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  • Coastal Equine

Health Care for Horses: Feeding

A solid health-care program will help keep your horse free of disease and allow it to live a happier, longer life. This article will provide a brief overview of horse health care.


Proper feeding is critical to the overall health of the horse. Improper feeding can cause problems such as colic, lameness, reduced performance and increased susceptibility to infectious diseases. Aside from water, horses need energy, protein, minerals and vitamins in their rations. Proper amounts and balances of these nutrients are important. Nutrient deficiencies, excesses and imbalances all can have a negative effect on health and performance.

When considering what, how, and how much to feed horses, it is important to remember that horses evolved as forage eaters, grazing for upwards of 16 to 18 hours each day and traveling considerable distances as they grazed. Their stomachs are small, with a 2- to 5-gallon capacity, limiting the amount of feed they can take in at one time. Their digestive system is best suited to processing small amounts of food continuously; therefore, horses are most content when they can nibble almost constantly.

With this information in mind, the most natural food for horses is pasture. Most mature pleasure horses doing light to moderate work will do well on pasture alone if they have sufficient grazing time and good quality forage in the pasture. If pasture or sufficient pasture is not available, feeding hay is next best alternative. If fed hay only, most horses will generally require a minimum of 1.5 to 2 pounds of good quality grass hay, such as timothy, orchard grass or fescue, per 100 pounds of body weight daily to meet their needs. This should be split into two to four feedings. “Easy Keepers,” or horses that become over-conditioned, or overweight, on this feeding regimen need fewer calories. In this case, feeding a more mature hay with less nutritional value per pound may allow the horse to eat over a longer period of time without becoming over-conditioned. If hay is being used to supplement pasture, then the amount of hay fed will need to be adjusted in order to keep the horse in appropriate body condition. A horse is considered to be in good body condition when its ribs cannot be seen but can be easily felt. An accurate estimate of a horse’s weight can be determined with an equine height tape, which is available at most feed stores. Accurate weights of hay can be measured using economical hanging or top loading scales. Good quality hay is green, leafy and free of mold, excessive dust and musty smell.

Horses on forage diets of grass, hay or a grass/hay combination need salt to balance their diets. Depending on the forage fed and the age and performance of the horse, it may also require a vitamin-mineral supplement, and/or protein supplement. Most feed manufacturers now sell vitamin-mineral-protein supplements designed for horses on forage-based diets. These are low calorie and typically fed at 1 to 2 pounds per day for a mature horse.

Because of limitations on intake capacity, forage alone may not meet the nutrient requirements of hard working horses, pregnant mares, nursing mares and growing foals. In these instances, horses should be fed a grain/concentrate to supplement their diets. Appropriate types and amounts of grain/concentrate should be fed based on manufacturer recommendations, and these recommendations should be adjusted based on the body condition and exercise level of the individual horse. Any change in the diet should be done slowly. Forage should still be fed at a minimum of 1 to 1.5 pounds per 100 pounds of body weight daily to keep the digestive tract functioning normally.

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