Knowing what to feed your horse or pony isn’t always easy.
While equines evolved to thrive on grass alone, a lack of grazing space and the nutritional demands of training and competing mean many horses need additional feed beyond grass.
But knowing what to feed and how to feed it can be a tough task for any horse owner or caretaker. In this article, we’ll take a look at the most common types of horse feed, roughage and concentrates, and an often-overlooked topic – how and when to feed each one.
Common Horse Feeds and How to Feed Them
First thing first – what are roughage and concentrates?
Roughage is fibrous plant matter. Grass and hay are the best examples, but roughage can also include products like hay cubes or silage (more about those later). Concentrates include foods like pellets, grains, ration balancer, and sweet feed – anything that isn’t roughage and has more highly concentrated nutritional value.
Your horse’s diet needs to fulfill two requirements: 1) keep his digestive system functioning so he feels full, maximize mineral absorption, and reduce the likelihood of colic, and 2) meet his nutritional requirements.
To learn more about the nutrients your horse needs, check out Equine Nutrition 101: Guide to Horse Nutrients and Feeds.
To keep his gut healthy and ensure he gets the nutrients he needs, you have several different options when it comes to different types of horse feeds. In this section, we’ll take a look at the various feed options and what they offer your equine. Then we’ll go one step further and discuss when and how (and how not) to feed them.
Roughage – fibrous grass and hay products – should comprise the bulk of your horse’s diet. Or all of it, if his nutritional needs can be fully met by roughage. For many recreation horses, horses in light work, or healthy retired horses, an all-roughage diet of good quality grass and hay provides plenty of nutrition.
Horses need about 1.5 – 2% of their body weight in roughage per day. For the typical 1,000 lb. adult horse, this is about 15 – 20 lbs of hay, grass, or other roughage every day.
However, just turning your easy-keeping trail partner out to spring pasture can cause more harm than good. Here’s what you need to know about every type of roughage.
Chances are you already know what grass is. But did you know there are over 12,000 different types of grass in the USA alone? When it comes to feeding your horse, not all grasses are created equal.
A few types of common grasses make for good horse grazing:
Timothy is a common grass that’s ideal for grazing and making hay. Hardy and easy growing, its soft green shoots transform into leafy stems late in the season. It does well in cool, wet areas and is prevalent throughout mid- and Northern states.
Fescue is one tough customer, as far as grasses go, and is a common horse grass. It has deep roots, which make it perfect for withstanding drought and dry conditions. It tolerates low pH soils well, which means you can ease up on fertilizers on fescue fields.
Bermuda grass is a hardy grass that loves the warmth and grows like crazy under ideal conditions. While actually native to India and Africa, not Bermuda, Bermuda grass is prevalent in the sunny Southern states.
Kentucky Bluegrass is probably the most famous grass for horses. It does well in sandy soil (although consuming too much sand can lead to colic) and is very drought tolerant. It’s delicious and nutritious for horses of all ages and stages of life but may require additional fertilizing at some points during the year to keep it thriving.
Ryegrass is a hardy, high-yielding forage that can quickly establish itself, making it great for re-seeding neglected or overgrazed pastures. There is one critical thing to keep in mind, though: ryegrass is very high in carbohydrates and can cause laminitis in overweight horses, ponies, or other “easy keepers” (horses that gain weight easily).
Mixed grass is the best bet for most horses and ponies, and many fields will contain a mix of prevalent local grasses. This has several advantages – horses can’t overgraze on high-carb grasses like ryegrass, the field benefits from a diverse root mass to help ease erosion, and different grasses reach peak maturity at different times, ensuring there’s always something yummy for your horse to eat.
Grasses to Avoid for Horses
Generally speaking, a horse with access to adequate grazing will not choose to eat toxic or unpalatable plants. However, if you see a field that’s well-stocked in only the following grasses, you may want to consider re-seeding or grazing elsewhere.
Orchardgrass is a tough grass that does well in dry conditions, but some horses don’t like the taste and will avoid it if they have other options.
Sorghum is toxic grass and should not be fed to horses. It contains cyanide, which can cause ataxia (a neurological lack of coordination that can render a horse unrideable for the rest of its life), incontinence, bladder inflammation, and in extreme cases, death.
Bahiagrass is a common grass in Southern states, where it thrives in the bright sunlight. However, it is extremely tough and requires a lot of chewing, which can wear down a horse’s teeth prematurely. It’s also low on nutrition and a better choice for other grazing animals like sheep or cattle, not horses.
Crabgrass is a thick, fast-growing, invasive grass that sprouts in patches. Most horses don’t love the texture, and it doesn’t offer much nutrition. It’s fine occasionally in a mixed-grass field, but avoid using it as a forage source if you can.
How and When to Feed Grass
If horses evolved to thrive on grassy plains, shouldn’t they (ideally) be on grass 24/7? Well, not always.
As you’ve learned from the above crash course in grasses, some grasses (like ryegrass) are high in carbohydrates and can cause a bout of laminitis. But it’s not just the type of grass you need to consider, but the time of year, too.
Lush spring grass is very high in sugars and carbohydrates, which can cause obesity or laminitis in horses prone to the disease. High-risk equines include ponies, heavy horses, horses who have already foundered, and members of ‘easy keeping’ breeds like Quarter Horses, Morgans, donkeys, and native British breeds like Shetland, Dale, and Fell ponies).
Laminitis is an extremely painful foot disease involving inflammation of the laminae, which binds the hoof wall to the rest of the foot. In extreme cases, the distal phalanx (aka pedal bone or P3) can rotate through the foot’s sole, requiring euthanasia. For this reason, overgrazing an at-risk horse on lush grass needs to be avoided at all costs.
Obesity can also be a concern, typically among ‘easy keeping’ breeds. Horses with a high Body Condition Score (BCS), generally 7 or above, should not have uncontrolled access to lush spring grass.
Using a grazing muzzle can allow a horse to enjoy grazing without overeating.
Other options include limiting grazing time by increasing stall time, moving the horse to a round pen, sand ring, or overgrazed paddock with little extra grazing.
Spring grazing can also cause diarrhea. This typically happens in horses that have been fed mostly dry hay for a prolonged period (such as over winter). The sudden influx of moist, wet food can cause temporarily runny stools. To avoid grazing diarrhea, ease the horse off of hay and onto grass slowly, such as allowing a few more hours of turnout each day and continuing to supplement grazing with hay.
Hay is grass that’s been cut, dried, and baled. And just like grass, not all hays are created equal, and not all hays are appropriate for all equines.
Grass hay is generally a very safe, low-risk food appropriate for all equines. Grass hay is often comprised of a mix of Timothy, Bermudagrass, and other native grasses and has about 8-14 % protein. 10-12% protein is ideal for mature horses, and 12-18% for growing horses.
It should be light green, fresh smelling, and soft enough that it doesn’t hurt the horse’s mouth. A good rule of thumb is if it hurts your hands to hold it, it probably hurts your horse’s mouth to eat it. Grass hays have long, slender stems and few leaves, depending on the grass species.
Legume hay is much higher in protein than grass hay, coming in at 15-22% protein. This makes it an excellent choice for horses with big nutritional requirements, like growing horses or competition horses in training.
It’s a darker green than grass hay and contains more leafy greens. The leaves are higher in protein than the stems. Legume hay is most commonly alfalfa.
The high protein and carbohydrate content makes legume hay unsuitable for horses with modest nutritional needs. It’s not a good choice for horses who are already obese or prone to founder.
Mixed hay is, as the name implies, a mix of grass and legume hays. The exact mix will depend on the grower, but many hay options for horses will contain a predominantly grass hay mix, with a bit of legume hay thrown in for added protein.
Mixed hay can have a protein content anywhere from 8-18%. For an accurate analysis, either speak to the grower or take a sample to your local university extension or agricultural authority for analysis.
How and When to Feed Hay
Most horses on grass enjoy hay during the fall and winter, when pastures dry out or are covered by snow. Hay can be fed year-round for horses who lack adequate grazing and should be a dietary staple of all stabled horses.
While grass hay is generally a low-risk foodstuff, there is one important caveat to consider- the quality of the hay.
Warning signs of low-quality hay include mold, dust, trash, or dead rodents in the hay (an accidental result of the hay harvesting equipment). Hay that is hard, excessively brittle, or foul-smelling will not be palatable to a horse and should be avoided. Good hay should smell sweet and fresh.
Most horse owners prefer square bales because they’re easier to handle and assess for quality. However, they can be more expensive pound for pound than round bales and can be hard to find in some parts of the country.
Round bales, often fed to cattle, can be suitable for horses if the hay is horse-appropriate. “Cow hay” is generally very high in protein to support dairy or beef production and typically dustier than horse hay (cows are not nearly as picky as horses). However, round bales that contain more grass hay and are low in dust can work great for horses (and your budget!).
Hay cubes are a form of roughage made from chopped-up pieces of hay compressed into a cube shape. Although they may remind you of big green pellets, the hay cube production process is nothing like the process for making extruded pellets, and they don’t typically contain artificial ingredients or additives.
Just like bale hay, hay cubes should be bright, green, and fresh-smelling. They should be dry (until you choose to soak them) and free of dust, mold, or debris.
Hay cubes have several advantages over traditional hay – they’re bagged, so they’re easier to store and have a much longer shelf life than bales. They can’t get moldy or dusty, which is a big plus for horses with respiratory problems. Once soaked, cubes make a tasty mash that is easy to chew and digest, making cubes an excellent choice for horses with missing teeth.
Quality cubes have undergone nutritional analysis, so you always know what you’re feeding. (For more information on nutritional requirements for horses, check out Equine Nutrition 101). The moisture boost from soaking them is great for his digestion and an easy way to sneak more water into his diet.
The main drawback of hay cubes is the cost – pound for pound, they’re about twice the price of hay. And while easier to store, they do need a little preparation first.
How and When to Feed Hay Cubes
Hay cubes should be soaked for 30-60 minutes before feeding, with equal parts water to cubes.
Hay cubes can be fed in conjunction with hay, or instead of it when good hay isn’t available.
Feed cubes the same as other roughage, about 1.5 to 2% of body weight per day. The average 1,000lb adult horse will need about 15 to 20 lbs of hay cubes per day if not supplemented with other roughage.
Silage is made when cut grass is sealed in an anaerobic (no oxygen) environment for about 21 days. The grass ferments, releasing natural sugars and making the grass more digestible for the horse and easier to store for you (it’s typically packed in plastic bags).
Silage has a high moisture content (40% or more) but should still smell pleasant – not like compost or mold.
Silage costs more than hay, and has one other major drawback – if not properly fermented, there’s a risk of botulism poisoning. Botulism is a bacterial toxin that attacks the nervous system, resulting in paralysis and trouble standing, eating, and breathing. It is extremely difficult and expensive to treat and is often fatal.
To help avoid botulism when feeding silage, ensure hay is baled in the 30-50% moisture range, and don’t buy silage from a field treated with poultry manure. There’s also a vaccine for botulism available, which your horse should receive if you intend to feed silage.
How and When to Feed Silage
Silage is more commonly fed to cattle in the United States but is a common horse feed in Europe and at some barns.
It’s commonly made of high-protein legume hay, so it should be fed sparingly to horses who don’t need the extra energy.
If you choose to feed silage, feed it carefully and start small before increasing the ration. In many cases, it’s too high-protein to replace hay altogether.
Think of concentrates as anything that isn’t roughage. Grains, pellets, mixed feeds, and ration balancers are all concentrates.
Only feed concentrates when needed. Horses in hard work (i.e. training, competing, school programs, or breeding mares) may be candidates for concentrates. Most recreation or light riding horses can do perfectly fine without concentrates.
There are two main drawbacks to feeding concentrates. First, they’re quite expensive when compared to roughage. Secondly, horses weren’t really designed to eat concentrates, so there’s a risk of colic associated with feeding them.
While they are great for giving hard-working horses the nutrient boost their bodies need, too much protein, sugar, and carbs from concentrates can exacerbate problems like obesity and laminitis and make horses excitable or agitated.
The two most common concentrates fed to horses are ration balancer and complete feeds. With so many balanced horse feeds available, few people mix their own feed.
Ration balancer usually looks like extruded pellets, similar to dog kibble.
Its purpose is to provide missing nutrition – think of it more like an edible multivitamin, not a meal. You can add it to other mixed grains or feed it alone to round out an all-roughage diet.
How and When to Feed Ration Balancer
Feed ration balancer only when you know your horse isn’t getting everything he needs from his regular diet. The best way to know for sure is with a nutritional evaluation of your hay or grass or check the nutrition information on hay cubes or grain packages.
An easier way to see if your horse needs a ration balancer is to watch his condition and behavior – low energy, dull coat, weight loss, diarrhea, or bad hooves can all indicate a nutrition deficiency (For other important horse health signs you should know, read this guide).
Complete feeds can look like extruded pellets, mixed grains, or pellets and grains mixed together.
Complete feeds are popular because they’re just that – complete. They contain all of the specific nutrient needs for the type of horse they’re formulated for. And there’s a complete feed for just about every kind of horse – growing horses, mature horses, broodmares, performance horses, senior horses… it isn’t difficult to find a feed for whatever stage of life your horse is in.
How and When to Feed Complete Feeds
When feeding concentrates, the rule is “little and often.” It’s better for the horse (but way less convenient for you) to feed 3-4 small meals per day instead of 1-2 large ones.
Whenever you decide to schedule feeds, remember to be consistent. Not only does the horse’s gut need regularity, but he’ll also look forward to mealtime and will get upset if you’re late.
Avoid feeding concentrates before or immediately after strenuous exercise or trailering, as this can cause colic.
Proper nutrition is the foundation of good health. Ensuring your horse is getting the right food, fed in the right way, is critical for maintaining his good health.
Hopefully, we’ve demystified feeding practices around some of the most commonly used horse feeds, and you feel more confident when it comes to feeding your equine best friend.
Our mares graze outside 24/7, with the eldest getting supplemental Senior Complete Feed during the winter (she’s 34!). What do your horses eat? Let us know in the comments below!