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Horse Feed and Nutrition

Stallion running in a field.

Horses need a balanced diet of high-quality hay, alfalfa, oats or grains and vitamins and minerals. Whether you have a high-performance horse, a pregnant mare, foals or a breeding stallion, tailor their diet to their purpose to keep them performing at their top level.

Introduction to Horse Feed and Supplements

Feeds provide animals with the protein, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, and minerals they need. Some feeds are designed to be the primary source of food for the animals, while other feeds are designed to provide animals that eat forage with the extra protein and energy they need to complete their diet.

Supplements provide animals with extra minerals, vitamins, and other compounds they may require to meet specific needs.

When an animal eats forage, it means the animal grazes on grass in a pasture or field, or eats some kind of preserved forage such as hay, silage, or haylage.

Here are the elements of a basic horse diet.

Water for a Horse

Make fresh water available at all times. Water deficiency will get a horse into serious trouble faster than any other dietary problem. A horse's average water consumption is approximately 10 to 15 gallons per day. Working horses or lactating mares may consume as much as 30 gallons or more within a 24-hour period.

Horses competing in long distance events should be allowed to drink as long as they are kept on the move. When the ride has been completed they should be cooled off before being allowed free access to water.

Bulk or Roughage

The preferred method of providing bulk to your horse is to offer pasture and/or hay 24 hours a day. If this isn't practical, supply a minimum of 1% equivalent of the horse's body weight in good quality roughage per day. Feed horses as often as possible and no less than two or three times per day. Horses are grazers that require roughage continually and regularly. Know the protein level of your roughage source so you can properly balance your horse's diet.

Energy

Balance the protein content of your horse's grain mix with the protein level and amount of the selected roughage to ensure the protein-to-calorie ratio is maintained within acceptable limits. Feed your horse grain only when needed to provide adequate levels of energy and protein.

Energy status is evaluated by assessing the body condition of the horse. You should ensure your horse maintains a moderate body weight. Ribs should be covered with a layer of fat but easily felt. The topline of the horse, or span of back from neck to rear, should appear to be fairly flat when viewed from the side.

Protein, Fat or Fiber for Horses

The daily amount of protein and amino acids required is determined by the horse’s age, weight, growth rate, breed, health, metabolic rate, and environmental conditions. Balance the percent of protein to the grain mix with the percent of protein level of your roughage. Your county or state agriculture agency can test your hay to determine protein content. Or purchase high-quality horse feed specifically formulated for your horse's life stage and activity level. Each type of feed contains different percentages of protein, fat, and fiber. These levels are not accidental. Different types of feed are designed to have the right amount of protein, fat, and fiber for a particular animal.

Horses receiving alfalfa hay as bulk should be fed a grain with a lower percent protein content than horses that are fed grass hay due to the higher protein content of alfalfa. Young, growing horses should not be fed excess amounts of protein, as this has been associated with certain types of developmental orthopedic disease.

Minerals

Do not haphazardly supplement individual minerals to a horse’s diet. Used incorrectly, many minerals can cause more harm than good. Ensure that your horse’s mineral and vitamin requirements are met and properly balanced by knowing your horse’s mineral requirements and feeding it with a fortified product according to labeled directions.

Vitamins

Mature, healthy horses can quite often meet their vitamin requirements via intestinal synthesis or metabolic synthesis by consuming feedstuffs that contain natural vitamins or their precursors. Young horses, performance horses, or horses under a greater than normal degree of stress due to disease, environment, or temperament may require vitamin supplements.

If you provide vitamin supplements, remember that your horse will also require mineral supplements. The best solution is often a micro-nutrient supplement that contains both minerals and vitamins.

How to Feed a Horse

Horse feed comes in three forms (or combination of the forms):

  • Pelleted feed has the ingredients milled and formed into pellets.
  • Sweet feed is feed in the form of fresh grains plus pellets
  • Block feed has the ingredients milled and formed into solid blocks.

Equine minerals come in two forms:

  • Loose minerals can be offered by a separate mineral feeder or added to feed just as people can put salt on food.
  • Block minerals are solid blocks that the animals lick.

Ask yourself the following questions when determining what type of feed your horse needs:

  • What is the activity level of your horse? People often overestimate the activity level. How many times a week do they ride? How long do they ride? What type of riding do they do?
  • What type of overall feeding program do you use? Does the horse feed on hay or pasture? Is the hay or pasture good enough quality to provide the fiber the horse needs in its diet?
  • How old is the horse? Different feeds are designed for the different life stages of a horse.
  • Is the horse on a regular worming schedule? Every horse should be dewormed on a regular basis. A horse that has worms requires significantly more feed to meet its nutritional needs. Parasites such as worms steal nutrition from the horse and cause intestinal damage that interferes with nutrient absorption and makes the horse more susceptible to colic.
  • Is the horse a "hard keeper" (i.e., has trouble keeping on weight) or an "easy keeper" (i.e., has an easy time keeping on weight)? Some feeds are better at helping horses keep on weight.
  • Do you feed the horse individually or in a group? With group feeding, a horse might get pushed aside by more dominant horses, making it difficult for the horse to get enough food. The best way to ensure horses get the food they need is to feed them individually in stalls.
  • Do you feed inside or outdoors? For outdoors, a block feed (i.e., feed that comes in the form of a solid block) or the use of a feeder to hold the feed is superior to throwing feed on the ground.

Q and A: Answers to the Most Frequently Asked Questions about Horse Care

Question: My horse has trouble gaining and keeping on weight. What can I do?
Answer: A "hard keeper" requires a high-energy feed to gain and keep on weight. Also, be sure the horse is on a sound deworming program and have a vet check its teeth. Parasites and/or poor teeth greatly reduce the nutrition a horse gets from its feed.
Question: Is there one feed I can use for both my horses and my cattle?
Answer: Producer's Pride All Grain can be fed to both horses and cattle. However, other products specifically designed for horses and for cattle will do a much better job at ensuring the animals get proper nutrition. Note: We do not advocate feeding corn to horses. Corn is very high in soluble starch and energy, and it's very easy to founder or colic a horse using straight corn.
Question: At what age should I consider my horse an older or senior horse?
Answer: A horse is considered older or senior when it is 16 years or older, though this varies from animal to animal. Feeds for senior horses are designed for the needs and conditions of an older horse. A horse with a history of poor nutrition, high parasite loads, overwork, or abuse will be a senior horse much earlier than a horse that has been properly cared for.