Saturday, June 10, 2023

The diet of horses

What do horses’ diets consist of and how to ensure the correct nutrients are consumed

diet of horses
Image Credit: Korona Lacasse on Flickr (CC by 2.0)

Horses were first domesticated in around 3500 BC, likely by Botai hunter- gatherers, who used them as transport for hunting. Although we cannot retrieve information about what the horses ate at this time, we can infer that horse diets in the past mainly consisted of oats, hay, straw, and cut grass, with other feed being introduced later on like bran, alfalfa, peas, a mixture of grains and ground legumes as humans began to tame them. As horses have become more domesticated- being used for horse racing, hunting, and horse riding as a general sport- horse feed has become significantly more important as buyers are looking for the most nutritious, effective brands and forms of horse feed to ensure that their horses are strong and healthy enough to carry out the activities they are used for. Therefore, varieties of horse feed have been developed and manufactured using different techniques.


Horses are non-ruminant herbivores (hind-gut fermenters). They have very small stomachs; they are usually only able to hold around 2-4 gallons of food depending on the size and age of the horse. Horses (also known, more specifically, as ‘Equine’) do not have the ability to regurgitate food and so if they overeat, vomiting is not an option for them, therefore demonstrating the importance of a horses diet. Furthermore, Equines have evolved to not have a gallbladder, so horses can not utilise fats in this way- instead it travels directly to the small intestine- hence their diets consist of 2-4 perecent fat. If too much fat is consumed, there could possibly be an increased risk of health issues i.e., arthritis and Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) resulting in the horse’s quality of life being damaged.

A balanced diet

Horses require six prime categories of nutrients/food groups to survive; this includes: water, fats, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Arguably the most significant categories to animal feed producers are carbohydrates and proteins. Carbohydrates are broken down into 2 sub-categories which are soluble and insoluble carbohydrates. Soluble carbohydrates, like starch and sugars are broken down into glucose in the small intestine and absorbed into the blood. Proteins, which make up 8-10 percent of an adult Equines’ diet; the main building blocks of protein are amino acids. Soybean meal and alfalfa are effective sources of protein that can be easily added to the diet.

As we know, most horses, due to their use in the racing and hunting industries, lead highly metabolically active lives and so require a large amount of energy. Despite the fact that most of a horse’s energy is acquired by carbohydrates, fat is actually the densest source, with 9 Mcal/kg of energy (3 times that of carbohydrates in any grain). Most feeds contain 2-6 percent of fat but feeds with higher fat contents can be double this value. In addition, fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K are needed in small amounts and their role is to maintain optimal health in horses like strengthening the immune system, keeping their hooves, skin and bones healthy and helping muscle contractions along with repairing muscle cells, tissues and organs.


It is common for 10 to 20 percent of yearlings to respond favourably to supplementation even when fed a mix calculated to meet minimal requirements. Supplements are used especially when the horse has specific medical concerns or to enhance performance. Soybean is the most used protein (around 44 percent crude protein) supplement due to its accurate ratio, according to horses’ nutritional needs, of essential amino acids. Cottonseed and peanut meal are higher in crude protein- around 50 percent, however, are not as commonly used. Similarly, Brewers grains (a by-product of the brewers industry) is lower in crude proteins but is high in fat, at 13 percent, is also a supplement of protein for horses although they are used more scarcely.

Fat supplements can be added to a horse’s diet to reduce the amount of concentrate needed to reduce the amount of concentrate needed to meet the energy requirements for a horse. In terms of feed, they reduce the powdery nature of it by introducing moisture, meaning the feed is digested more easily. The most common fat supplement used in horse feed is vegetable oil. Interestingly, for show horses, it increases the quality of the horse’s fur- essentially conditioning it.

Forms of feed

Horses’ diets mainly consist of grass as they spend around 16 hours, on average, grazing pastureland. Consequently, most feeds contain a large percentage of grass. Chaff horse feed is dried and cut grass with a coating of molasses added. It is a bulking agent which is added to other feeds to encourage chewing which results in a slow consumption of the feed and leads to good digestion and prevents choking. It is a great derivation of fibre and complex so a slow-release source of energy.

Sugar Beet horse feed is a by-product of the sugar extraction industry. Similarly, it provides fibre and slow-release energy to attend to the huge energy expenditure of horses. To ensure it is easily digested, you can soak it in water for a few minutes to add moisture and to break it up.

Alfalfa horse feed comprises the same benefits as chaff although it is also a good source of protein and calcium. It should be served along with another main feed. Straight horse feed is typically one ingredient such as wheat, bran, oats, barley and maize. This is usually fed in line with another feed as they do not give your horse all of the vitamins essential and adds an extra source of energy to the feed. This can be individualised to your horse by serving it alongside another food, when that feed is higher in a specific nutritional group that your horse may be lacking.

Horses like fruits and vegetables as they add moisture to the feed, however they can be dangerous due to the choking hazard when consuming large pieces. If these are consumed in excess, they can also lead to gas and colonic problems. If you do feed your horse fruit or vegetables, remember to remove the stones as they can contain arsenic or cyanide components that are toxic and potentially fatal to horses when consumed in larger quantities.


The ‘best feed for your horse’ is an abstract concept as the needs for horses can vary depending on the species, age and metabolic rate of the horse. Pelleted feeds are made by grinding up grains, proteins, vitamins and minerals, then using heat and moisture to form them into the pellet shape. One popular reason for feeding horses in the form of pellets is due to the homogeneous nature they arrive in. This prevents the horse from picking out elements of the meal they dislike and therefore they consume the nutrients required in the correct ratios. A type of pellet that is continually mentioned is Alfalfa pellets. This feed, like others, is cut and dried and should never really be given on its own, but instead with other feeds. Alfalfa is a good source of protein and calcium for horses- especially foals due to the fact they are growing when given to a horse as a bulk feed. However, feeding alfalfa hay on its own may provide an excessive amount of digestible energy, which can lead to a fast growth rate, increasing the risk of developmental orthopaedic disease. Alfalfa can also be difficult to nurture as it requires good drainage and soil fertility to prosper.

Scheduled eating

It is okay to treat your horse now and then but try and stick to a regular routine consisting mainly of grass or hay as they can acquire most of their nutrients from natural sources. Also, avoid dairy products as, like the majority of animals, horses are lactose intolerant.

Furthermore, in a healthy feeding schedule, horses are fed frequent small meals throughout the day. Not enough forage (below 2 percent of their body weight) or a diet lacking crucial food types can cause chronic stress. Other causes of stress in horses can be a change in diet or altering their feeding schedule, so if you travel with your horse, be sure to take feed from home and try to feed them at similar times and at a regular occurrence as it could otherwise lead to stress.

Article contributed by Kira Thomas, International Petfood contributor, UK


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