Beginners Guide to Equine Nutrition

A good horse owner must have a solid understanding of the nutritional needs of their horse. Equine nutrition is a complex subject, but after reading this beginners guide you will have a solid understanding of your horse’s nutritional needs.

To do so, it’s important to understand the science behind a horse’s dietary habits. This will enable you to tend to your horse’s needs on a more intuitive level.

The Science of the Equine Digestive System

A horse’s digestive system operates differently than a human’s digestive system. However, the intricacies of these differences are important to know if you want to give your horse the most optimal diet possible.

Horses are herbivores, meaning they don’t eat meat. Specifically, they’re known as hindgut fermenters, a term used to describe the way they digest and break down plant material once it’s consumed. This puts them in the same class as rodents and rabbits.

The digestive system of a horse is relatively rudimentary. They have small stomachs, and the average-sized horse only has a 2- to 4-gallon capacity. This lack of room puts sharp restrictions on what how much you should provide them in a feeding session.

To make things a little more complicated, horses are grazing animals that can munch on pasture grasses for roughly 16 hours a day. This is important to note if you have a horse that’s allowed to roam free on your grounds for lengthy periods of time, as you may have to take this into consideration as you calculate your animal’s feed intake.

A horse will digest most of its nutrients, vitamins, and minerals in the small intestine. Most liquids consumed will pass through its cecum, a pouch that’s considered to be the start of the large intestine. This is also where the harmful substances can get detoxified.

Read our recommendations for the best probiotics for horses.

How to Work with a Horse’s Unique Digestive Properties

There are two major components to a horse’s digestive system that you need to be mindful of as you plan its diet. Being familiar with these components could draw the line between a healthy horse and one that tends to fall ill.

Firstly, horses cannot regurgitate their food, so vomiting is not an option for them should they eat something poisonous. While their cecum contains detoxification abilities, it can only do so much. If you allow your horse to roam free on pasture for an extended period, it may be in your best interest to ensure the pasture is cleared of any items that may be considered poisonous to your horse.

Horses also do not have a gall bladder, and this organically missing piece of the digestive puzzle, horses are incapable of consuming a high-fat diet. A typical equine diet will only contain about three to four percent fat. They can technically consume as much as 20 percent in a diet but feeding them this much fat requires about a month for them to adjust to this large of a percentage.

What Does a Horse’s Diet Typically Consist Of?

A horse’s diet must contain the following components for survival:

  • Water
  • Carbohydrates
  • Protein
  • Fats
  • Vitamins
  • Minerals

How Much Water do Horses Need?

Water is by far the most critical nutrient in a horse’s diet, as it’s the essential fuel that provides horses with a sense of functional homeostasis. If you don’t have an adequate supply of fresh, clean water available, your horse could suffer severe, life-threatening consequences very quickly.

Typically, the water horses need to consume can be measured by their food intake. If they’re sedentary or consuming energy at a normal pace, they’ll drink roughly two quarts of water for every pound of hay they eat. If they’re exerting extra energy through hard work or high temperatures, or if they’re a lactating mare, they may need to drink three to four times this amount.

Because dehydration can be a life-threatening issue in horses, it’s important that you keep a watchful eye on signs of dehydration in your steed. These signs can include dry feces and dry mucous membranes. Narrow in on the root of the issue here – it could be something simple like a poor or dirty water source, or it could be something more complex, like a symptom of an overarching illness.

How Important are Carbs in a Horse Diet?

Horses are active beasts, so providing them the fuel they need to maintain an active lifestyle is important. To that end, carbohydrates are just as vital to a horse as they are to a human runner preparing for a big race.

Even in a horse’s limited digestive system, soluble carbs – the carbs that come from starches and sugars – can be broken down and absorbed rather easily. Insoluble carbs like fiber are more difficult to break down, but it does help to keep a horse’s waste production regular.

Corn, barley, and oats are all excellent sources of soluble carbs. Forages – that is, grass and other legumes – typically contain just six to eight percent starch but can contain up to 30% in certain conditions.

What is the Role of Proteins and Fats in a Horse Diet?

Proteins and fats provide a horse with the building blocks it needs to gain strength and boost energy density. While the consumption of both requires strict regulation to prevent excess levels, neither should be cut from a horse’s diets.

Obviously, since horses are herbivores, their consumption of protein is a little different than meat eaters. Sources like alfalfa and soybean meal provide excellent means to provide your horse with the protein it needs to build strong muscles and maintain optimal performance. These materials must be monitored carefully, as most adult horses only need about eight to ten percent protein in their diet.

Feeding your horse fat is an even trickier proposition. Remember, horses have no gall bladder, so digesting fat isn’t an easy task for them, but it is a necessary supplement for added energy. As such, it’s important to be strict with the amount your horse consumes.

Fortunately, feeds tend to do the heavy lifting for you. Most premixed feeds contain roughly two to six percent fat, which tends to be right in the wheelhouse of what a horse should consume. That said, some mixes contain ten to twelve percent fat, which may require your horse to undergo a dietary learning curve before they can gain the percentage’s full benefit.

Vitamins and Minerals in a Horse’s Diet

Just as the case with humans, vitamins and minerals play a key role in maintaining a horse’s health. Typically, a horse will have adequate sources of both through premixed feed or fresh forage. However, if they’re eating a diet anchored by an abundance of grains or low-quality hay, you may wish to consider giving your seed a vitamin supplement.

What About Forages?

As mentioned earlier, forages are classified as grasses or legumes. While these components are invariably part of a horse’s diet since they’re grazers, the quality of nutrients derived from such elements vary.

The biggest item that falls into the forage category is hay, which is essentially forage that’s been harvested, dried, and baled before equine consumption. There are several variances within the overarching hay category, including grass types and maturity level.

These variances correlate to quality, which in turn correlates to nutritional value. If you aren’t sure about what kind of hay to provide your horse, it’s a good idea to consult with a feed professional so you can be steered in the right direction.

Check out our overview on hay for your horse.

What are the Basics of Feeding a Horse?

Feeding your horse properly is a complex proposition if you want to do right by your animal. However, there are several things that you’ll want to bear in mind as you go about feeding your noble steed.

The first thing you’ll want to bear in mind is to build your horse’s base with forage. A sturdy base of high-quality hay will provide a solid starting point to give your equine friend the nutritional building blocks needed for consistent health.

Secondly, be sure to keep a watchful eye on the amount of food you’re giving your horse. Because a horse has a small stomach, overfeeding it even by a small fraction may cause issues.

The best way to do this is to measure out ingredients on a case by case basis. Don’t think you can get away with “eyeballing” things here – a pound of corn will look different than a pound of oats.

Like other animals – humans included – horses thrive on consistency and routine. Therefore, you should feed your horse on a set schedule. Horses are notorious creatures of habit and creating too much variance in their feeding schedule could cause them to become upset rather easily.

Keep your feed in proper storage. Wherever the storage happens to be, it should be free of mold or any other contaminants. You should also be sure it’s out of the reach of rodents.

Your horse’s activity should also be kept in mind when it comes to feeding time. If your horse is active or a hard worker, adjust the feed to compensate for this activity. Conversely, if your horse is more sedentary, consider a decreased level of feed.

Finally, don’t forget the importance of a good set of teeth. Examine your horse’s choppers at least once a year to ensure they can chew their feed. If you see signs of a dental issue, don’t ignore them – seek out treatment immediately.