I am sure we have all heard the saying “He or she eats like a horse.” It you have a horse of course they DO eat like a horse! But what does it mean to “eat like a horse”? How much should a horse eat? What should a horse eat? If my horse is fat or thin, what should they eat or not eat? I have heard all these questions asked of me over the years. For some that may not have grown up around horses or are brand new to horses, these are some of the most frequent questions.
First question, how much does a horse eat a day? A mature horse needs to eat between 1% and 2% of its body weight a day. This includes all hay and grain. Although horses can vary in mature weight, for this article we will look at an average horse weighing 1000 pounds. A 1000-pound horse should consume 10 to 20 pounds of food a day. To get an idea of how much that is, think of a bale of hay. The average weight of a bale is about 60 pounds so if divide that bale into 10-pound increments, you can feed an average horse for 6 days or 6 horses one day at 10 pounds a day. Also, a horse’s protein and energy requirements will depend on age, stage of development, metabolism, and workload. Choose hay and incorporate it into the ration with the individual’s needs in mind. Hay alone will not meet the total dietary requirements of young, growing horses or those used for high levels of performance. However, high quality hay may supply ample protein and energy for less active adult horses. In such cases, these horses should be provided a mineral supplement. For optimum health, nutritionists recommend that at least half of this should be roughage such as hay. For a 1,000-pound horse, that means at least 10 pounds of hay each day.
Some owners have asked, “That’s great about the hay, what about feeding grain?” When we speak of horse grain, think of all the different formulas of horse feeds. Grain and bagged horse feeds are also known as “concentrates”. The reason for this name is because this type of feed has more energy concentrated in it by weight than hay and grass from the pasture. Feeding a coffee can full of grain or a plastic scoop has been the usual measurement for feeding grains. But that won’t work with every horse feed. Each formulation will vary in how much a certain volume of feed weighs. Here is an everyday example. Take a cup of cotton balls and a cup of marbles. Both are 1 cup, but without even weighing these cups we know that the marbles are heavier than the cotton balls because the marbles are denser. The same can be said for different horse grain. A scoop of oats weight less than a scoop of a senior feed. The best way to know how much grain you are feeding is by weighing it. Then following the feeding directions on the bag one knows how much is being given per feeding.
Another common question is what should my horse eat? Horses are herbivores by design and foragers by nature. They have evolved to utilize grasses and other forage plants as their primary source of nutrition. Horses are most content when they can nibble almost constantly. Although it’s not always possible to let our domesticated friends graze to their hearts’ content, one way to satisfy their urge to chew and provide essential nutrients is to feed high quality hay. Some grasses can be made into hay and fed in winter when grass is not growing or when a horse has no access the pasture. Most horses need only hay to maintain their weight. Some treats are okay to feed, like carrots or apples or pre-made horse treats or horse cookies, but they need to be fed in moderation. Carrots and apples need to be cut up in bite sized chunks, otherwise a horse can choke trying to eat whole apples or carrots.
Hay generally falls into one of two categories — grasses or legumes. Horse hay is often a mixture of the two. What is readily available and most cost effective generally depends on the part of the country in which you live. Hay’s nutritive value and palatability will depend on several factors, such as:
- Plant species
- Level of plant maturity at harvest
- Weed content
- Growing conditions (rain, weather,
- Curing and harvesting conditions
- Soil conditions and fertility
- Moisture content
- Length and method of storage
Alfalfa and clover arc examples of legumes. Alfalfa is more commonly fed as hay than is clover, although clover may be a component of a mixed hay. Legumes tend to be higher in protein, energy, calcium, and vitamin A than grass hays. This concentrated source of energy and protein may be an advantage when fed as part of the ration for young, growing horses, lactating mares, and performance athletes. However, not all horses need the rich levels of nutrients present in premium alfalfa. By buying a lower quality hay (such as an early cutting or one harvested in a late stage of plant maturity), or by selecting an alfalfa-grass mix hay, you can get alfalfa’s dietary benefits without supplying excess nutrients that may predispose young horses to problems such as developmental bone disease and epiphysitis. Due to alfalfa’s high protein and mineral content, your horse will likely drink more water when being fed this legume. In turn, your horse’s stall will be wetter and require more care to keep clean, dry and ammonia-free.
Although grass hay is generally lower in protein and energy and higher in fiber than legume hay, this is, in part, what makes it a good choice for many adult horses. It can satisfy the horse’s appetite and provide necessary roughage without excess calories and protein. A good quality grass hay may meet most of the adult horse’s basic nutritional needs. Mature horses require 10-12 percent (crude protein) in their diets. Many native or prairie grass hays contain just 6-8 percent. A fortified grain concentrate can be used to supplement the ration, increasing its energy, protein, vitamin, and mineral content.
Common varieties of grass used for horse hay include:
- Prairie or Wild Native
When you evaluate hay most people buy bay based on how it looks, smells and feels. These are “qualitative” factors, and they are important. When appraising hay, it’s what’s inside counts. Ask that one or several bales be opened so can evaluate the hay inside the bales. (Do not worry About the slight discoloration on the outside, especially stacked hay.) Keep in mind the following points:
- Choose hay that is its fine-stemmed, green, and leafy as possible. It should be soft to the touch.
- Avoid hay that is over-cured; excessively sun-bleached; or smells moldy, musty, dusty, fermented.
- Examine the leaves, stems, and flowers or seed pods to determine its level of maturity.
- Select hay that has been harvested when the plants are in early bloom for legumes, or before seed heads have formed in grasses.
- Avoid hay that contains a significant amount of weeds, dirt, trash, or debris.
- Examine hay for signs of insect infestation or disease. Be especially careful to check for blister beetles in alfalfa. Ask the grower about any potential problems in the region.
- Reject bales that seem excessively heavy for their size or feel warm to the touch. (They may contain excess moisture that could cause mold, or worse, spontaneous combustion.)
- When possible, purchase and feed hay within a year of harvest to preserve its nutritional value.
- Store hay in a dry, sheltered area out of the rain, snow, and sun; or cover it to protect it from the elements.
- When buying in quantity, have the hay analyzed a certified forage laboratory to determine its actual nutrient content.
The last question I commonly hear is “What do I feed my thin horse?” The answer will vary with the age, the activity, and health status of the horse in question. The horse that has poor or no teeth, digestive problems, or other health issues is going to require a much different plan than a horse that may be otherwise healthy but not just getting enough groceries “a-grocery-ois”. Each situation needs to be considered individually and dealt with accordingly.
With the proper amount and type of feed your can keep your horse eating like a horse and healthy, active and thriving!