A Comprehensive Guide for Horse Feeding


Author By Hope Horse

Horse feeding is a crucial aspect of horse care that impacts their health, performance, and overall well-being. 

Proper nutrition ensures that horses maintain a healthy weight, strong muscles, and support their digestive system and energy levels. 

This guide covers all aspects of horse feeding, including the essential nutrients horses need, types of horse feeds, feeding schedules, and important considerations.

Essential Nutrients for Horses

  • Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the primary energy source for horses. They play a critical role in horses' daily activities and physiological functions. 

However, some horses with endocrine or muscle disorders (such as Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (PSSM) or Cushing's disease) need to limit their intake of starches or sugars. 

These horses require special dietary management to avoid high-sugar and high-starch foods, ensuring they stay healthy and energetic.

  • Fats

Fats are another important energy source for horses, but they should not exceed 10% of the diet. Fats provide high energy while also improving the shine of horses' coats and their overall health. 

For horses that are intolerant to non-structural carbohydrates (NSC), fats are an ideal energy source.

  • Proteins

Proteins are broken down into amino acids during digestion, which are then absorbed into the bloodstream and used to build muscles, organs, bones, blood, skin, hair, and hooves. 

Proteins are essential for growth and tissue repair, especially important for growing horses, pregnant mares, and performance horses. 

High-quality protein sources include legumes, alfalfa, and specially formulated horse feeds. Adequate protein intake promotes growth, development, and overall health.

  • Minerals

Minerals are essential inorganic compounds, such as iron, copper, phosphorus, calcium, and magnesium. 

Iron is crucial for oxygen transport in the blood, while calcium and phosphorus are important for the formation and maintenance of bones and teeth. 

Trace elements like zinc, copper, and selenium are vital for the immune system, enzyme functions, and antioxidant effects. 

Horses usually obtain minerals from forage and feed, but sometimes additional supplementation is needed to ensure comprehensive nutrition.

  • Vitamins

Although required in small amounts, vitamins are critical for horses' health. 

Most horses can obtain sufficient vitamins from grazing, but supplementation may be necessary if their diet is deficient. 

Especially during winter or drought seasons, when forage quality is poor, vitamin supplementation becomes particularly important.

  • Water

Water is the most important nutrient for horses. A typical 1,000-pound horse needs to drink 10 to 12 gallons of water daily. 

Keeping water temperature between 45 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit encourages horses to drink more. Lack of water can lead to colic, dehydration, and even death. 

Horses regulate their body temperature through sweating, losing 2 to 4 gallons of sweat per hour, so sweating horses need more water. 

Automatic waterers, buckets, or troughs should be cleaned weekly to ensure water quality and prevent bacteria growth.

Adequate and clean drinking water is the foundation of horse health and good performance.

Types of Horse Feeds

Horses' nutritional needs can be met through various types of feeds. Here are some common feed types:

  • Hay

Hay is the foundation of all feeding plans as it is the primary source of basic nutrition for horses. 

For details on types of hay and their nutritional values, please refer to our previous article. How to choose the best hay

  • Pasture

Pasture is an important feed source, providing rich, fresh forage. Well-managed pastures can reduce feed costs and meet horses' energy, protein, vitamin, and mineral needs.

  • Fruits and Vegetables

These foods can add moisture to the feed, providing additional nutrients and variety. Carrots, apples, bananas, and pumpkins are ideal snacks for horses. 

Longitudinally cut carrots are particularly popular as they are easy to chew and digest. 

These foods not only contain vitamins and minerals but also increase palatability and eating pleasure for your horse. 

However, excessive feeding of fruits and vegetables should be avoided to prevent digestive issues.

  • Concentrates

Grains like corn, oats, and barley are considered concentrates. These grains are low in fiber but high in energy and are the primary source of quick energy for horses. 

If horses cannot obtain enough nutrition from forage, concentrates may need to be added. 

Concentrates should be adjusted based on the horse's activity level, age, and weight to avoid overfeeding, which can lead to obesity or digestive problems.

  • Supplements

Supplements are an important part of modern horse diets but should only be used when necessary. 

The majority of a horse's diet should consist of forage (hay or pasture), with grains or supplements added based on the horse's age, lifestyle, and specific needs. 

Working with a veterinarian to develop a scientifically sound supplement plan can ensure horses receive comprehensive nutritional support, enhancing their health and performance.


Through scientific and reasonable feed selection and nutritional management, horses' health and performance can be significantly improved. 

Understanding the characteristics and functions of each type of feed helps in creating the most suitable feeding plan for horses.

Assessing Horse Body Condition

The first step in creating a horse's diet plan is to fully understand its health status, which includes assessing the horse's weight and body condition score. 

Only by accurately understanding the horse's health and condition can the required types and amounts of food be reasonably calculated to meet its nutritional needs. 

For methods of calculating weight, please refer to our previous detailed article. The Ultimate Guide to Horse Weight Management

Horses have a relatively slow digestive process, with food taking 45 to 72 hours to pass through the digestive tract completely. 

Because horses have relatively small stomachs, they need to be fed at least twice daily to ensure their digestive systems function properly. 

Regular feeding not only meets the horses' energy needs but also prevents digestive issues. 

Many horses benefit from three or more feedings spread out throughout the day, which is more friendly to their digestive system and helps prevent gastric ulcers.

Additionally, regular feeding can reduce the stress and behavioral issues caused by hunger. 

A scientifically reasonable feeding plan should be adjusted based on the horse's specific conditions, such as its age, activity level, and health status. 

By reasonably distributing and adjusting feeding times and intervals, you can ensure that the horse gets a balanced nutrition to promote its overall health and good performance.

Feeding Schedule and Quantity

Proper nutrition is crucial for horses' growth, reproduction, and performance. 

Ensuring optimal nutrition for horses depends not only on providing the right feed but also on the feeding quantity and timing.

In most cases, horses require a continuous intake of hay or pasture throughout the day to meet their basic nutritional needs. 

Additionally, they need to be fed grains twice daily to supplement the necessary energy and other nutrients. 

The weight of the food horses consume daily should be 2% to 2.5% of their body weight. 

If a horse is overweight, it is recommended to reduce the daily food intake to 1.5% to 2% and ensure sufficient feeding time to avoid hunger and related issues. 

Conversely, for underweight horses, the daily food intake can be increased to 2.5% to 3% to promote weight gain and health recovery.

Adjusting the feeding quantity according to the horse's size, feeding method, and workload is crucial for ensuring its health and optimal performance. 

Horses that spend most of their time grazing on quality pasture do not need as much hay. 

However, during winter or drought periods, or when pasture quality declines, supplementing with hay is essential to ensure the horse gets enough nutrition.

Regular feeding is an important part of nutritional management. 

To ensure the horse's digestive system operates efficiently and prevent gastric ulcers and other digestive problems, it is recommended to feed three or more times daily. 

The quantity of grain fed each time should not exceed 5 pounds to avoid the digestive burden caused by overfeeding. 

Additionally, reasonable distribution of feeding times and intervals can reduce hunger and behavioral issues caused by hunger, maintaining stable emotions and health.

Feeding Considerations

1. New foods should be introduced gradually to avoid digestive issues like diarrhea, colic, or laminitis. 

A slow transition allows the horse's digestive system to adapt to the new feed, reducing the risk of gastrointestinal discomfort.

2. Each kilogram of dry feed should contain 1.6 to 1.8 grams of salt. 

This can be achieved by placing salt blocks in the pasture or providing bulk salt in separate containers, ensuring horses can take in enough salt to maintain electrolyte balance.

3. Do not feed horses immediately before or after exercise. Ideally, allow the horse to rest for an hour after eating before working. 

This can prevent digestive problems like colic and ensure the horse performs at its best during exercise.

4. Maintaining a consistent daily feeding routine is crucial for horse health. 

Horses are creatures of habit, and a consistent feeding schedule can reduce stress and anxiety caused by anticipating food.

5. Ensuring horses always have access to clean fresh water is essential. 

The average horse, weighing about 500 kg, needs to drink 20 to 50 litres of water a day to maintain normal physiological functions and health. 

Regularly check the water source to ensure water quality and prevent bacterial growth.

6. Keeping feed and feeding equipment clean is another important aspect of ensuring horse health. 

Feed should be stored in pest-proof containers, and feeding buckets should be cleaned after each use. 

Regularly check all feed for quality, and do not feed moldy feed or forage to avoid health issues.

7. In group feeding situations, differences in nutritional needs among horses may prevent some from getting enough nutrition or may consume too much nutrition. 

To address this, using feeding panels or installing swing-out feeders on horse stall doors can ensure multiple horses can eat orderly, avoiding fighting for food.


Feeding Panel

Swivel Feeder

Feeding horses is a responsibility that requires attention to detail and an understanding of the horse's nutritional needs. 

By providing a balanced diet tailored to your horse's needs, you can ensure they stay healthy, happy and ready to perform. 

Regular monitoring, a consistent feeding plan, and quality feed are the cornerstones of effective horse nutrition. 

For any specific dietary issues or adjustments, consult a veterinarian or equine nutritionist for professional advice and guidance.