The Equine Diet

The equine diet should consist of:

  • A fresh, continual supply of water
  • Free choice hay
  • Salt

Concentrates (grain) should be fed as needed to complete the horse’s calorie needs
and/or ensure adequate mineral and vitamin levels.
The total amount fed should be:

  • 2-3% of the horse’s weight
  • Roughage should be at least 50% of the diet but ideally should not be less than
    70% of the diet for proper digestive function
  • Grain meals should be small (no more than 5 pounds maximum per meal)

Feeding examples:

  1. A 1200 pound Hanoverian training for low level dressage 3-4 days per week might eat 30 pounds total food per day. A good place to start might be 25 pounds of hay and 5 pounds of concentrate per day.
  2. A 450 pound pony being ridden 3-5 days per week might eat 10 pounds of food per day. Grain is generally not recommended for ponies in many situations since it can make them difficult to control and ponies are prone to insulin resistance and therefore are prone to laminitis. However, they may need a mineral/vitamin supplement depending on the nutrient content of their hay.
  3. A 1000 pound Thoroughbred ridden 4-5 times per week, walk, trot, canter and some jumping might eat 25-30 pounds total food per day. It can be difficult to keep weight on Thoroughbreds. So, the diet might consist of 20 – 25 pounds of hay and 5-8 pounds of concentrate – grain mix or commercially prepared concentrate.

Once a diet has been formulated for a specific horse, it is important to monitor the horse
to ensure that appropriate weight and condition is maintained.
Types of food

Types of hay:
There are 2 basic types of hay (and grasses) – legumes and grasses. Legumes hays tend to be higher in some of the nutrients, mostly protein and calcium.

  • Examples of legume hays are alfalfa and clover.
  • Examples of grasses are timothy, brome, orchard grass, fescue, Kentucky, etc.

A combination grass/legume hay is often a good choice as it combines the
advantages of both types of hays and minimizes the disadvantages of each

Hay quality is judged by the following criteria:

  • Free of dust and mold
  • High leaf to stem ratio
  • A pale green colour. Be sure to check the inside of the bale – some
    bales may be brown on the inside but perfectly fine on the outside
  • Free of excessive numbers of weeds
  • Watch out for very heavy bales. They may not have been dried
    properly. This can lead to molding and also increases the risk for
    combustion fires
  • Have a pleasant odor
  • Not too coarse – the more mature the hay is when cut the coarser it
    will be. Really coarse hay will have a lower nutritional value

Types of concentrates (grains):

There are many types of grain that are suitable for feeding horses.

  • Examples are oats, corn and barley
    • Oats are a popular choice for feeding horses, have a suitable
      calorie content for horses in work and have the advantage over
      corn and barley in that they have a higher fiber content
    • Corn is an energy dense grain and must be fed carefully to avoid
    • Barley is medium in calorie content and lower in fiber than oats. It
      can be fed to horses although it is usually seen as part of a mix
      rather than fed on its own
    • It is not uncommon for all three grains to be combined in a mix
      along with other additives
    • Molasses may be used in the mix, i.e. sweet feed mix. Molasses
      has the advantage of making the different grains stick together,
      especially if there are minerals and vitamins added. However,
      feeds with molasses are likely to freeze in winter and sometimes
      mold in summer
  • Grains may be manufactured as pellets or as an extruded preparation
    • The main advantage of processed feeds is a more consistent
      nutrient content

      • Pelleted feeds may cause choke in horses that are
        susceptible. Wetting the pellets prior to feeding can help to
        minimize this problem.
      • Extruded feeds are highly digestible and may be
        advantageous to horses who have trouble digesting their
        food, for example geriatric (old) horses who have poor
        dentition (teeth)
    • Some feeds are also provided as cubes, for example roughage cubes
      • Cubed feeds are processed and tend to have consistent nutrient
    • One might also feed bran or beet pulp as part of the grain feeding (ration)
      • Bran has little nutritional value and if fed in excess can lead to
        bone problems due to its high phosphorus content (it sucks the
        calcium out of the bones)
      • Beet pulp is a good energy source for horses who need more
        calories but not too much grain. It is also high fiber and so it is a
        healthy choice for horses.

        • Beet pulp can be shredded or pelleted and it is generally
          recommended to soak it prior to feeding to help prevent
        • Beet pulp is also an excellent for adding supplements,
          especially in situations where grain is not being fed


  • There are numerous supplements on the market
    • It is important to know whether a supplement is required (e.g. the horse
      has a nutrient deficiency so you are supplementing that nutrient) and
      which supplement would be important in the specific circumstance
    • This will vary considerably depending on the individual horse and the
      types of food being fed
  • It is recommended that flax be added to the diet especially in the cold weather
    months or anytime horses are being fed hay (rather than fresh grass)

Ideally, hay should be analyzed at a laboratory:

  • This will show the nutrient content of the hay
  • Concentrates and supplements should be added to the diet as needed for calorie
    and mineral/vitamin content

Horses are prone to a variety of conditions related to improper feeding practices

  • To maintain healthy horses and minimize digestive related conditions such as
    colic, laminitis and gastric ulcers, as well as management of respiratory
    conditions, the following should be noted:

    • Provide free choice water
    • Avoid overfeeding of grain
    • Feed little and often
    • Feed changes (types and/or amounts) should be done gradually over a few
    • Avoid feeding horses on sand
    • Follow an appropriate deworming schedule
    • Do not work a horse hard too soon after feeding and properly cool out
      horses after a work-out before feeding and offering water free choice
    • Have the horse’s teeth checked regularly
    • Manage horses who tend to bolt their feed (eat really fast) to prevent
    • Avoid obesity in horses and ponies. Monitor carefully overweight horses
      and “good doers” as they may be more prone to metabolic disease (insulin
    • Do not feed moldy hay and feeds
    • Avoid dusty hay and feeds
    • Feed by weight not volume (meaning two big piles of hay that look the
      same could weigh very differently – so feed based on the weight not
    • Feed grain and concentrates according to how much exercise the horse is
    • Provide plenty of exercise and allow as much free exercise as possible
      (turn out in a paddock with other horses)
    • Feed a balanced diet paying attention to calorie content, protein level and
      provide balanced minerals and vitamins

Additional information about the equine digestive system

  • Horses are unable to vomit. The equine digestive system is a “one way street”
    • Their stomachs have a total capacity 2-4 gallons
  • The horse’s digestive system functions best and is less prone to problems
    (e.g. colic, gastric ulcers) if it has a continual flow of food (in the form of
    roughage) passing through it

    • Grain should be fed as needed for calorie requirements and divided
      into 2-3 meals per day
    • Large grain meals may exceed the capacity of the stomach, pass on to
      the large intestine to be digested and cause problems such as colic and
  • Horses are monogastric non-ruminant herbivores
    • Unlike other ruminants like cows who are also herbivores, horses
      have a single stomach (monogastric)
    • They digest cellulose (complex carbohydrate contained in hays and
      grasses) in an organ called the cecum (instead of in the rumen which
      is where cows and other ruminants digest cellulose)
    • The products of cellulose digestion in the cecum provide the horse
      with energy