Listen to What Your Horse Is Telling You

This article is intended to provide some basic principles and a starting point for use in enhancing the health of your horse. Naturally, as your demands on your horse to perform increase, so do his nutritional requirements.  The underlying approach, however, is the same:  Low calorie, high fiber forage is the basis of your horse’s diet.  It doesn’t make any sense to decide that your horse gets 2 flakes of hay in the morning and 2 flakes at night and then conclude that if he loses weight you reach for the concentrates.  You would be amazed at what you discover once you let your horse decide how much forage he needs.  You would find that when their winter coat starts to come in, even if it is still warm, they eat like there is no tomorrow.  As soon as the coat is established, their hay consumption drops, even if the temperatures are colder.

Sometimes when horses are stressed, they don’t eat very much, only to make up for it a couple of days later.  How could they do that if they were not left to regulate themselves?  Once on a free-choice feed program, the demeanor of many horses change. They become more cooperative, less grouchy.  They stop “vacuuming” up anything that comes their way and walk away from their food only to return a while later for more nibbles.  Yes, nibbles, not gorging!  Even “easy keeper” ponies can be maintained on a free-choice program as long as they are fed appropriate low NSC forage slowly and have the opportunity to walk around and not be too confined.

HOW should you feed your horse?

First and foremost, the horse is a grazing animal. This means that its entire digestive tract is developed to continually process small amounts of low calorie, high fiber forage consumed throughout most of the day. No horse is designed for scheduled feedings – their digestive systems are not set up to handle them!

The equine digestive tract produces digestive juices all the time, whether the horse has eaten or not. A horse that has to wait several hours between meals accumulates acid in their stomach until it reaches the sensitive lining of the stomach, resulting in discomfort or pain and in all likelihood, ulcers.The reason we see anxious and aggressive behavior at feeding time is not because horses have character or attitude problems… it is because their stomachs are literally burning with acid and they cannot wait to alleviate this discomfort – by eating. 

When the horse chews its food and swallows saliva, its stomach acid is reduced.  The smaller the mouthfuls, the more chewing and swallowing is done over the course of the day. This reduces stomach acid to levels the horse was designed to maintain on a continual basis. This also eliminates the stress that is placed on the horse’s entire system by the daily cycle of binging and starvation inherent in scheduled feedings and allows the horse to process its food much more efficiently.

WHAT should you feed your horse?

As to what to feed your horse… there are as many opinions out there as there are stars in the sky.  Again, let’s consider the facts.The National Research Council (NRC) has conducted over 30 years of research on the nutritional requirements of horses and other equids and has established minimum requirements for the major minerals and vitamins.  They have devised formulas to calculate these nutrients based on body weight and activity level.  In this article, we will tell you how this research translates into your feeding decisions.  If you are interested in the details, you can purchase the book “Nutrient Requirements of Horses” from the National Academies Press and study up for yourself.


Considering again that the horse is a grazing animal, it is best to start with simple grass hay. The horse should be able to consume as much appropriate grass hay to match the horse's digestible energy as it needs to maintain body condition.  Only when this is not achieved through the means of forage (hay) alone, should you consider concentrates, such as grain.

photos of different types of hay

Why grass hay?  Because the balance of major minerals in grass hay is usually in line with the major mineral balance requirements of the horse.  In general, non-grass hays such as cereal hays and alfalfa do not have a favorable mineral balance.  Therefore, if you feed alfalfa or cereal hays alone or in large quantities, you would have to add large amounts of certain minerals to balance them out.  Alfalfa, however, is highly nutritious and contains complete proteins for good muscle and tissue development.  It also has the most bioavailable calcium of all the feeds.  Adding it into your horse’s diet along with sufficient grass hay is therefore desirable.

As a rule of thumb, horses should consume at least 1.5 – 2.5% of their body weight in food a day.  You would feed a fat horse closer to the 1.5% of their body weight in food and a skinny horse 2.5% or more of their body weight in food.  Alfalfa should not make up more than 20-25% of your horse’s overall diet to avoid too great a mineral imbalance.  For example, a 1000 pound horse should consume anywhere from 15-25 pounds of food a day.  Alfalfa should constitute no more than 3-6 pounds a day in this example.

A comment on cereal hays: Cereal hays often lack nutrition and so should not be used as a sole source of food for your horse.  Another issue to consider with cereal hays is the unpredictable sugar content.  While the sugars in cereal hays may be within reasonable range, they can also be quite high.  As with humans, too much sugar spells trouble for your horse.

Grain and other food supplements

When forage alone is not enough to maintain good body condition, concentrates need to be added to the diet.  Grains provide energy mostly in the form of carbohydrates and therefore should be added with caution.  Whole oats are an excellent choice of grain for horses. Whey protein, flax seed meal and soybean meal are good sources of complete proteins. Rice bran adds some fat to the diet, but its fatty acid profile is not as favorable as that of flax seed.

A very good weight builder is shredded beet pulp.  Try to get some without added molasses.  Beet pulp is a feed which falls between concentrates and forage.  Forty percent of the horse’s diet can be safely provided by beet pulp.  Beet pulp is mostly fermented in the hindgut contributing to a friendly environment for good bacteria in the intestine.  Because of this fermentation, it releases energy slowly and does not result in a spike in blood glucose as grains do.

Please do keep in mind that concentrates are just that – concentrated. Therefore they need to be added to a diet with caution. It is best to consult with someone experienced in equine nutrition to achieve a good balance in your horse’s diet.

The Bottom Line
  • Grass hays (bermuda, timothy, orchard, brome, teff) are like the veggies of a human diet. They are low calorie, high fiber vegetarian herbivore foods. This should be the mainstay of the diet, available to the horse 24/7.
  • Alfalfa, beet pulp and other legumes provide protein, similar to meat in the human diet. Horses only need enough to maintain their topline and meet the necessary calcium requirements.
  • Cereal/grain hays are similar to the potatoes and starches in a human diet, with a tendency towards non-structural carbohydrates which turn into sugar and are stored as fat if not immediately used by the body to meet energy needs.

Basic but necessary nutrients

We will single out a few nutrients here because a suboptimal intake of these few quickly leads to undesired symptoms.  A horse that has no access to pasture ought to be supplemented with certain nutrients that fresh pasture would provide.

a chart showing how vitamins and minerals interact with each other
Vitamin E and Fatty Acids

The most important supplements are fatty acids and Vitamin E.  This vitamin is abundant in fresh pasture but is lost quickly when the grass is cut.  A safe amount of natural Vitamin E for use in supplementing an average size horse would be 1000-2000 IU daily.  Two to four ounces a day of ground flax seed satisfies an average horse’s requirements for fatty acids.


One mineral that deserves special attention is salt.  Horses seldom consume enough salt from a salt block.  An average sized horse should consume about 1 ounce or 1 tablespoon of iodized salt a day.  This is especially important for hay fed horses, as the moisture content of hay is about 10% versus 70-80% in fresh forage.  The salt will encourage your horse to drink enough water to digest the dry hay.  Using loose table salt with added iodine also prevents iodine deficiency.  Regular white table salt works just fine.  When the horse is doing hard work and sweats a lot you can easily quadruple the maintenance amounts.


Selenium is one of these “miracle” minerals that your horse requires in very small amounts. Suboptimal amounts in the horse’s diet can quickly lead to symptoms and too much can lead to death.  Because some soils in the US are very selenium rich and others are selenium poor, it is advised to have your forage tested for selenium prior to supplementing.

These are just basic feeding guidelines for a few key nutrients, based on the latest scientific research.  As mentioned earlier, these nutrients can produce symptoms quickly if they are lacking in the diet.  Other nutrients taken at sub-optimal levels will require a much longer time period to show ill effects.  That doesn’t mean they are not equally as important.  Unless you want to study it yourself, which you could, it is best to consult with an Equine Nutritionist.

Analyze your hay

A horse left to roam over a large area consumes several hundred species of plants for their nutrition.  When we bring these horses into confinement, we reduce this variety to mostly one or two kinds of hay.  It is only logical to assume that your horse is not eating a balanced diet, as only one or two species of plants are likely to create nutritional deficiencies.

Sometimes mineral deficiencies are created by an excess of another mineral in the hay due to competition for absorption.  The safest way to find out what your hay really provides is to analyze the hay.  You can then contact an Equine Nutritional Consultant to find out how to balance out your hay.

A hay analysis will also tell you how much sugar your hay contains.  This is of utmost importance for horses with conditions such as Insulin Resistance or Cushing’s but also for those “easy keepers”.  Keeping the sugar content low is also vital for the health of your horse’s hooves.

The Reward – A Healthy, Happy Horse and Owner

Fewer vet calls, improved attitude, better performance, freedom from a rigid feeding schedule, a sense of well-being. These are all worth attaining for you and your horse. With a nutritional program balanced to the essential needs and rhythms of your horse, you will both reap the rewards.

Claudia Benson is an Equine Nutritional Consultant and has been assisting owners with nutrition for over 7 years. Her horses are maintained on a restricted free-choice mineral balanced diet and are provided with natural hoof care and as a result, have enjoyed excellent health.  

Three Not-So-Common Myths

by Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D.

Horses are complex animals, and correctly meeting their nutritional needs can be challenging. We all have our horses’ best interest at heart, but it is easy to understand how feeding misconceptions can occur. Here are three not-co-commonly held myths.

Myth #1: Horses don’t need as much hay during the night because they sleep.

Horses are awake and moving virtually all the time. Mature horses will sleep up to two hours per day, broken into short periods. These 15 to 20-minute naps are intermittent throughout the day and night. In other words, horses do not sleep for any length of time like other animals do. Being prey animals, horses’ sleep must be taken in frequent breaks of short duration, ideally in a group situation where some take turns resting while others remain alert for dangers.

And here’s why they need to have forage (hay and/or pasture) available all of the time, day and night: Horses are trickle feeders, designed to graze continuously to keep the digestive system functioning normally, thereby preventing ulcers and colic. Feeding them in sync with their natural instincts and physiology requires that they have forage available any time they want it. 24/7.

The way you can determine how much hay to feed at night is to make certain that there is some hay left over in the morning. If your horse runs out of hay and you wake to find him kicking and pawing, he is hungry. But more than that, he is in pain (due to the acid bathing his stomach) and he is mentally stressed. This stress can lead to a multitude of health problems and ironically, it can prevent an overweight horse from losing weight. You can ease your horse’s discomfort by giving him more hay than he could possibly eat during the night. Once he realizes that the hay supply will never run out, he will he start to self-regulate his intake and actually begin to eat less then he used to because he has calmed down, both physically and emotionally.

Myth #2: The horse’s stomach should be empty while exercising to avoid digestive upset.

We don’t feel comfortable exercising after a large meal and we therefore assume that our horses don’t either. But define a “meal.” We generally think of feeding a commercially fortified feed — something that comes out of a bag. Or we may feed a meal of oats along with supplements. And, you’re right… this type of meal that is low in fiber and high in feedstuffs that provide starch, protein, and fat, should not be fed immediately before exercising your horse. But forage should! It’s just the opposite – restrict forage before exercise and you’ll produce, rather than avoid, digestive upset. Here’s why…

The horse’s stomach, unlike our own, secretes acid all the time – that’s right – it never stops. Chewing produces saliva, a natural antacid. But left without anything to chew, the acid will accumulate in the stomach and settle along the bottom (as water would in an empty jar). The lower portion of the stomach (the glandular region) has a protective mucus layer, but the upper squamous region has no such lining. Ask your horse to move, and the acid sloshes around, reaching the unprotected area, leading to an ulcer. And, as the acid flows through the small intestine, cecum, and large colon, it can cause further damage in its wake, potentially leading to colic and ulcerative colitis.

Allow your horse to graze on hay or pasture before asking him to move – 15 minutes ought to do the trick. You’ll not only keep him healthy, but he won’t be in physical and mental discomfort, making him more relaxed and receptive.

Myth #3: Electrolyte supplements meet the horse’s salt requirement.

Your horse sweats more during the summer and drinks less during the winter, making electrolyte supplementation worth considering. But electrolytes alone will not stimulate your horse to drink more water. To do that, your horse needs to have enough sodium (salt). A balanced electrolyte supplement is designed to replace what is lost from perspiration, but electrolyte supplements should only be given to a horse that is already in good sodium balance. There are several ways to accomplish this. The best ways include offering free-choice granulated salt or adding salt to your horse’s meal. A plain, white salt block helps, but many horses do not lick it adequately.

A full-sized horse requires at least one ounce (two level tablespoons) of salt each day for maintenance, providing 12 grams of sodium. This is true all year long, even during the coldest winter months. Heat, humidity, and exercise increase the horse’s need. Horses often will not eat extra salt, so consider syringing one ounce of salt mixed with some oil or flavored liquid after an hour of intense sweating, not to exceed 4 ounces per day. If your horse is working for several hours at a time, you can add an electrolyte supplement but it should be offered in addition to salt, to replace what is lost from perspiration.

In order to prevent ulcers, always allow your horse to eat something before giving him salt or an electrolyte supplement. And never add electrolytes to a horse’s only water supply — this will interfere with water intake. Fresh, clean water should always be nearby.