Light brown horse eating grass - Horse feed

Horse Feed: What Is It?

In the wild, a horse will typically graze for 12 to 20 hours a day. Horses generally thrive on a diet that’s made up mainly of roughage, and the most common forms of roughage are grass and hay. Roughage can also include chaff, which is often fed to horses as Lucerne chaff (alfalfa) or oaten chaff.

The horse’s digestive tract is set up in such a way that all horses need to have food consistently moving through it. Consequently, it’s important to feed them little, but feed them often. If a horse doesn’t have food in its stomach (which, along with saliva, helps buffer stomach acid), then acid builds up and can create ulcers in the horse. This, in turn, causes them to be in pain and lose their desire for food, so a vicious cycle can start.

Feeding a horse regularly—or giving them free access to grass or hay—allows them to consistently eat and have something in their digestive system at all times. As alluded to above, more than half of the horse’s diet should be made up of roughage. In fact, a horse that’s mature and getting minimal exercise will most often need only roughage in its diet.

Concentrates in Horse Feed

When a horse is working hard, however, it often needs extra provisions in its diet, and this is where concentrates come in. They provide greater levels of energy, protein, vitamins and minerals than ordinary roughage is able to, and can be consumed quickly. Without concentrates, it’d take the same horse a lot longer to consume enough grass to meet their increased energy, protein and vitamin needs.

Concentrates can be simple grains like oats, barley or corn, or they may be made up in a complete feed and include pellets.

A horse that’s partaking in heavy work—such as a racehorse or a three-day eventer—will need concentrates in their diet alongside roughage. A mare that’s feeding a foal or is in her later stages of pregnancy will also require more nutrients than roughage can provide in her diet. For this reason, concentrates may be added to horse feed.

If a horse is only given concentrates, or a large majority of their feed is concentrated, they won’t have enough food to keep them consistently eating throughout the day. As a result, it’s best to allow horses free access to grass or hay, no matter how much food they’re given in the form of concentrates.

Horse Feed and Oil

There may be times when a horse needs more energy in its diet, but it physically can’t consume any more food. Oil is a great additive to horse feed that’ll increase its energy content without adding to the bulk of the horse’s diet.

The Storage of Horse Feed

If horses are to be fed something other than grass, then the storage of horse feed needs to be considered. Many people will provide hay out in a field or paddock, but the elements will affect it over time if it’s not consumed quickly. To ensure that it remains unaffected, hay should instead be stored in a shed until it’s given to horses.

Hay should be kept in a place where it’s protected from wind and rain, and should generally be kept away from other items that are flammable. Many people prefer not to have their hay stored in their stables, in case there’s a stable fire.

It’s uncommon—but not unheard of—for poor-quality hay to cause a fire. Plus, if a visitor or staff member happens to be careless with a cigarette around hay, the results could be incredibly detrimental. Considering these risks, having hay stored away from stock and riding gear can also be wise.

Often, other horse feed is best kept in airtight containers. These stop dust and dirt from getting in, keep the feed dry and often deter rodents. Keep in mind, though, that plastic containers aren’t immune to rodents gaining access. In time, they can be chewed through, so metal feed containers can be better. Keeping your feed as secure as possible will ensure that its quality stays high until it’s consumed.

High-Quality Horse Feed

It’s imperative that horses are fed high-quality horse feed. If the food source is going to be second-rate, then it’s best not to provide it. Poor-quality food can result in digestive upset in horses, including colic in particular. Colic is extremely painful to the horse and can even result in death.

The quality of horse feed can be determined by its colour and smell. No feed should smell at all musty or moldy. Horses will often avoid rancid food, but if starving, they won’t be so picky.

Hay should have more leaf than stalk, and no mold should be found within the bales. If this is the case, it should be used as garden mulch, as it isn’t safe to feed to horses.

For those concerned about dust or too high of a sugar content in their hay, soaking it overnight will reduce dust and decrease the sugar content. Horses can really enjoy rich hays like Lucerne (alfalfa) and clover, but simple grass hay is often sufficient. For a horse that’s overweight or has too much energy, grass hay is a better option.

Introducing a New Horse Feed

If you find that you need to change a horse’s diet, it’s important to do this over the course of a couple of weeks, as a sudden change in diet will upset the pH balance in the horse’s digestive tract.

This can result in the sudden death of many microbes (gut flora) that work hard to keep the digestive environment in balance and break down foodstuffs into valuable nutrients. Such a change can then result in colic and other digestive upsets.

To help prevent these problems, dietary changes should always happen slowly, in order to ensure that gut flora stay healthy and happy.

A Vital Part of the Horse’s Life

Feeding a horse is an important part of looking after them, since, as mentioned, they can graze for 12 to 20 hours per day. Therefore, it’s crucial that horse owners know what to feed horses, how often to feed them and how to store their feed well.

Christine Meunier is an equine author and educator with a Bachelor of Equine Science. Her passion is the thoroughbred breeding industry, in which she’s worked as a stud hand and foaling attendant. She has also taught horse breeding courses. As she’s particularly passionate about careers in the equine industry, she writes Equus Education at—sign up to receive the free booklet Choosing a Horse Career.
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