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Notes on Horse Feeding and Feed; Definitions of Health Related Issues

Summary written by:  Savannah Waddick

  • All horses need food to develop, replace body wastes and stay in good condition

  • When feeding horses, it is important to recognize that there are six basic nutrient categories that must be met: carbohydrate, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals and water

  • A normal, healthy horse will consume 5-15 (or more) gallons of water per day depending on temperature

  • Grass is their natural food, but can be replaced with different food if they are stabled

  • Roughage (fiber) can be obtained through grass or hay

  • The fiber from hay and the carbohydrates from concentrates (oats, corn etc) are what give the horse energy.

  • The correct balance of hay is very important based on the type, ace, temperament, physical condition and work required of the horse.

  • How long per day a horse is stabled is also important relative to how much they are fed in terms of grains/concentrates.


  • It is important to feed good quality hay that is free of mold and dust and is cut at an appropriate length and stage of maturity

  • Hay that has too coarse a stem or hay that is too fine can cause digestive problems such as impactions

  • Hay that is overly mature when it is cut has little nutritional value to the horse

  • Hays can be categorized as either grass hays (e.g., bermudagrass, timothy) or legume hays (e.g., alfalfa, peanut, clover).

  • Hays can be categorized as either grass hays (e.g., bermudagrass, timothy) or legume hays (e.g., alfalfa, peanut, clover).

Grain / Concentrates

  • It is important to recognize that the horse’s digestive system evolved to process a roughage-based diet; therefore, concentrates should be used only to supplement the forage program and meet nutritional requirements that cannot be met by forage alone

  • Some examples of, "safe" feeds are those that often use ingredients such as beet pulp and soybean hulls, which have a high composition of digestible fiber, a low starch content and avoid use of ingredients such as corn, which is high in starch.

  • Owners of horses with special needs (e.g., Cushings, metabolic syndrome, chronic laminitis, ulcers or recurring colic) to select a horse feed with a low starch content.


  • Proteins are the most difficult energy source for the horse to digest and convert to usable energy.

  • Horses need more protein for growth (i.e. young horses in rapid growth phases, gestating mares in their last trimester, and lactating mares that need to produce large quantities of milk).

  • Horses that are in intense training need more protein than the maintenance horse because they are developing muscle tissue.

  • Most horses will do well on a 12 percent protein feed. Feeding horses higher levels of protein than they need simply means that the horse breaks down the excess protein and excretes it as urea in its urine, which is rapidly converted to ammonia.


  • Feeding high-fat diets is a relatively new trend in the horse industry.

  • Commercial feeds that are not supplemented with additional fats contain approximately 2 to 4 percent fat.

  • Many commercial feeds are now supplemented with fat in the form of some type of stabilized oil.


  • It is important to check your feed and be sure that all of your horse’s vitamin requirements are being met since vitamin deficiencies can lead to various health problems.


  • Feeding single grains, such as oats, can cause an inverse calcium:phosphorus ratio if calcium is not supplemented in some form.

Horses need:

  • Clean, fresh water

  • To be fed ‘little’ but often

  • Provide a diet that is correctly balanced

  • Feed good quality hay (make certain that it is not moldy or dusty as this is very dangerous and there can be severe heath consequences

  • Have a regular feeding schedule

  • No sudden changes in diet

  • Buckets should always be kept clean

  • Feed should be stored in a dry / clean container



Health Problems Often Associated with Feeding

Laminitis (founder) - There can be many factors involved in the development of laminitis – the nutritional component is largely an overfeeding of carbohydrates (starches), when fed to an obese horse this exacerbates the tendency for laminitis to occur.  Current research shows that high levels of insulin in the blood as a precipitating event prior to laminitis emphasizing that one must be very careful in how much starch/sugar ie molasses is fed.  Sugar levels in the diet need to be minimized in order to avoid a rise in insulin levels.

Azaturia (tying up) – usually attacks the hindquarters of a fit horse, who after a “rest” day in his stall with full feed is put through a full and vigorous workout resulting in severe muscle contractions.  The horse will be unwilling to go forward and if he does so his back legs will be extremely stiff.  The muscles of the hindquarters will feel hot and hard.  The horse will appear uncomfortable and distressed.  The horse may want to lie down if he does go down do not force him to stand up.  Put blankets over the horse to keep him warm, encourage him to drink, if possible.  If the horse starts to produce Ribena-colored urine, you need URGENT VETERINARY HELP.


 If you want to examine your feeding program more closely, the most in-depth listing of requirements can be found in the National Research Council (NRC) recommendations for horses (Nutrient Requirements for Horses 6th Edition, 2006).



Duberstein, KJ, Johnson, EL, How to Feed a Horse: Understanding the Basic Principles of Horse Nutrition (B 1355); accessed March 7, 2017.

Watson, MG., Feeds and Feeding; Kenilworth Press Limited, Buckingham UK, 2000.

Wikipedia,  accessed March 7, 2017.

Notes on Horse Feeding and Feeds and

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