Learn about the foundation of equine nutrition, what food components are ideal for meals, and a holistic approach to your horse’s diet.
Knowing what food is ideal for your horse is an extremely important component of horse care. There are many different commercial feeds, supplements and feeding plans out there so it can become very confusing. In this article, I will explain what I perceive to be the important foundation of a horse’s diet and show you how to view equine nutrition with a holistic approach.
Before discussing a horse’s diet, it is important to have a general understanding of their digestive system. Horses have a relatively small stomach for their size. This is because they have evolved to eat small meals continuously throughout the day. Unlike humans who generally consume 2-3 big meals in a day, horses are designed to graze and travel. In the wild or when turned out on pasture, a horse will graze an average of 17 hours per day.
Another difference between horses and people is that horses do not have gallbladder. In humans, the gallbladder serves as a storage unit for bile. When people consume a meal, the bile is released so that fats can be broken down. Since horses do not have a gallbladder, bile is constantly passing through their digestive system allowing the forage that they are consuming all day to be digested.
How often should you feed your horse?
Using the information you just learned about your horse’s digestive system, you are probably figuring out that you should feed your horse as often as you can. Since they are designed to eat all day, the ideal scenario for a horse is to be turned out on grass 24/7. If that is not a possibility, then they should be provided with a high quality hay (forage) all the time. It is recommended to give your horse access to a grass hay 24/7 and supplement with a legume (like alfalfa) or a legume/grass blend as needed. To ensure that your horse doesn’t overeat or consume the hay too quickly, we recommend using a hay net or slow feeder. This will ensure that your horse is able to pick at the hay all day.
When feeding grain, you should never feed more than 4 lbs at a time because the horse’s stomach is not able to hold and digest more than that. If you break up the feedings into 3 or more smaller feedings throughout the day, that is ideal. A horse’s diet should be made up of at least 80% forage (grass and/or hay) and 20% or less grain. Many horses do fine with no grain at all. Grain has been known to cause inflammation in the horse’s system and many horses do better on a grain free diet.
What should you feed your horse?
Provide your horse with grass or grass hay all day. If your horse needs additional calories (due to heavy workloads, breeding, growing, etc) add protein, fats and carbs to their diet through grains, seeds and supplements. Make sure your horse is getting adequate vitamins and minerals as well. Some feeds are fortified (meaning that the vitamins and minerals are added). If this is the case, you need to be careful when adding a vitamin/mineral supplement because you do not want to overdose them. Some vitamins and minerals will accumulate in the horse’s system which can lead to issues that can often be just as bad or more dangerous than a deficiency. When adding a supplement to your horse’s diet, make sure the vitamins and minerals are from a high quality source and are structured in a way that allows for optimal absorption.
Provide your horse with free choice salt (which contains minerals) so they can consume it as they choose to. A horse will instinctively know when they need the nutrients, electrolytes and minerals. Be sure to choose a salt that is naturally sourced and not bleached or processed.
Holism means looking at the whole picture rather than the fundamental parts.
When applying this to nutrition, it means that we need to look at the whole horse and take into consideration his anatomy, physiology and mental health when coming up with a feeding plan. Since horses were developed to eat small meals continuously throughout the day and their systems were designed to consumed primarily forage, it would be very physically and emotionally stressful to keep a horse in a stall or dry pen and deny them access to forage for extended periods of time. You should never ask a horse to go more than 3 hours without hay. The more turnout time a horse can have on grass (or with slow feed hay nets when grass isn’t an option), the happier the horse will be. Happy horses will be easier to train, ride and handle.