horses, horse, group horses-2536540.jpg

What To Feed Horses & Feeding Tips

In the world of feeding horses, there are two major types of feed that we put in front of our horses daily. Those are forages (hay, grass, etc.) and concentrates (pelleted feed, sweet feed, etc.).

Breaking those down, we have all sorts of varieties but even then those varieties tend to fall into major groups, and those major groups can tell us what we’re feeding our horses, if we know what to look for.

Let’s take forages first. This is by far the most important of the two groups. Broken down further, forages consist of two major groups within its scope: Grass or grass hay and legumes.

Grass or grass hay includes such familiars as Bermuda, Bluegrass, Fescue, Orchard, Rye and Timothy, as well as less-heard-of Barley hay, Bluestem, Bromegrass, Oat hay, Prairie grass and Sudan. Grass hays tend to be higher in fiber content than legumes, and lower in actual digestible energy. However, for a horse just hanging out in the pasture, most good quality grasses will have enough digestible energy to sustain the horse. Grass hay is also a good boredom buster as the horse is less likely to get fat on it if given a continuous supply.

Legumes, on the other hand, are lower in fiber, and therefore more digestible. These include such plants as alfalfa, clover, soybeans and birdsfoot trefoil. Legumes tend to have a higher protein content, as well as higher calcium and vitamin A content. Horses that have a slightly higher energy need can be maintained on a legume hay. However, a horse that tends to be overly plump does not need the extra incentive! Not all horses can be safely fed legumes free choice.

Hay and pasture, be it legume or grass, provide fiber which, although with limited digestibility in the horse, has a very prominent place in the horse’s diet. Starting at the mouth, a horse must chew forage more than concentrates because of the fiber. This produces more saliva which is a natural buffer for the acid in the stomach, preventing ulcers. Fiber in the gut also helps provide structure, helping with gut motility as well as keeping the microscopic “bugs” which run the show in the hind gut happy and healthy.

Energy concentrates, otherwise known as just concentrates, are exactly that: concentrated sources of energy. They provide energy in the form of carbohydrates, fats, and to a lesser extent, protein. We know them best in two divisions, sweet feed and pelleted feed. For the most part, both of these feeds contain the same ingredients, they are just processed differently. Sweet feed can contain more molasses or other “sugary” sources, though some pelleted feeds boast a high content of the same. Pelleted feeds, however, have the advantage of being more finely processed and therefore more easily digested. In most horses, this difference would not even be noted, but in horses that are weight-challenged to begin with, a pelleted feed can make a significant difference. Ingredients you will find in different concentrates include barley, corn, oats, wheat, and molasses. Some will also contain things like beet pulp or citrus pulp. Beet pulp especially is used in feeds for older horses because it has a high fiber content as well as energy and is more digestible and easier to consume than hay. These ingredients will be mixed in a balance that is determined for the activity the feed is geared for. Most balanced feeds these days also have adequate amounts of both vitamins and minerals for the level of activity the feed is balanced for.

One other type of feed that has come into the spotlight of late is “Complete Feeds.” As the name suggests, these feeds are a completely balanced ration including both the forage and the concentrate all on one. Though “on paper” these feeds do provide everything the horse needs in a feed, complete feeds do not have the same benefits that are provided by feeding hay in its original form. Because the hay is processed into smaller pieces, chewing and salivation is cut down and leaves the horse with the same problem of feeding a high amount of concentrates. Without the salivation, you don’t get the buffer effect on the stomach acids, leaving the horse more prone to ulcers. You also cannot feed these feeds free choice as you can hay and pasture, leaving time for boredom and its resulting behavior problems.

That’s not to say that complete feeds don’t have a place in the horse world. In horses that are hard keepers due to dental problems, or lack of teeth completely, a complete feed turned into a nice gruel would be a good substitute for a less digestible diet. A complete feed could also be a great supplement for a horse that needs just a bit more than he’s getting from the hay he is being fed, but doesn’t a higher amount of feed. No doubt there are situations where a complete feed is the ideal solution.

So the next time you go out to throw a scoop or two into your horses bucket, have a look at what you are feeding your horse. Knowing what you are feeding is just part of proper management. It can also save you a lot of trouble down the line from feeding the wrong thing, or the wrong combination of feeds. Providing the right amount of energy for your horse’s needs is simple, when you know where the energy is coming from!

More Horse Feed Tips

  • Break feedings up into at least 2-3 feedings a day. Horses are designed to graze, not to pig out once a day!
  • Buy only enough feed to last a couple of weeks at the most, less in the summer when it is hot and humid. Molds can be very deadly.
  • If you are feeding a balanced feed, you do not need to supplement with all the various supplements on the market. They do little, if any, to help most horses, and a lot to hurt the wallet!
  • Always make sure fresh, clean water is available at all times.
  • Nutrition needs increase with colder weather because the body needs more energy to keep itself warm. In a horse that is already on the skinny side, they will need even more energy because they don’t have any insulation to help out.
  • Hay that is cut at too mature a stage is useless to horses as they cannot digest the high content of lignin found in mature grass.
  • Hay that is baled while still too wet can be deadly because of the molds and bacteria that take up house keeping in the damp and warm environment.
  • Alfalfa in bloom attracts blister beetles which are deadly if ingested. If the alfalfa has been crimped and/or baled late (more blooms) there is a higher risk of blister beetle poisoning.
  • If you mix your own feeds, consult a nutritionist on the proper balance. Being even slightly off for extended lengths of time can cause problems with your equine friend.
Scroll to Top