What do horses eat? A guide to feeding and watering

17 June 2021

Even if you’re new to equestrianism, you probably have an idea of what a horse’s diet looks like, as you’ll often see them out in the field grazing. But, when you own a horse or are responsible for its welfare, there is more you need to know about what your horse needs to eat and drink, especially if they’re going to be competing in events, dressage, or showjumping.

In this guide, we’ll look at the basics of feeding and watering your horse, including what makes up their diet, what concentrates you may need to provide, and what you can and can’t feed them, as well as highlighting some feeding issues and tips for success.

We’ll cover:

What is a horse’s diet?

It’s worth understanding what a horse’s natural diet looks like. They are herbivores and natural foragers who like to eat grasses of different types and age as well as other plants, like herbs and weeds. They like to steadily eat a little at a time over a day, making them something known as a trickle feeder. Despite being similar in size to a cow, horses only have one stomach, but have very long intestines adapted to ensure they always have a steady flow of nutrients.

Roughage: Do horses need grass and hay?

Horses always need to have access to roughage (grass, hay, haylage etc.) and fresh water.

For the majority of horses, a feeding regime that directly replicates their natural diet serves as the best foundation for a healthy balance. Most horses in light work only need roughage (also known as forage) and water to meet their nutritional needs, though a horse that is worked harder may have their roughage supplemented with concentrates, like grains, to cater to their requirements.

Aim to give your horse access to plenty of roughage in and around their enclosure, such as types of grasses, herbs, non-toxic hedgerows, and trees, which will deliver the high-fibre, low-sugar diet that they need and help them to avoid health problems like colic and stomach ulcers. This will also satisfy their urge to forage, ensuring they’re happy and occupied.

If your horse is fully stabled and doesn’t spend much time grazing, you can still allow them to follow their natural feeding habits by keeping a supply of hay in front of them during the day. You’ll find that they slowly eat their way through the supply as they would when grazing every now and again.

How much grass and hay should my horse eat?

A horse should typically eat 2–2.5% of their body weight in grass or hay every day, which means the average 450kg adult horse will consume around 11kg daily.

If you feed your horse concentrates, such as grain, as part of its diet, then roughage should still make up at least 50% of their daily food intake by weight.

What’s the difference between grass, hay, and haylage?

Grass, hay, and haylage are three of the most common types of roughage provided to horses, but if you’re new to equine nutrition it can often be confusing when people talk about each one. This is not surprising, considering that they all come from the same source.

Firstly, it’s helpful to understand that when people talk about grass in terms of horse feed, they are talking about fresh grass in a field that the horse can graze on naturally. There are different types of grass that are common in UK pastures, such as timothy, creeping red fescue, smooth stalk meadow grass, and ryegrass, all of which can be eaten by horses through the day when they’re turned out.

It’s only when these are cut and left to dry that they become hay or haylage, which is done so that it can be kept as animal fodder. The aim of storing this up is so it can be given to animals that are unable to graze in a pasture, such as when a horse is fully stabled or during the winter months.

The difference between hay and haylage is based on the way that each is made. Hay is grass that is cut, left to dry, and turned so that moisture levels are around 10–15%. This is done so that the risk of mould growing is minimised when stored, allowing for better preservation.

On the other hand, haylage is grass that is cut and left to dry, but it is only allowed to dry for a shorter period so that moisture is 45–50%. This grass is then baled and wrapped in layers of plastic so that it can ferment, creating conditions that mould also can’t grow in.

The two methods end up creating two types of fodder with different nutritional values. When hay is heavily dried, there is some loss of nutrients as the leaves fracture, while haylage dries out much less so it has much higher levels of protein, fibre, and energy. Some specialist equine haylage is made with specially selected grass species to ensure it has more nutritional value.

Both hay and haylage have their pros and cons that make them more suitable for some horses and not for others. Below is a summary of the benefits and drawbacks of each:

The pros and cons of hay

Pros

  • Hay will provide light work horses with sufficient energy with lower risk of weight gain due to lower energy values.
  • Hay will remain in good condition for a long time if it is stored correctly.
  • Hay is much lower in cost to both make and buy than haylage.
Cons

  • Hay can contain dust and mould spores as it is unwrapped, which can be a risk for horses with respiratory problems.
  • Soaking hay can reduce the level of dust and spores, but it is time consuming and reduces the quality.
  • A concentrated feed is sometimes necessary to supplement protein and vitamin mineral requirements.

The pros and cons of haylage

Pros

  • The grass used for haylage is younger, so it’s more digestible for horses.
  • Haylage offers more nutritional value than hay does.
  • Horses find haylage more palatable than hay, which makes it a better choice for fussy eaters.
  • Haylage can be better value if it can replace extra supplements needed with hay with its higher nutritional value.
  • Because it is covered when stored, haylage contains much less dust and mould spores. Extra moisture content also reduces the risk of these becoming airborne.
Cons

  • Haylage is more expensive than hay.
  • Haylage will quicky deteriorate after it is opened, so it needs to be consumed within a few days. This can be problematic if you only have one or two horses.
  • Haylage provides much more energy, which can be excessive if a horse eats too much. This can lead to weight gain or laminitis.
  • Reducing the amount of haylage to avoid weight gain needs to be carefully managed to ensure there isn’t insufficient forage overall, which can lead to digestion issues.

What are the other types of horse feed?

For some horses, it may be necessary to provide other types of horse feed alongside roughage. This can be for a number of reasons, such as ensuring a heavily worked horse gets more energy, reducing the calories consumed by an overweight horse, or giving an older horse extra vitamins.

These other types of horse feed are known as concentrates and can generally be divided into three categories: grains, supplements, and mixes and pellets. They are used to enhance a horse’s diet, usually for a particular benefit or medical purpose. It may be the case that just one concentrate is added to feed, but several can be mixed together if more than one enhancement is needed.

Grains

The most common concentrate feed are whole or crushed grains, which are also widely referred to as oats, corn, or straights. (They are often called “oats” even when that type of grain isn’t present.) Cereals are favoured as a concentrate for the greater nutritional value they can offer over roughage, which is necessary for some horses.

Some of the most commonly used grains are:

  • Oats: Oats are well suited to a horse’s digestive system, making them one of the most popular equine grain choices. This is because they have a lower energy value but higher fibre content than other grains. Horses also find them very palatable.
  • Maize (corn): Maize is also a very palatable grain for horses. However, they are less favoured than oats. This is because they provide double the amount of energy, but less fibre, making it easier to overfeed and cause weight issues. As a result, maize isn’t usually fed on its own.
  • Barley: Barley is another grain fed to horses, but usually alongside oats and corn and not on its own. It needs to be processed to remove the seed hulls for better digestibility.
  • Wheat bran: Wheat bran is occasionally added to a horse’s diet for extra nutrition in the form of bran mash, though it’s less common than other grains. It is high in phosphorus, so needs to be carefully managed if included.

Supplements

Supplements are added to a horse’s diet to provide targeted additional nutrition, usually for extra vitamins, minerals, protein, or fat. This is not usually necessary for most horses that have a balanced diet of hay or pasture and only undertake light work. However, it may be required for older horses, horses with certain conditions, breeding horses, or horses in athletic work.

There are many products on the market, ranging from soybean meals for protein to salt licks for sodium and other minerals. You will also find a type of product widely known as a balancer, which is designed to deliver essential nutrients to horses without adding extra calories to their feed.

Mixes and pellets

Another concentrate available for horses are mixes and pellets, where grains and other supplements are combined to offer a premixed solution. They’re usually designed for convenience by taking care of the horse’s needs in one package and offering transparency on nutritional values.

Lots of products offer their feed in pellets, where everything is combined as one, while others will mix the grains and supplements in their original form. These concentrates can be more expensive, and even those marketed as a complete ration usually require a foundation of roughage.

Does my horse need other types of feed?

We’ve mentioned that a lot of horses will only need to eat a diet based on roughage, especially if they are only undertaking light work. However, you still might be wondering if it’s necessary to supplement your horse’s forage with extra concentrates to ensure their needs are taken care of.

One approach that may be helpful is to consider the level of work your horse will be undergoing. They will need to be fed the right balance of nutrients to maintain the desired body condition and to give them enough energy to burn during exercise, all while maintaining a balanced diet.

As a horse’s workload increases, so does the requirement for calories and nutrients. Generally, there are three tiers of diet to suit the level of activity of your horse:

Please note: These are only general guides — you should assess the needs of your horse individually or speak to an equestrian nutrition specialist before changing their diet.

Feed type Workload Typical activities
Low energy – mainly roughage Light/casual Light hacking and schooling up to 3 times per week
Medium energy – roughage with some concentrates Moderate Daily hacking and schooling, riding clubs, dressage, showjumping
High energy – a balance of roughage and concentrates Hard Hard schooling and training, endurance riding, eventing, racing

You also need to think about the fact that all horses have unique metabolisms, which may influence your decision. Some are known as “good-doers”, who are very good at maintaining or putting on weight, so will need a tailored plan that lowers the energy level but keeps the proteins, vitamins, and minerals required for heavier workloads. Balancers are widely used for these horses, as they add essential nutrients without increasing their calorie intake.

Please note: If you plan to feed your horse concentrates, it’s worth remembering roughage should still account for at least 50% of a horse’s diet by weight. We also recommend speaking to an equine nutritionist or vet before making any drastic changes to your horse’s food routine.

What can horses eat?

While sticking to a balanced diet plan for your horse is very important, you may wish to reward your horse with a treat every now and again, which is fine to do as long as it’s only occasional and in small quantities. However, many riders don’t realise that, while there are foods that are fine for horses to enjoy, there are others that can actually do them harm, causing digestive and urinary issues.

To help you know what you can and can’t feed your horse as a treat, we’ve put together an at-a-glance guide that you can refer to:

 

Horses can eat: Horses can’t eat:
  • Almonds
  • Apples (without the core)
  • Apricots (without the stone)
  • Bananas
  • Beetroot
  • Blackberries
  • Blueberries
  • Cantaloupe
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Cinnamon
  • Cucumbers
  • Grapes
  • Green beans
  • Mangoes
  • Melon (without the rind)
  • Oranges
  • Parsnips
  • Peaches (without the stone)
  • Pears (without the core)
  • Peppermints
  • Pineapple chunks
  • Plums (without the stone)
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Raisins
  • Squash
  • Strawberries
  • Sugar cubes
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Swedes
  • Watermelon
  • Acorns
  • Avocado
  • Brans
  • Bread
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Caffeinated food/drink
  • Cattle feed
  • Cauliflower
  • Chocolate
  • Compost
  • Dairy produce
  • Ferns
  • Fruits with stones
  • Garlic
  • Kale
  • Lawn clippings
  • Meat
  • Onions
  • Persimmons
  • Potatoes
  • Rhubarb
  • Sprouts
  • Tomatoes

Note: Any treats you give to your horse should be sufficiently cut up to avoid choking hazard. Avoid giving your horse treats in large quantities regularly as this may create an imbalance in their diet.

What are some horse feeding problems to look out for?

Getting your horse’s feed routine right is very important, but it’s also vital that you closely monitor how they are eating and their wellbeing to ensure that it is helping them to stay healthy. There are a few issues that are worth keeping an eye out for so that you can take steps to remedy them.

Weight management

Your horse’s weight is a key indicator of whether their diet is working for them. If they are gaining a lot, there might be an imbalance in their calorie intake, whereas if they’re losing it, their food may be inadequate or there may be a medical problem that needs attention. Therefore, keeping track of their weight and body condition score is something that is essential and should be done regularly.

This is worth doing even if you’re sure that there is not an issue with how you’re feeding your horse, as there may be a problem that you haven’t spotted. For instance, it’s easy to overlook the fact that much of the grass in the UK is now ryegrass, which is higher in sugar than the grasses horses evolved to eat. Overconsumption can cause weight gain, malnutrition, and laminitis. If you weren’t aware of this problem, you might have overlooked it when working out what was wrong with their diet.

Closely monitoring your horse’s weight and body condition will ensure that you can spot problems before they become serious, then adjust their feeding or grazing appropriately.

Bolting

If your horse has a habit of bolting, where they aggressively attack food and swallow too quickly, it can cause a few problems, including choke and cholic.

There are a few things you can do to try to slow down your horse, like dampening the feed and adding more fibrous materials, such as chaff. You should also try to avoid giving them food in lumps, as these present more of a risk when bolted. Succulents, like apples and carrots, should be cut into long, thin pieces so they’re less likely to be swallowed whole.

In some cases, a horse will bolt their food because they perceive competition from other horses or even handlers, even displaying aggressive behaviour around feeding time. If this happens, then it is worth giving them their food away from the other horses where it’s quiet. Should the issue persist, seek advice from a behavioural expert.

Choke

Choke is an issue that is usually caused by a horse bolting their food, where a large amount of food is swallowed without being properly chewed and gets stuck in the throat. This causes a lot of pain, as horses aren’t able to regurgitate food and the masse has to be forced down. This issue can usually be avoided by taking care of the bolting problem.

A horse suffering choke will appear distressed and may sweat, paw the ground, and strain. While a few of the warning signs are similar to colic, the horse will also hold their mouth open and the throat can go into a spasm. Generally, these symptoms will pass after about 30 minutes when the food gets to the stomach, but if they persist a vet must be called.

Quidding

When your horse eats, they will use their tongue to mould their chewed food into a lump covered in saliva, which makes it much easier to swallow. However, if your horse repeatedly drops the food from their mouth at this stage then they have a problem known as quidding. This issue is usually an indicator that there is an underlying problem with their mouth.

A horse with dental issues will find it troublesome to chew fibrous feed effectively, which can lead to all or some of the food being discarded. A tell-tale sign of quidding is if there are wads of chewed and saliva-covered hay underneath a hay net.

If quidding is taking place, you’ll need to get your horse checked over by a vet or equine dentist. It may be an issue like sharp teeth, mouth sores, or a broken tooth causing the discomfort when chewing. Should quidding be left untreated, the horse will eat less and may suffer from dietary imbalance and weight loss.

Are there any other horse feeding tips worth knowing?

In addition to being aware of what issues to look out for, there are some best practice tips that can help to ensure your horse is being fed properly and healthily. In this section, we’ve put together a few pointers to keep your feeding routine on point.

Store food correctly and ensure hygiene

The way that you store your horse’s food can have a direct impact on its quality. If the feed is allowed to deteriorate, it can cause dietary and digestive problems in your horse. There are a few golden rules for storage worth sticking to that can help you avoid this:

  • Hay should be stacked: Your horse’s hay needs to be stacked where it is cool, dry, and protected from the elements. The location should be well ventilated, and air should be able to circulate under the bales to avoid damp setting in. Common solutions include putting bales on pallets or planks to raise them from ground level.
  • Haylage should be handled with care: When haylage is covered, it’s important that the outer layer is not punctured, as this will compromise the conditions required for quality feed. This means that extra care needs to be taken during packing, moving, and storing to ensure they remain in good condition. Avoid feeding from any haylage that has been damaged.
  • Keep hard feed in a secure location: You will need to store any hard feed in a cool, dry place that is secure from both vermin (for hygiene reasons) and horses (to avoid overeating). Take extra care if storing unsoaked sugar beets, as they are poisonous to horses.
  • Clean all your food bowls and equipment: All of your horse’s feeding bowls and equipment should be kept clean to ensure they are sanitary and that there is no leftover, stale food that could be ingested later and cause digestive trouble. Any spilt food should be cleaned straight away for the same reasons.
  • Dispose of uneaten rations: If your horse leaves some of its feed, then this should be thrown away rather than re-added to the supply for next time, just in case there was a reason it was left. Take steps to find out why the ration was left by inspecting your horse and the food.

Practise safe feeding etiquette

When it comes to feeding your horse, there are a few things that are worth thinking about to make sure they can eat their ration safely and without creating a huge mess:

  • Dampen dry food before feeding: We’ve already mentioned dry food should be dampened to avoid bolting, but this is a safe practice for any horse, even one that doesn’t bolt its food.
  • Choose the right feeding container: A horse naturally eats at ground level when they are grazing, so a large, shallow bowl they can dip their head into without tipping it over is preferable. It should be made of plastic or rubber so that it doesn’t injure the horse in a mishap. You can also safely feed your horse from a manger attached to the stable wall, fence, or door.
  • Feed roughage from a net in a stable: When feeding roughage to a stabled horse, you should use a hay net that is attached to a ring on the wall. This will ensure the hay doesn’t get trampled into the floor like it would if the bag were placed on the ground. Take care to tie your net high enough and with a quick release knot to guard against your horse’s foot getting caught.
  • Scatter roughage in piles in a field: If you’re feeding your horse outdoors in a field, scatter their roughage in small piles so that they can wander around them as if grazing. An enclosure with a few horses will likely need a greater number of hay piles than horses to avoid any conflict.

Measure horse feed by weight, not volume

It’s important that you measure your horse’s feed by weight, rather than by volume or guessing. This is because measuring by weight is the only way to accurately ensure you are giving them the same amount of food every day. Using scoops or handfuls can be quicker but they are inaccurate, and the results will vary each time, which risks causing a dietary imbalance. In addition, manufacturers will give their feeding guidelines in weight, rather than in volume, so you need to follow suit.

With this in mind, you will need to have access to a set of scales so that you can accurately weigh all your horse’s food. You may find it easier to measure the amount of hay or haylage by using a spring balance, which can be attached to the net.

Don’t feed right before or after exercise

When you’re feeding your horse, it’s best to leave some time before or after exercise. This is because filling their digestive system with food can give their lungs less room to function and exercise diverts blood flow away from the gut, slowing food movement.

If you want to feed before exercise, give around an hour for the horse to recover for and the food to get into their system — upgrade this to three hours if it will be strenuous. Should you wish to give them food after a workout, allow them to recuperate and cool down completely before doing so.

Try to provide the right balance of food through the day

When feeding your horse, it’s worth remembering that they are natural grazers and will eat a little at a time over a whole day. Due to the demands of life, many riders will feed their horse in two larger meals at the start and end of the day, which doesn’t really match up to a horse’s needs.

If you are able to, break your horse’s daily feed into multiple smaller meals through the day, as this will better suit their natural routine. It will also make the food easier to digest as it will supply their intestines with the slow but steady level they’re used to.

Should this prove difficult, consider adding a lunchtime feed to their morning and evening feeds so that they are at least splitting their food intake over three meals, rather than two.

Make any adjustments gradually

If you’re going to make any adjustments to your horse’s diet, it’s best to make the changes gradually rather than all at once. This will give their body time to adjust to their new balance of food. Avoid making any drastic changes in the level of feed they get, as this can put them at risk of dietary issues.

When changing the amount of feed you’re giving to your horse, aim to increase or decrease it a little at a time with each meal over several weeks. To change the type of feed, it’s recommended that you swap out 25% of their current food with new food every couple of days, meaning your horse will be completely switched over within a week.

Keep to a feeding schedule

Once you’ve decided on a feeding schedule and gotten it underway, you should try your best to keep to it as much as possible. This is because horses are creatures of habit with very accurate, but very sensitive, body clocks, so wild deviations from their routine can have a negative impact, especially on those prone to colic. Most horses can deal with one or two unscheduled meals, but you should aim to get back into a pattern as soon as possible.

How should I be watering my horse?

Like any other animal, horses need an accessible supply of fresh water to stay hydrated. They can become dehydrated if they lose just 8–10% of their body water, which makes it essential that they can go and have a drink at any time of the day. Water also plays a key role in digestion, as they have to produce large amounts of saliva to make eating dry foods easier.

The average horse will drink 22–55 litres of water a day but will drink more if the weather is hot, they’re under hard work, they’re eating dry forage, or they are lactating. They will likely drink less in cool weather or when grazing on lush grasses that have high water content. Though their water intake is quite large, horses typically only spend up to 8 minutes a day drinking.

To keep your horse happily watered, you need to make sure they have access to fresh water at all times, whether they’re in a stable or out in the field. In the stable, you should provide a plastic, rubber, or polythene water bucket that sees its water changed a few times a day and is kept as clean as possible. Try to place the container in the corner where it is less at risk of getting knocked over. You may wish to use an automatic drinking bowl, which is also fine, though some horses have been known not to take to them.

Out in the field, you also need to provide fresh water. Most horse owners opt for a self-filling trough that is attached to a water supply, like a pipe or hose, which refills automatically once the water falls below a certain level. This ensures the horses always have access and saves you from having to head out into the field. Most of these troughs are made from reinforced plastic or galvanised iron.

You will need to maintain your outdoor water troughs, as they will be prone to algae in the summer and will ice over in the winter. In the warm months, you should aim to clean out your trough at least once per week, but you may need to increase the frequency depending on how much algae takes hold. Ice will need to be removed twice per day when it’s cold enough.

Food plays a critical role in the health of your horse, so it’s vital you get up to speed. We hope this guide gives you a good idea of what your horse’s diet should look like and what they can and can’t eat, as well as providing valuable tips for spotting feeding problems and feeding the right way.

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