Feed for Horses: Making Sense of the Best Options for Your Horse


What our horses’ digestive system is designed for and what they can cope with. This is the first of a series of Blogs on good horse nutrition and management presented to you by Anivado.com.

Grassland is Number 1:

The equine digestive tract has evolved over millions of years into a super-efficient fibre fermenting ‘machine’. Horses are herbivores, that means the eat herbs and grasses, occasionally leaves. We all know the best natural feed for horses is grassland. Feral and semi-feral horses can survive well on this, even have foals in spring. They naturally loose excess body-fat in the winter and their appetite increases in the summer to put on weight and store fat for the next winter.  

They have evolved through the ice-ages to cope with low yield pampas type grasses, unlike the lush pastures today’s climate provides in the Western Hemisphere or the rich species of grasses humans have developed for livestock production. About 65-70% of the horse’s gut volume is the hind gut where the ‘resident’ microbes (bacteria, fungi, protozoa) ferment the diet and provide the horse with all the energy they require.

Conserved Forage:

When natural grassland is not available or too rich, then the next best thing to feed is of course conserved grass, in the form of hay (field-dried) or haylage (field –wilted and packaged before too dry). Following grass hays, legume ‘hays’, such as Luzerne (also called Alfalfa) and then straws (wheat or barley). Legumes are high in nutrients and the straw is poor in nutrients – both can be used to supplement grass hay and provide variety. Straw will act as a low energy ‘chewing gum’ and legume hays as additional energy and protein providers.

Author’s Tip: For most horses, straw or Lucerne products should not be fed at more than 40% of the diet – consult a nutritionist if you want to feed more. Remember that horses require at least 2-3 weeks to adapt to a new feed, so only small amounts should be introduced at first.

Author’s Tip: Get your grassland or forages analyzed regularly to have a better idea of the nutrients your horse is getting. Then ask a nutritionist to help you balance the diet.

Photo courtesy of Lauren Mauldin

Concentrate/Sweet Feed:

Feeding small particulate feed – so concentrated feed may be necessary in medium to hard working horses. These are digested in the foregut and as only 30% of the horse’s digestive tract comprises the stomach and small intestine, avoid ever feeding more than that in the diet. Here one of the best types of feed is oats. These still have fibrous hulls. Barley gives more energy than oats and Maize gives the highest amount. However, corn contains complex starches which horses cannot break down and they then get into the hindgut where they damage the microbiotic balance, leading to health issues.

Author’s Tip: Never feed maize/corn that has not been crushed and heat treated as small colics are likely to occur, although these are often overlooked.

Straight grains can be imbalanced in mineral content for horses, as they did not evolve to eat lots of those, so nowadays a mineral-vitamin supplement can be used to complement these, or feed manufacturers combine these to make mixes, which are either pelleted or put together like a muesli.

Author’s Tip: A good quality manufacturer will balance these well, so do not imbalance them by mixing and matching.

Latest research shows that horses even in hard work can gain enough energy from high quality forage, but they may need a supplement for additional nutrients. More on supplements in later blogs.

Photo courtesy of Lauren Mauldin

Succulent Feed:

The final food group I have not yet mentioned for horses are the so called ‘succulents’. It’s the ‘candy’ for us – apples, carrots and horses also love sugarbeet pulp soaked in water. Dried sugar-beet pulp is what is left over after we have extracted the sugar from the beets, so it does not contain sugar, but is very high in fibre – yes, fibre, the magic word for horses. Because of this, it acts like a dry sponge when it comes in contact with water and soaks it right in, tripling in volume. This could cause severe colic, so it is important to soak it in water at a ratio of 4:1 or according to manufacturer’s recommendations before feeding. Horses like it a lot and will eat it very fast when mixed with concentrate feed.

Author’s Tip: If you have a horse prone to choke or a greedy horse, feed succulents/wet feed separately, or ensure that all pellets in the feed are soaked well.

Apples and Carrots are also favourites and good for chewing. Avoid excessive apple feeding as the sugar and acid in these is high which can damage teeth (so not bucket loads). That sums the main feedstuffs up that we feed horses: Forages – Forages – Forages, Conserved Forages, oh yes and then if necessary a bit of: Concentrates, Supplements and Succulents.

This column was brought to you by nutritional experts from ANIVADO. ANIVADO is a platform for online courses on equine nutrition, behaviour, health and performance. If you want to learn more about us please visit: www.ANIVADO.com