Hi there, human! Enjoy any good feasts lately? If you live in America, you might still be sleeping off a big Thanksgiving meal – but I don’t believe you need a holiday to eat well. When you’re a horse, your life is all about good food – and equine meal planning might work a little differently than you think!
I’m not exactly a picky eater. You hand it to me, I’m going to devour it. I eat bananas with the skin still on, and I think the outside of a watermelon is just as good as the inside. (Apparently you humans find this strange?)
But horses do have surprisingly fussy digestive systems. And when a horse’s belly is unhappy, no one is happy. Digestive troubles can make us irritable or unwilling to work. They can even cause life-threatening colic.
The more you learn about how equine digestion works, the better your horse will feel.
Researchers are constantly finding out more about our bellies, so let’s make sure your feeding practices are up to date.
I’ll help you get started by stomping on a few common myths
Myth #1: A horse only needs to eat a couple of flakes of hay every day
I’ve lived at several barns where this was the norm, but here’s the problem: horses are grazing animals, which means they are designed to be chewing forage almost constantly.
Left alone in a field, a horse will graze up to 16 or 17 hours a day… and most horses need to eat approximately 2% of their bodyweight every day.
I weigh 800 lbs, so it takes a minimum of 16 lbs of food daily to keep me happy.
Do you know how much a flake of your hay weighs?
If you’re feeding loosely-baled grass hay, it might only be a few pounds – and I can devour that flake in a single hour.
If I’m stuck in a stall and that’s all the hay I get, I’m going to have an empty, crabby belly by the time you see me next, no matter how much grain you give me along with it!
A good general rule is to provide a pound of hay for every hour your horse has to stay off pasture.
If your horse is a greedy gobbler, you can use a slow feeder net, bag or bin to make the hay last longer.
Myth #2: But my horse needs an empty stomach to go ride safely, right?
Think of my stomach as a bucket filled partially with acid. The acid needs something to work on – otherwise it sloshes around and can eat away at my stomach lining, causing painful ulcers.
Riding a horse with a stomach full of hard-to-digest grain is not a good idea, so if your horse eats more than a handful of feed, it’s best to wait 45 minutes to an hour to let the digestion party get started.
Feeding your horse easily digestible hay or grass before riding is a great idea, however.
If he hasn’t had anything to munch on recently, let him nibble on a hay net or hand graze for a while.
Trust me – you do NOT want to deal with a hangry horse.
Myth #3: All riding horses need to eat grain
Concentrated feeds — including commercially processed products and whole grains such as oats — are usually used as an energy source for hard-working horses.
But not all horses need grain, and many are better off without it.
When I was in hard training for mounted games, I ate a small amount of grain for racing fuel, but I’ve always been able to maintain my weight just fine on good pasture and hay.
And as much as I like the taste of concentrated feeds, it’s not actually the healthiest stuff for me to eat. Horses are designed to live off roughage, or grasses and legumes that are high in fiber.
Hard feeds like grain have more sugary starches and can cause sore hooves or “bad” behavior as well as digestive trouble.
Myth #4: You should still feed a small amount of grain for the vitamins and minerals
If your horse is living almost entirely off grass, there’s a good chance he could use some supplemental vitamins or minerals.
Unfortunately, feeding a cup or two of grain every day isn’t going to do the job.
Check out the recommended feeding rates for your horse’s feed. You can find this information online or on the back of each bag of grain.
The numbers will be different for every product, but most commercial feed blends are meant to be fed at a rate of three to ten pounds a day.
That’s a full scoop or more – enough to make this pony explode!
Instead, do a little research and choose a vitamin and mineral supplement designed for horses that live on grass. Your horse’s exact needs will depend on where you live and his grazing situation, so start by asking your vet for recommendations.
You can also feed a ration balancer, which contains vitamins, minerals and protein for working horses but is designed to be fed at a much lower rate.
Myth #5: But what about a skinny horse? He needs a couple of scoops of grain to keep weight on, right?
The best way to maintain a horse’s weight is through good forage.
There are many kinds of hay – including cubed and pelleted grasses and alfalfa that can be fed soaked – and you might just need to switch to something higher in quality.
Adding calories with roughage instead of concentrated feeds keeps your horse’s gut happy and can prevent unwanted behavior…
…we can be a little crazy when we’re full of sugar!
Some horses do need extra grain, though. Maybe they have a hard time chewing hay, or they burn a lot of calories while performing.
It’s extra important for these horses to get their food split up into as many meals per day as possible. I know I act like my stomach has no bottom, but it’s actually quite small – it only holds up to two gallons. And since I’m designed to graze all day, it works best when it’s not completely full.
No massive Thanksgiving feasts for us horses!
Myth #6: Fresh pasture grass is the best food for all horses
By now, you’ve probably noticed a theme: the more naturally horses eat, the happier and healthier they are.
But if you live in a place with lush pasture, unlimited grazing can be sadly too much of a good thing.
Starchy, sugary grasses and clover can cause weight gain and tender hooves, especially in the spring and fall.
I can always tell when I’m overdoing the carbs because my bare feet get sore when I walk across gravel. When this happens, I have to wear a grazing muzzle in order to hang out in the pasture with my friends.
I am NOT a fan of my muzzle, but at least it lets me live a normal life. Alternatively, I would need to live off hay in a grass-free paddock or track.
You might feel cruel restricting your horse’s grazing, but a horse that eats too much sugar can get laminitis – and letting a horse develop this painful condition is much crueler.
Feeding horses can be complicated
You may get a lot of conflicting advice about the best way to do it, and the right answer will always depend on your individual horse and his living situation.
This means you’ll need to Level Up your HorseSense and learn as much about equine nutrition as you can.
Read about the latest research in trusted publications such as The Horse, and talk to your vet, farrier and instructor.
I like to dream about all-you-can eat feasts, and if I made the rules, bananas and cookies would be a balanced diet. But at the end of the day, I’d rather have a belly full of forage so I can feel my best and we can have fun together!