As it is with other animals, good nutrition is the key to your horse’s good health. Although feeding a horse is not overly complicated, it isn’t as simple as just giving him a bag of oats or a bale of hay.
Hay and Grass
Hay and grass supply your horse with one of the most important components of his diet: roughage. Horses have adapted to feed on grasses and other plants that are high in roughage, so these items are naturally good for your pet. He will need an amount of roughage (grasses, hay, and possibly other high-fiber items such as beet pulp) equal to about 1.5 percent of his body weight daily.
Grasses in the pasture can make up a large part of your horse’s diet and will also keep him busy grazing all day. You can plant your pasture with a wide variety of grasses (and legumes) that are good for horses, including timothy, Bermuda grass, brome, fescue, bluegrass, and orchard grass. Alfalfa and clover are legumes that are good for horses as well. However, depending on the climate where you live, your horse may not be able to obtain much of his food from the pasture—for example, if the grass is covered with a thick layer of snow. At these times, a larger portion of your horse’s diet will come from hay.
Several types of hay are available, and all have somewhat different nutritional values. Alfalfa hay (and clover, too) is high in protein, calcium, and calories. Although these attributes make alfalfa a good hay to feed to your horse, be aware that the high protein content can cause digestive problems. Proteins should only make up about 12 percent of your pet’s total diet; alfalfa hay can have almost double that percentage. If you are feeding your horse alfalfa, lower the overall protein content of his diet by also feeding some low-protein items, such as oats. Hays made of other grasses are lower in both calories and protein. There are also mixed hays available for purchase.
When buying hay, make sure that you are buying only the best quality. It should be green in color and is at its best if it has not yet formed seed heads (grasses) or if it is in early bloom (alfalfa and clover). Avoid hay that smells or looks moldy; that has an excessive amount of dirt, weeds, or other undesirable items; that has any signs of insects; or that is really heavy, indicating that it is too moist and prone to spoiling.
Many horse owners feed some amount of grains to their horses, and this is a fine practice if not overdone. Grains are high in calories and low in fiber, so they can overload a horse’s digestive system and cause problems. Oats are the most widely fed grain because they have a higher fiber content and are better suited to a horse’s digestive system than other grains. Feeding corn, cracked barley, and wheat bran is also acceptable.
Horses do not need a lot of grain in their diet. Depending on the size and condition of your horse and his other food intake, limit the total amount of grain in the diet to 4 to 8 pounds (1.8 to 3.6 kg) per day—spread out, never in one meal.
Pelleted horse diets are available at many feed stores. These comprise some mix of grains, molasses, vitamins, and minerals. The benefits of these diets are that they are convenient to feed and have a set nutritional value, making it easy for you to know how much of the various nutrients your horse is eating. Most horses seem to like these diets. The drawbacks are that pellets are expensive, and your horse will still need to have access to grasses and hays.
Give your horse a salt lick (also called a salt block) in his stall so that he can add salt to his diet whenever he feels the need. You can buy plain salt licks or those with other minerals added. If your horse is sweating a lot (for example, if he is doing a lot of work or you are riding him often), he may use the salt lick quite frequently. If this is the case, use a plain salt lick to prevent him from getting too much of the other minerals.
Vitamin and Mineral Supplements
If your horse is not being worked or ridden heavily or is not breeding, chances are he does not need any vitamin or mineral supplements. Consult your local equine veterinarian to determine if your horse needs any supplements and what types he may require.
Most horse owners like to feed their pets treats. However, it is easy to feed a horse too many treats or the wrong type and throw his digestive system off balance. Additionally, horses fed treats often are prone to developing bad behaviors, including biting. For this reason, some experts discourage the use of treats. If you wish to give your horse a treat, stick to healthy items, such as carrots, apples, green beans, watermelon rinds, celery, and whole-grain pastas, to name a few. It is best to use treats only as a training tool, making your horse do a little trick to get them. This helps prevent bad behaviors from developing.
How to Feed
The best way to feed your horse is to let him graze as he wishes in his pasture and provide a constant supply of fresh, quality hay when he is in his stable. If he needs more calories to maintain a healthy weight, add several small feedings of grain throughout the day. If you are using commercially prepared foods, follow the manufacturer’s instructions and the advice of your equine vet.