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February 5, 2014

The Rules of Feeding Your Horse

A guide to what, when, and how to feed your horse

From The HSUS Complete Guide to Horse Care

Two of the 84 horses rescued in Nebraska.

Chad Sisneros/The HSUS

The very first time you went near a horse, you probably started hearing The Rules—don’t walk behind a horse, don’t run anywhere, always feed treats on your flat palm with fingers outstretched, and so on. The rules of feeding are the big ones. Remember them, and you’ll have a good foundation upon which to build your overall horse care.

1. Provide plenty of roughage

Many pleasure and trail horses don’t need grain: good-quality hay and/or pasture is sufficient. If hay isn’t enough, grain can be added, but the bulk of a horse’s calories should always come from roughage.

Horses are meant to eat roughage, and their digestive system is designed to use the nutrition in grassy stalks. A horse should eat one to two percent of his body weight in roughage every day.

Horses who spend much of their time in stalls aren’t doing much grazing, but their natural feeding patterns can be replicated by keeping hay in front of them for a most of the day. They can nibble at it for a while, take a break and snooze for a while, and then come back to it, keeping some roughage constantly moving through their systems.

2. Feed grain in small amounts and often

If you feed your horse grain, give it in multiple smaller meals rather than one large one. Most horses are given grain twice a day for the convenience of their human caretakers. If for some reason you must give your horse a large quantity of grain, consider an additional lunchtime feeding. Small, frequent meals not only are more natural for the horse, but they also allow the horse to better digest and use his food. When a horse is fed too much at once, the food isn't digested as effectively.

3. Feed according to the horse’s needs

  • Each horse is an individual and has different needs. Two major factors for deciding how much your horse needs to eat are her size and the amount of work she does.
  • Consider the amount of hay or pasture your horse gets: Horses who are grazing on good pasture the majority of the day don’t need much hay, if any. Horses who don’t get much turnout or aren't on good pasture will need more hay, whether they are inside or out.
  • During winter or drought, supplement pasture grazing with hay. When the grass is thick and lush, you can cut back or eliminate hay rations completely, depending on how much pasture is available.
  • With grain, less is always more, so start with the minimum and adjust it upward if necessary. With a little bit of tweaking, you’ll find the right balance of pasture, hay, and grain for your particular horse’s needs.
  • If the amount of work your horse is doing changes, be sure to adjust her food ration.

4. Change feed and feed schedules gradually

Whenever you make a change to your horse’s ration, whether it’s increasing or decreasing the amount or changing to a new kind of feed, make the change incrementally. Sudden differences in the amount or type of feed can lead to colic or founder.

If you’re changing the amount of feed, increase or decrease each meal a little at a time, over several weeks if possible. One method for changing the type of feed is to replace 25 percent of the current food with the new food every two days, so that in six days the horse is eating l00 percent of the new food.

5. Measure feed accurately and feed consistently

Start off measuring your horse’s feed by weight using a kitchen or postal scale, or using the scale at your local feed store. Once you figure out how much your horse’s typical ration weighs, measure that portion at feeding time using a scoop, coffee can, or whatever suits your needs.

The average thousand-pound horse who relies on hay for all his forage typically eats fifteen to twenty pounds of hay per day. Most hay is dispensed in flakes; however, the amount of hay in a flake can vary greatly, depending on the size of the flake and the kind of hay. If you don’t know how much the bales of hay you are feeding weigh, you can use a bathroom scale to check, then feed that portion of a bale that your horse needs, without waste.

6. Don’t feed immediately before or after exercise

Ideally, you should wait an hour or so after your horse has finished a meal before riding him. If you’re going to do something really strenuous, it should be closer to three hours. Having the digestive system full of food gives the horse’s lungs less room to work, and makes strenuous exercise harder on him. In addition, blood flow is diverted away from the digestive organs during periods of exertion, so gut movement slows and colic may be a real danger. You also need to exercise caution when feeding a horse after work. Let the horse cool down completely—his breathing rate should be back to normal, and his skin should not feel hot or sweaty.

7. Stick to a routine

Horses thrive on routine, and their amazingly accurate internal clocks make them much better timekeepers than their human caretakers. Horses should be kept on a consistent feeding schedule, with meals arriving at the same time each day. Most horses aren’t harmed by an abrupt change in schedule, but for horses who are prone to colic, a sudden change in routine can be more than an annoyance and might be enough to trigger a colic episode.

More tips and information can be found in our book The Humane Society of the United States' Complete Guide to Horse Care.

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