While you should always consult your veterinarian for the feeding program best for your horse(s), here are some basic guidelines to help you begin structuring your feeds and feeding program.
Horses’ diets require six essential components:
- Energy: Grain and hay (especially alfalfa hay) provide energy. Hard working horses, such as performance horses, need more energy.
- Protein: Hay, especially alfalfa hay, is a good source of protein. Young horses (usually up to 3 years of age) and pregnant and lactating mares require more protein.
- Vitamins: Requirement.
- Minerals: Requirement. A selenium supplement is necessary in the Pacific Northwest and other parts of North America. Check with your veterinarian for their recommendation.
- Water: Essential at all times. Horses drink between 8 to 15 gallons per day.
- Fiber: Hay or pasture. Fiber (also called roughage) is essential for proper gut motility and digestion in the horse. This should be the mainstay of your feeding program.
Putting It All Together
Pasture: Good pasture contains all of the above, with the exception of selenium. If possible, let your horse graze at least part of the day. However, too much pasture can cause serious problems for some horses while others may need supplemental feed in addition to pasture. Consult your veterinarian before turning your horse out to graze. For pasture management advice contact your local conservation district.
Hay: Hay can replace pasture or supplement a poor pasture. A good rule of thumb for feeding hay is 2% of a horse’s body weight in hay, 20 lbs. of hay for an “average” 1,000 lb. horse. Alfalfa hay has a higher protein and energy count, but for most horses grass hay or a mix of grass and alfalfa would be best. Always purchase green, leafy hay, free of dust and mold. Consult your veterinarian for questions on which hay would be better for your horse.
Grain: Grain is not necessary for most horses. Horses in training or those who cannot maintain their weight may need grain to give them extra energy. Oats or COB (a mix of corn, oats and barley) are most commonly fed. A small amount of grain (1/4 cup) is often used to “top dress” vitamins.
Salt: A free-choice, white salt block (without any other added vitamins) salt block should be provided.
Selenium: Consult your veterinarian to see if you live in a selenium deficient area. Selenium should be supplemented to all horses in the Pacific Northwest. LMF Super Suplement, Horse Guard, Dynamite and Northwest Supplement are examples of supplements containing adequate amounts of selenium. Pure selenium is also available from your veterinarian.
Water: Fresh, clean water should be available at all times. In cold weather be sure that your horse’s water is not frozen or too cold or they may not drink an adequate amount.
Keep in mind: All hay and grain should be weighed on a daily basis. Store feed where horses cannot accidentally get into it and consume amounts dangerous to their health. Feed horses in a manger or on the stall floor. It is most natural for horses to eat with their head lowered to help with clearing their respiratory system. Feeding on sand or muddy ground can lead to ingestion of dirt causing serious digestion problems. A horse should never be fed hay or grain which is moldy, dusty, weedy or contains foreign objects. Horses should be fed a minimum of twice a day–three times a day is better.
Evaluating a moderate body condition: To determine if your horse is in good body weight, your horse’s coat should be shiny. Eyes should be bright and alert. Ribs can be felt just beneath the coat. Backbone or hipbones should not protrude.
Keeping warm in winter: A couple extra pounds of hay fed on extremely cold nights is the best heat source you can provide your horse. Body heat generated by eating and digesting fiber and forage helps keep your horse warm.
Final note: One final cost-saving suggestion; avoid over or under feeding by always weighing hay (and grain)! Feeding by eye or scoop is not accurate and wastes feed–and money.