Horse-Feeding Basics

When it comes to the health of your horses, knowing what, when, and how much to feed them is paramount to their good health.

As non-ruminant herbivores, horses consumer roughage in the same way as cattle or sheep. However, the stomach of a horse acts differently than that of cattle or sheep in that feed particles are mixed with pepsin and hydrochloric acid which breakdown proteins and solid particles. Further, the stomach of a horse is much smaller than most other livestock and the capacity of its digestive system is much lower.

Unfortunately, most horses are fed only once or twice a day. If these horses also are stabled with no access to food in the interim, hydrochloric acid accumulates in the stomach, irritating it, and causing ulcers. Therefore, to keep horses healthy and comfortable, they should be fed small amounts of food throughout the day.

In order to maintain good health and comfort, here are some general guidelines to keep in mind when feeding your horse:

1. Always supply adequate roughage. The majority of a horse’s diet should come from roughage. Trail horses and those kept as pets don’t require grain. Quality hay or pasture will suffice. Alfalfa hay is not usually recommended for horses unless they are extremely active or have a very large workload. You can mimic the natural feeding pattern of horses even when they aren’t grazing by keeping hay accessible most of the day so that they can eat, snooze, and repeat.

2. Provide grain often and in small amounts. If you do give your horses grain, make sure it is doled out in small portions. Frequents, small meals are always recommended to allow for better digestion.

3. Change feed schedules slowly. If you have to make a change to the type, amount, or frequency of a horse’s feeding schedule, do it as gradually as possible. Colic or founder can result if drastic changes occur. Horses react negatively to any change in their routine and feeding rituals are no exception.

4. Don’t feed before or after exercise. If a horse is going to do a lot of work or riding, allow it one to three hours beforehand to digest its last meal. This helps to prevent colic. After exercise, wait until the horse is completely cooled down before feeding.

Remember, like all animals, every horse is unique. A horse’s size and workload should always be an important factor when deciding what, when, and how much to feed it.