Horses are herbivores and, as such, they need a very specific diet. They must consume lots of fibre to keep their extremely long and sensitive digestive tract working and they must eat little and often, almost all day long. In simple terms, horses eat grass and hay or haylage, but salt, concentrates and fruits or vegetables can also enhance their diets, depending on the required work regime and available feed.
Here’s our Horse Feeding Guide, containing a handy list of everything your average adult horse should eat to remain healthy. If your horse’s feeding habits change, or if you notice him losing or gaining weight, seek the advice of your equine vet as soon as possible.
It’s also important to point out that any rapid changes to your horse feed can cause illness, especially colic, if you do change your horse’s diet make sure you do it gradually over two-four weeks. An equine nutritionist can help you plan the dietary change.
What do horses eat?
Horses naturally want to graze all day and should eat little and often. Here are our top types of horse feed:
- Grass – horses love grass. It’s their natural food and great for their digestive system (although beware of your horse eating too much lush grass in spring as this can cause laminitis). Ensure you also fully clear from your pasture any plants that could be harmful to horses, such as ragwort, which is very common in the UK.
- Hay or haylage – keeps your horse full and its digestive system working, particularly in the cooler months from autumn to early spring when pasture isn’t available.
- Fruit or vegetables – these add moisture to the feed. A carrot cut lengthways is ideal. There are some fruits and vegetables you should avoid though – see the type of feeds horses shouldn’t eat section below.
- Concentrates – if your horse is old, young, nursing, pregnant or competing, your vet may recommend concentrates, which are grains like oats, barley and corn. These give your horse energy. Be aware that these can be dangerous if you mix the wrong amounts or combinations, causing mineral imbalances.
- Salt – it is good to offer your horse a salt lick block or loose salt in a separate container in a pasture. Many owners find that horses love eating salt in the summer months.
Fresh water – as well as horse food, your horse needs access to fresh clean water as much as possible, but at least twice a day. If your horse doesn’t have access to it, then make sure it does not have water immediately after a feed or it could land up with a blockage caused by undigested food moving too quickly through the digestive tract. Make sure your horse’s water doesn’t freeze over in winter temperatures.
How much should horses eat?
An average adult horse should eat dry matter (what remains after all of the water is evaporated out of a feed) weighing around 1.5–3 per cent of its body weight. This depends on the horse’s activity and the quality of the food.
In terms of how much hay to feed a horse, at least half of their diet should be pasture grass or hay/haylage. If a horse is worked or ridden, then it will need more food during the day or it will become underweight. Do not work a horse immediately after feeding very large meals. This is really uncomfortable for the horse and could affect its digestion.
How to feed a horse
Horses should be fed little and often, all day. If a horse is kept in a stable, it needs two to three feeds per day. You should not leave your horse for longer than eight hours without food. Horses like routine, so try to feed them at the same time every day. Also make sure that troughs are clean, or horses may refuse to eat or drink.
What do horses like to eat?
Horses love treats and snacks, as well as grass and hay. But make sure you don’t overdo it. See our foods to avoid section.
What do wild horses eat?
Wild horses graze on large areas of land, eating grass, the seed head of grasses and other edible shrubs and plants. They tend to live near fresh water supplies. It is estimated that wild horses can graze for 15-17 hours per day.
Type of feeds horses shouldn’t eat
What horses eat can seriously affect their health. So, as well as making sure your horse is eating small quantities of food, you also need to ensure you avoid feeding your horse the following:
- Lots of fruit snacks/treats – these can cause colic, obesity, and may lead to serious health problems, including the painful foot problem laminitis. Ensure you don’t feed your horse more than one or two wedges of fruit, such as an apple, or one or two carrots a day. Also make sure your horse isn’t grazing near an orchard or fruit tree in season and put up signs on fences asking members of the public not to feed your horse or give it treats.
- Stone fruits – if not pitted these could cause your horse to choke.
- Chocolate or other sugary foods – although your horse will enjoy eating it, these high sugar foods are not needed and could lead to health problems or obesity.
- Bread and cakes – these could cause a blockage in a horse’s digestive tract.
- Meat – this can be harmful to your horse in the long term and they just don’t need it from a nutritional perspective.
- Vegetables in the cabbage family – turnips, cabbages, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts etc will leave your horse feeling real discomfort and will make them very gassy.
- Potatoes and tomatoes – these members of the Nightshade family should not be fed to horses.
- Garden waste – there are so many risks from garden clippings, including plants, weeds and toxins from garden sprays that may be poisonous. Although giving horses freshly cut grass might seem like a good idea, you can’t be sure what other garden waste could be in there and your horse might eat the grass much more quickly than if naturally grazing. Colic could be a result.
- Mouldy or dusty hay – this can damage your horse’s lungs.
- Brans – are not good for horses and should be avoided unless they are needed for a specifically prescribed diet.
And remember to…check your horse isn’t overweight!
Regularly check the body condition score of your horse. Like underweight horses, overweight ones are at risk of many health conditions so it’s important to check you’re not overfeeding or under exercising. Watch the amount of treats you give to your horse especially!
A quick thanks from SPANA
We hope you’ve found our guide of what to feed horses helpful. Thank you for taking the time to research the best horse diet. At SPANA we provide veterinary treatment for working animals across the world including horses, who do the jobs of trucks, tractors and taxis in many developing countries. Many of these horses suffer from poor nutrition.
If you’d like to support our work, including our owner education programme, please find out how you can help.