the horse, these requirements need to be adjusted. The more demands placed on the animal, the greater the nutritional demands. These demands come in many forms: the size, age, breed and the work that is expected from each animal. Fat insulation, parasites and disease, the environment, the individual metabolism of each horse and any demands for reproduction are all factors that can influence the amount of feed and type of nutrients needed.

Many owners are feeding older horses that do relatively little work. In most cases, these horses can meet their maintenance requirements through simple feeding programs (just watch for potential problems created by problems like no teeth). Growing animals, breeding stock and performance horses require a more complex diet specially designed to meet their nutritional needs. All feeding programs, simple or complex, need to be based on good quality hay and fresh clean water, and take into consideration the need for five basic components in a horse’s diet.

Five Basic Components of a Horse's Diet


Water is often overlooked as a dietary requirement, but a deficiency in water can cause serious health problems such as dehydration, alkalosis, colic or even death. Did you know that a horse can lose basically all of its body fat and half of its body protein and still survive, but a loss of only 15 percent of its body water can be fatal?

Make sure your horse has access to clean, fresh water all the time. As long as the horse has access to fresh water, he will drink enough to meet his requirements. On average a horse will drink up to 10-15 gallons per day, but lactating mares or performance horses can drink as much as 30 gallons within 24 hours.

If you find yourself filling buckets more than twice a day, put a second or third bucket in his stall. And remember reduced water intake leads to reduced feed consumption, so if he is not drinking, he is not eating either.


The fuel needed for maintaining normal body functions and normal body temperature is supplied by energy. A horse's requirements for energy are greatest during lactation, growth and work. Carbohydrates and fiber are the main sources of energy in horse feeds with fats being a secondary source. Grains are the most common source of carbohydrates.

The energy status of a horse is fairly easy to evaluate by looking at his overall body condition. A horse should be maintained at all times in a moderate condition with the ribs covered but still able to be felt and the top line relatively flat when viewed from the side.

Thin horses are more susceptible to disease and parasites, and they will not perform as well. Fat horses also exhibit decreased performance. One of the most noticeable effects of excess weight on a horse is increased sweating. The body is unable to get rid of any extra heat being produced because the extra layer of fat provides increased insulation. Overweight horses may also exhibit respiratory difficulties and joint problems in some cases.

The only way to correct obesity is to make sure the dietary energy intake is less than the energy utilization. In other words, your horse should not be taking in more energy than he is burning off. The best way to do this is to decrease feed intake gradually and increase exercise.


Proteins are complex compounds made up of amino acids. These amino acids are used by the body to build and maintain several tissues, but mainly muscle tissue.

The horse's age and stage of development, weight, growth rate and breed determine the amount of protein required. Young, growing horses should not be fed an excess of protein (more than twice the required amount is considered excess) as high protein has been associated with certain developmental orthopedic diseases.

Excess protein fed to performance horses is broken down and used as an energy source. When protein is used as energy, it is very inefficient and produces extra body heat that can inhibit performance.

Grass hay and unfortified grains are often low in protein. Deficiencies in protein can lead to reduced growth, weight loss, reduced performance and endurance, rough or coarse hair coats and slow hoof growth.

To compensate for the low protein in certain feeds, Hubbard Life Equine 10% or 30% Supplement can be fed mixed with home grown grains to form a balanced ration or alone as a low calorie concentrated source of protein, vitamins and minerals.


A horse's mineral requirements are very complex and often misunderstood. In most cases it is not so much the amounts of minerals that are important, but the balance between them.

In some cases, an excess of one mineral can lead to a deficiency in the second. Calcium is a good example of this. The total Calcium to Phosphorus ratio should be greater than 1.5:1 and less than 4.0:1.


Healthy horses meet their vitamin requirements from their feed and forage. Pasture is an excellent source of fat soluble vitamins. For example, pasture provides carotene, which is converted by the body to Vitamin A. 
B vitamins are produced by the microorganisms in the large intestine of the horse. If the horse is fed a balanced diet, these microorganisms supply all the B vitamins your horse needs. However, if the horse’s hind gut is not functioning properly, a B vitamin deficiency could result, requiring supplementation.

Younger horses, performance horses and horses under greater than normal stress due to disease or the environment may require additional vitamin supplementation.

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When developing your horse’s diet, forage is a primary concern because of the design and function of a horse’s digestive system.

Horses are classified as post gastric fermentors or non-ruminant herbivores, and their digestive systems differ greatly from that of a cow. The horse’s digestive tract is much smaller and consequently, it cannot eat as much forage as a cow. A horse is only able to break down about 30 percent of the cellulose in feed. The hindgut is the main site of microbial activity in the horse as compared to the rumen in cattle.

The amount of bacterial synthesis and the efficiency of absorption of nutrients synthesized by the microorganisms are lower in the horse than in the cow.

Forages are the fiber portion of the horse’s diet and are fed either harvested as dried hay or unharvested as pasture. One reason the fiber is necessary in a horse’s diet is for use as a source of energy for the microorganisms in the cecum and large intestine.

The by-products of microbial fermentation provide a source of digestible energy for the horse. The indigestible portion of the fiber is needed by the horse for maintaining normal pH in the digestive tract and also for keeping the GI tract functioning as it should. The indigestible fiber also helps to fill the gut so that intake of carbohydrates is not too rapid. Rapid intake of cereal grains, which are high in carbohydrates, could cause colic, diarrhea and acute laminitis.

Feeding an inadequate amount of forage to horses that aren’t on pasture will not only increase the risk of diarrhea, colic and founder; it will also result in behavioral problems.

Just like a bored child, horses with nothing to do are more likely to develop negative behaviors. They will chew on wood (crib), suck wind, head bob or weave, and chew on other horses’ manes and tails, to name just a few annoying and destructive habits.

Wood chewing can be an especially big problem for your horse and your barn. Not only can a wood-chewing horse do some major damage to your barn and fences, it can also result in splinters in the mouth and throat or cause intestinal obstructions that could be fatal.

Harvested forages must be high quality and free from weeds, dust and mold. It should be green and leafy with fine stems and smell nice and fresh.

Moldy or dusty hay is of little nutritional value and will cause more problems than it is worth. Dusty hay is often associated with respiratory problems such as heaves (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), an allergy to the fungal spores in hay or bedding.

Hay can be of either the grass  or legume (or mixed) variety. Timothy, orchard, brome and Bermuda grasses make excellent grass hays. They are very palatable and tend to be less likely to be dusty or moldy than legumes, although the nutrient content is lower.

Legumes such as alfalfa are higher in nutritional value and generally contain 2-3 times more protein and calcium and more soluble and non-fiber carbohydrates than grass hays. Because of the increase in these nutrients, legumes are the preferred hay during lactation, pregnancy and growth.

If given free access, most horses will consume more legume hay than grass hay, in part because legumes have nice green leaves and tender stems. No matter what kind of hay you are feeding, the amount the horse will consume is directly related to the hay quality.

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Allowing access to pasture is another method of insuring many of your horse’s nutritional needs are met. Pastures have two purposes for the horse: to provide feed and to provide exercise.

Your pasture should be well fenced and free from holes and debris that might cause injury. There should be easy access to fresh water and shelter (either man made or from trees and brush) and companionship (from other horses or animals).

With proper management, even a small pasture can help to reduce your feed costs and barn work and increase your horse’s enjoyment. However, if the pasture is overgrazed, not properly irrigated, fertilized or managed for pests and weeds, the benefits will be lost.

Most pastures contain a variety of different types of grasses. The best nutrient values are seen with the spring and fall growth. The younger the plant, the more digestible it is and the better it tastes. Since horses tend to be selective they will eat the youngest, most tender grasses first and leave the older, more bitter stems for later.

Eventually pastures that are not managed will be full of older, less digestible grasses. Rotating pastures with cattle, which aren’t as selective, or mowing your pasture will help keep it in top horse condition. 

Grazing Strengths and Weaknesses


  • Most common method
  • Exercise
  • Companionship
  • Prevents boredom
  • Minimizes problems with ulcers


  • Overexposure to rich pasture can cause colic and laminitis
  • Pasture hazards such as poison plants, disease carrying insects, parasite eggs
  • Difficult to estimate intake
  • Pasture management

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Selecting the Right Feed

Each horse is an individual and in an ideal situation, the feeding program for each horse should be developed to meet the individual's needs. This is not practical on most farms, from a time and money standpoint, and so the best alternative is a feeding program that meets your horse's needs at each stage of his life. 

The Pleasure Horse

Suppose your horse is standing happily in his pasture looking very healthy and happy.

But what happens when you start to work him a little more? Those trail rides and lessons require an energy expenditure on your horse's part. Just as we wouldn't ask you to ride without having a good breakfast, we need to make sure your horses get enough nutrients to enable them to work efficiently.

A good feeding program for pleasure horses is to feed the amount of forage needed for maintenance and then to feed as much grain or formulated ration as needed to provide energy for work.

You could try to meet the increased energy needs by feeding forage, but it would be very difficult for the horse to consume enough to meet its nutritional needs.

The amount of feed should be adjusted on an individual basis so that the horse maintains optimum body weight. If your horse is too thin he won't have enough body fat to use as a reserve source of energy. He will tire more easily and will have a hard time keeping warm in the winter. Couple that with the layer of fat under his skin decreasing heat loss, and your horse could experience decreased performance ability and increased heart and respiratory problems.

In an attempt to increase the energy content of your horse's diet, it is extremely important to keep the correct balance of grain to forage. Feed the grain in 2-3 small meals per day. Too much grain at one time will not only give your horse excess energy and make him hard to handle, but it can also cause colic and laminitis and other severe health problems described in more detail later.

You also need to ensure the amount of forage consumed is never less than 1.0-1.5 percent of body weight per day, and it is recommended that forage make up one-half of the total weight of the diet eaten. To keep your pleasure horse healthy you need to feed him enough forage to meet his maintenance requirements and enough grain to meet the extra energy expenditures.

Performance Horses

If you take the light work horse one step further and classify your horse as a performance horse, then his requirements increase again. These horses need larger quantities of energy to perform to the best of their ability. Therefore, they require a greater amount of feed.

For performance horses the nutrients of greatest concern are water, body salts and electrolytes, and the nutrients needed for energy. A horse can lose basically all of its body fat and half of its body protein and still survive.

However, a loss of only 15 percent of body water is fatal. When a horse works, 75-80 percent of the energy used in the body is given off as heat. This heat is dissipated throughout evaporative cooling of sweat on the skin and the respiratory tract. While sweating helps to cool the horse, it results in the loss of water, sodium, chloride, potassium and small amounts of calcium and magnesium.

Preventing these losses through the use of electrolytes and ensuring the horse drinks enough water will help prevent serious conditions such as alkalosis and exhaustion, which result from dehydration.

Feeding the performance horse requires nutrients that increase the energy density of the diet and provide the most energy in the most compact package. The nutrients that will do this are those that increase fat, protein and starch and decrease fiber. This is accomplished by feeding a relatively high grain, low forage diet; although forage should still make up one-half of the weight of the diet eaten.


If you are breeding your mare, then you have probably read as much as possible and are quite knowledgeable on how to keep your mare healthy for the next 11 months.

It may come as a surprise to you to know that mares that are not pregnant and those in early gestation have only maintenance nutrient requirements (although it is always a good idea to offer a supply of vitamins and trace mineral). It is not until the last three months of gestation and during lactation that a mare's nutritional needs progressively increase (10-20 percent during last trimester and 80 percent during lactation).

This increase in nutrient demands is due to the rapid growth of the fetus during the last 90 days of gestation. About 60 percent of the weight of the fetus is added at this time at about a pound a day.

The mare must take in enough nutrients to meet her maintenance needs, plus the growth of the foal. For a mare to maintain body condition during pregnancy, her weight must increase by an amount equal to the foal's birth weight plus the weight of the placenta and fluids. This gain usually equals 9-12 percent of the mare's pre-pregnancy weight.

The amount of feed needed to support this gain varies with differing climates, increased work or exercise and higher milk production. Mares should be moderately fleshy but not fat at foaling and should maintain this weight until weaning. A thin mare at foaling may have a decrease in milk production and therefore foal growth.

Lactating or last trimester pregnant mares that are eating mature grass pasture, hay or unfortified grain and not a complete ration may need to be provided with supplemental calcium, phosphorous, protein and dietary energy.

During the first three months of lactation, a typical light horse mare will produce about 3 percent of the mare’s body weight in milk per day. This production drops to about 2 percent during the remainder of lactation. The mare must therefore be supplied with the nutrients needed for maintenance and the nutrients for milk production. If these requirements are not met, the mare will lose body condition and have decreased milk production.

Growing Horses

Nutrient requirements for a growing foal are directly related to the animal's growth rate. The requirements for growth equal the sum of the foal's maintenance requirements plus the nutrients needed for the deposition of new body tissue. The goal when feeding growing horses is to maintain an even growth rate and prevent sudden growth spurts, which place extra stress on young joints and bones.

Nursing Foals

The milk produced by a well-fed mare is sufficient to meet all of the foal's nutritional needs for the first two months of life and all the foal’s mineral needs for the first four months. Most foals will nibble on mare's grain and forage within a few days of birth. This is an imitation behavior as opposed to a nutritional need.

After two months of age the amount of milk produced by the mare cannot meet the foal’s nutritional requirements. When the foal is 1-2 months of age, a specially formulated foal mix can be introduced as a creep feed. Creep feeding is useful not only for meeting nutritional needs but also for getting the foal accustomed to eating solid feed in preparation for weaning.

By five months of age, an unweaned foal will spend 50 percent of its time eating vs. nursing. The amount of creep feed consumed is related to the amount of milk consumed. The more creep the foal eats, the less it will nurse and visa versa. If the foal does not eat adequate amounts of solid feed before weaning, a compensatory growth spurt occurs once intake is increased after weaning. This growth spurt increases the risk and the severity of Developmental Disease (DOD), a condition defined by abnormal bone formation and growth. The amount of grain being consumed by the foal should not be restricted until foals are consuming about 5 lbs. (at about 4 months). Then the amount should be limited so that the growth rate does not become too rapid and risk of DOD is reduced.

Feeding Weanlings 4-5 Months and Yearlings

At the weanling and yearling stages of development, hay quality is very important. High quality legume-grass mixed hay is ideal although top quality grass hay that is properly supplemented will supply similar nutrients.

A full 80 percent of bone development occurs within the first year. Therefore, phosphorous and calcium levels are critical. Deficiencies in calcium and phosphorus can lead to incidences of developmental bone disease (which may affect joints too). Calcium and phosphorus must be supplied to meet the minimum requirements and be in proper ratio – the younger the foal, the more critical the ratio of calcium to phosphorus.

Muscle development also occurs at a rapid rate in young foals. This development continues at a reducing rate until about five years of age, at which time the animal has reached mature size. Because of this, energy and protein are of great concern in growing horses.


Often little thought is given to the proper feeding of stallions. This could account for conception rates of mares actually bred sometime being less than 50 percent. Stallions should be maintained on a 12 percent protein diet with high levels of vitamins and trace mineral because the nutritional quality of the ration greatly influences sperm production and quality. Also, due to sperm’s need to mature, increased nutrition should occur about 2 months before breeding season.

Senior Horses

It is hard to define what an old horse is. We all know 18-year-olds who still act as if they are three, and many horses compete well into their twenties. If you use the American Quarter Horse Association’s definition, an aged horse is anything over 16 years old.

The most common complaint with older horses is the problem of maintaining body condition. This loss of condition is partly due to the older horse’s declining ability to digest fiber, protein and absorb phosphorus and more importantly, the loss of teeth.

When feeding an older horse, provide extra protein (above 12 percent) and phosphorus (a minimum of .35 percent). Good quality, young, green forage would be more readily digestible than forage that is extremely mature when it is harvested and yeast cultures are added.

One of the most important considerations with an older horse is general health. It is easy to assume that an older horse losing weight just needs more feed, but since they are more likely to have liver and kidney disease (or a parasite) it is important to have a veterinarian rule out any serious illness.

The vet should also do a routine check of your horse's teeth. Horses do lose their teeth as they age, and it is important to take care of the ones they have left. A horse that has lost a number of teeth will drop partly chewed wads of hay out of his mouth. This is called quidding and can be prevented by feeding hay cubes or pellets. If your horse has trouble chewing the cubes, you can soak them in water, an especially nice treat in the winter if you use warm water.

Hubbard® Life Senior is formulated to meet the needs of your senior horse. The pellets have 13 percent protein and contain beet pulp as a source of fiber, so when fed at recommended levels no hay is needed. The pellets also contain yeast culture to increase overall digestibility, absorption and utilization of minerals and fiber.

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Feed Storage

While it is up to the feed manufacturers to insure the quality of the feed leaving the mill, it is up to you to make sure it is stored properly once you get it home.

In the summer, it is never a good idea to buy more sweet feed than you can use in one month, or more pelleted feed than you can use in three months. In the middle of winter, that time can go up to a maximum of 6 months from when the feed was manufactured.

During the summer you may want to consider purchasing even more frequently to reduce the risk of spoilage. Good storage facilities will reduce any loss of nutrient value or contamination to your feed. Your storage place should meet several requirements.

  • It should allow good ventilation of the feed and remain at a fairly constant cool temperature with low humidity. As temperature and humidity increase, so do problems with mold and insects.
  • Feed should be protected from direct sunlight, moisture, mice, birds and other pests, and perhaps most importantly from horses and other livestock.
  • The storage area should be clean and in a convenient location.

Your storage facility will vary depending on the number of horses you are feeding. Clean, metal garbage cans work well if you have only a few horses. However, if you have a number of animals you may want to invest in a feed bunk or galvanized metal bulk storage bin. A good bin will reduce your costs and protect the feed from pests and spoilage.