What do horses eat? What’s the best horse feed? Given the chance, any horse will graze for around 20 hours out of 24, or for at least 75% of his time. For millennia this has been his natural way of life — and for many horses and ponies it still is. Psychologically, they need to chew. So if you have the luxury of plenty of land and your horse is only in light work, he will no doubt be happier living out and being ridden from the field.
However, over the years, the number of horses being kept permanently at grass has fallen dramatically. Livery yards lack the space for 24/7 turnout, while owners with limited land need to preserve their paddocks from over-grazing. All this means that the stabled horse’s diet may need to be supplemented with other types of forage and, depending on his type, age and workload, concentrates.
What to feed
If your horse is living out permanently and the quality of his grazing deteriorates at certain times of the year, you may have to supplement his rations with a low-calorie feed balancer and/or hay or haylage. If he is stabled, he should have constant access to this type of good quality forage.
What type of forage you feed is largely down to personal preference and what best suits your horse, but haylage — grass that is semi-wilted and bagged — has enjoyed a huge rise in popularity in recent years, in part because it comes dust-free.
If you have easy access to hay, this could be the answer, but bear in mind that meadow hay, made from permanent pasture, may lack the nutrients of seed hay, which is made from speciality grasses and is more suitable for horses in hard work.
Many owners soak their horse’s hay. This not only reduces the nutrient content for overweight or laminitis-prone horses and ponies, but also prevents the horse breathing in the mould spores that can cause respiratory problems.
If your horse’s workload increases to heavy, for example because he hunts regularly over the winter, you may need to introduce concentrates for energy, depending on his breed and temperament, but beware any feed that makes him ‘hot’ and tricky to ride.
Starch-rich, energy-dense cereals and concentrates come in many forms — from oats to barley and maize. However, feeding these can be complicated. Meanwhile, specialist horse feed companies have invested millions of pounds developing compound feeds to suit various types of horses and ponies, from veterans, to pregnant mares and competition horses. A new horse owner, therefore, may want to consider buying a recommended, quality brand horse feed, both for a workload increase or if the horse has trouble maintaining condition. Bear in mind, though, that this will always be a more expensive option than simply feeding forage.
There are also plenty of general supplements that can help maintain your horse’s health.
When to feed your horse
Besides the constant supply of forage, be regular with your horse’s concentrate feed. Horses are creatures of habit and like to be fed at the same time every day. Also, don’t be tempted to give a large feed 1-2 hours before strenuous, fast exercise and for at least an hour afterwards. Exercise can compromise digestive function, while a full stomach will press on the lungs during work, potentially affecting performance and health.
How much should you feed your horse?
As a general guideline, your horse should consume 2.5% of his bodyweight in food every day, a minimum of 1.5% being made up of grass, hay or haylage. For horses who are particularly good doers, as well as some ponies, especially native breeds, restricted grazing may be required or the quantity of the forage reduced — so offer oat straw, for example, in place of meadow hay.
Little and often is the key if you are feeding concentrates.
Always bear in mind that your horse has a tiny stomach relative to his size and if you offer too much cereal each time, the horse will fail to digest it properly, which could lead to serious health issues. So instead of one or two feeds a day, three or four smaller ones are likely to be more suitable. Also consider feeding forage prior to a bucket of concentrates, or mix in chaff to add bulk.
It is worth bearing in mind that many horses are only regarded as being in light work even if they are being regularly schooled, hacked and taken to unaffiliated competitions. Their condition will need to be closely monitored, but if they are faring well on a forage-only diet then it should not be necessary to add concentrates.
Why water is so vital
Horses need water to survive, which is why it is essential that yours has round-the-clock access to clean, fresh drinking water, either via a trough in the field or in a bucket, which should be cleaned daily. If he doesn’t have this access, he will quickly become dehydrated with serious health consequences.
Carrots and apples are the perfect treat, especially for a horse which is permanently stabled and lacks the water in his diet that grass can provide. Avoid sugary snacks that can rot the teeth.