Horses and ponies are herbivores and mainly eat forage, based on grass, hay and haylage. That said, it’s important to maintain a balanced diet with all the food groups required; here’s a quick guideline of what to feed horses.
Horses have evolved to munch forage for up to 18 hours a day and 65% of their gut is devoted to digesting fibre! Such is their need for fibre that if they don’t have enough of it, they are at a higher risk of conditions such as gastric ulcers, colic and weight loss. Their mental wellbeing can also be affected if they are prevented from chewing. Ideally, horses should be provided with as much forage as they will eat but those on restricted rations should not be left for more than six hours without any.
What to feed horses, other than forage?
Even ’good quality’ forage should be supplemented with a balancer or compound feed to make sure the diet provides the protein, vitamins and minerals needed to support health and athletic performance.
So, what to feed horses that are overweight? Even overweight horses need to be given key daily nutrients, to balance their diet. Whilst grass alone may provide up to three times their daily energy (calorie) requirements, horses also need particular nutrients such as lysine, copper, zinc and selenium, which are typically low in UK pasture. Vitamin E is the most important antioxidant and although grass alone may meet maintenance requirements, levels in hay and haylage may be lacking.
What’s the best feed for my horse?
The best way to provide a horse with the daily vitamins and minerals they need is to use a feed balancer or a compound feed. A balancer is a concentrated feed, normally a pellet, designed to be fed in small quantities together with a double handful of chaff, which means minimal calories. Feeding your horse a compound feed such as pony nuts or mix requires them to be fed at a much higher quantity in order to meet the horse’s daily need for extra nutrients and a larger volume of feed means extra calories!
Don’t forget the water
Although not a nutrient, water is the most important, yet often most overlooked, component of the horse’s diet and is involved in almost every physiological body process. Water accounts for approximately 65% of body mass in mature horses and up to 85% in foals. How much horses drink varies between individuals and is affected by weather, workload and the type of diet. Fresh grass can go long a way towards meeting the needs of those living out, but in hot weather, water intake can more than double. A 500kg stabled horse eating dry hay may drink 40 litres of water a day!
How much does a horse eat?
A 350kg pony living out may tuck into a whopping 17.5kg of grass per day! But when it comes to weight gain every horse is different. Some seem to put on weight just by glancing at a blade of grass, while others will stay sleek despite chomping through vast quantities of forage and additional feed. When choosing what to feed your horse, it’s important to treat them as an individual and assess their body condition, temperament, routine, workload, breed and any veterinary problems before working out their daily feed ration.
Horses should eat a minimum of 15g/kg bodyweight of forage per day (dry matter), which equates to approximately 9kg of hay (11kg if you intend to soak it before feeding) or 10-12kg of haylage, for a 500kg horse who doesn’t have access to grazing. The meal sizes of daily feeds should be small, at no more than 2kg for horses and less for ponies.
Horses and ponies have sensitive digestive systems so always speak to a vet or nutritionist before changing their feed, especially if they are prone to conditions such as laminitis, colic or gastric ulcers, or if you’re deciding what to feed a new horse.
If you’re considering changing your horse’s diet or have a new horse and want to discuss what to feed them, or would generally like more information on what horses eat, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us and speak to one of our nutritionists.