The Evolution of Equine Nutrition


History allows us to learn from the past and never forget where we came from. This applies to horse owners too. In fact, it led me to The Stable Book: Being a Treatise on the Management of Horses, published in 1856 by John Stewart, a veterinary surgeon and professor of veterinary medicine in Glasgow, Scotland.

A modern reader may giggle at the frequent mention of draughts and cordials for horses (according to Dr. Stewart, a cordial helps many an ill or over-worked horse), tonic balls (an herbal preparation made into a ball with honey) and physics (herbs and other concoctions directed by a veterinarian). Then there’s bloodletting, which is mentioned as treatment for some disorders. But the real focus of the book is feeding, and as a nutritionist it had me smiling at the simplicity, but also at the sheer differences between now and then.

Feeding in the 19th century

Foods fed to horses in the 19th century consisted of turnips, potatoes, parsnips, sugar beet, mangel-wurzel (beets), carrots and yams. These root vegetables were all boiled or steamed before feeding with the exception of the carrot, and mostly fed in the winter months. “A work horse getting from between eight to 12 pounds of grain may have four pounds deducted for every five pounds of carrots he receives,” wrote Dr. Stewart. He recommends turnips for farm and cart horses as well as horses in coaching stables. He suggests the Swedish variety, 100 pounds of which equals 22 pounds of hay in “nutriment”. As a modern horse owner, it’s hard to imagine feeding 100 pounds of turnips per day let alone five pounds of carrots per day.

The book then moves on to some of the foods that were for problematic horses. Wheaten bread was recommended for horses that were invalid or off their appetite. Dr. Stewart also describes the prescription of linseed, hemp seed, oats, barley and beans for other ailments. He did not recommend bran except for a horse that was off his feed: “bran has no nutriment; its laxative properties can not be true since bran is constipating to dogs. A shilling’s worth of oats is a great deal more nourishing than a shilling’s worth of bran.”

On schedule

Dr. Stewart provided various feeding schedules based on the type of horses common in that age. They included the cart, carriage, hunter, cavalry, racing and saddle horse. He recommended feeding most horses five times per day at 6am, 9am, 1pm, 5pm and 8pm with a total consumption of 12 to 16 pounds of grain (oats and beans in a 5:1 ratio) with 12 pounds of hay. For horses in laborious work, he recommended adding barley with the ratio being 6:3:3 (oats to beans to barley) plus hay. For the last meal of the day, Dr. Stewart recommended feeding boiled foods in the winter and adding turnips to the mix. He advised feeding raw carrots throughout the day, during all feedings at all times of the year. Have you ever wondered how domesticated horses were fed in the past? There are some intriguing differences and similarities!

To feed or not to feed

Dr. Stewart’s recommendations also featured several foods to avoid, including distillery or brewers’ grains, which he called “the refuse of breweries”. He claimed that when fed regularly “they produce general rottenness, which I suspect in these cases is caused by disease of the liver. They also contribute to producing staggers and founder.” Dr. Stewart also didn’t recommend raw wheat because “fermentation, colic and death are the consequences”; however, he said that if wheat was boiled and given with beans, some oats and chaff, it could be “useful”. He also stood strongly against the feeding of eggs (some stallion owners recommend it to increase the animals’ sexual potency), because he believed eggs play no role in a stallion’s “readiness”.

The working horse

In conclusion, feeding horses was largely dependent on what foods were readily available in various countries. While we may think of horses in the 19th century as living bucolic lives, in truth they worked hard every day and had limited access to pasture. They could work six days a week, carrying riders, as mail or stage horses, pulling coaches, carts, plows and wagons, or galloping into battle. So the amount of food required for a working horse in the 19th century vastly outweighs the food requirements of most present day sport horses. Without the arsenal of pharmaceuticals, diagnostics and alternative therapies we have today, this book is a fascinating look at horse management based on food, herbs, and basic care.

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