I was talking to one of my barn mates yesterday about feed regimens and trying to solve minor issues based on supplements. Which got me thinking….everyone probably has this same problem! Why not talk about it?
So I want to start a series on this blog about feeding your horse. Now, before I get into what I know, what I’ve studied, and what I’ve learned, I am in no way a professional. I’m just a fellow equestrian that has a degree in Equine Science, but I do not have a DVM or a PhD in nutrition. I don’t know as much as feed companies, or anyone that studies nutrition for a living. But what I do know is what I’ve done for my horse, what I’ve learned along the way, and what I do now. I can offer as much advice as I can, but please remember that this is in no way a professional opinion.
To get the ball rolling, let’s start about what horses would eat in without human interruption: grass. Wild horses eat about 65% grasses and about 35% shrubs. This is great to know, but our horses don’t live in the wild. They are kept in stalls, paddocks, and pastures. They also need more energy than wild horses, especially if they’re performance horses. Which means things get tricky.
Now the horse has a small stomach (15L), but a large digestive system. This translates to a horse being a natural continuous eater (or a grazer). Which is why horses tend to do better with free-feeders or at least 3 meals a day. These meals can vary from grass, hay, forage, or grain.
While brands will say your horse only needs complete feed, as in only grain that is fortified with nutrients, your horse’s digestive system is made for forage. If you feed your horse a complete feed and it works great..that’s perfect! The only caution with a complete feed stems mainly from the fact that it is not a grass or shrub; meaning your horse’s gut will not process it the same and it is more susceptible to colic, ulcers, or other digestion issues.
So now that we know horses are made for forage, and that grazing is good for them, now let’s get to more of the specifics. A horse should be eating 2% of their body weight. If you are unsure of how much your horse eats, weigh their food out! A mature horse’s food demand depends on energy consumption, living conditions, water availability, and quality of food.
For instance, a horse that is ridden heavily 6 times a week, lives in beautiful living conditions with clean water that is readily available, and eats top-notch grass hay 4x times a day will have completely different dietary needs than a horse ridden maybe 2x a month that lives in a pasture with water available and gets their hay in the evening. Both options are perfectly fine, but their diet will differ. (This is where your vet will come in handy to give recommendations on diet.)
Ok, so to recap: horses are grazers, meaning they naturally want to continuously eat. They consume about 2% of their bodyweight daily, mostly on forage. Every horse is different, and demands vary, but 2% is a good starting point. Finally, dietary needs depend on living conditions and quality of water and food.
I hope these basics help you understand the bare minimum that your horse needs. I plan on getting into specifics later, but I want to take things one stride at a time.