Useful tips to know about when feeding adult horses

Marcia Hathaway
University of Minnesota retired professor
Proper nutrition is important for horses.

When it comes to feeding your horse, consider the following tips:

  • Always provide unlimited access to clean, fresh water. Water is the most important nutrient your horse needs. Most 1,000-pound horses will drink 10 to 12 gallons of water daily. Horse will need more water when temperature, humidity or activity increases. Keeping water between 45 and 65 F tends to encourage horse to drink.
  • Maximize the amount of forage a horse eats. Fresh (pasture) or harvested (hay) forages are the ideal energy source for horses. Most mature horses should consume 1.5 to 2.5% of their body weight in forages daily. 
  • Minimize the amount of concentrate a horse eats. Owners frequently feed cereal grains when horses need more energy than forages can provide. To reduce the chance of colic and gastric upset, do not feed mature horses more than 0.3 to 0.4% of their body weight in cereal grains per feeding.
  • Meet a horse’s mineral needs. If feeding a commercial grain product according to manufacturer directions, the horse is most likely receiving the correct amount of these minerals. Ration balancers are great ways to ensure horses not being fed a commercial grain product are meeting their mineral requirements. Always provide free choice salt as horses will regulate their intake of salt.
  • Meet a horse’s vitamin needs. Horses may receive enough vitamins through natural feedstuffs, their own production, and microbial production in the gut. However, most horses should receive a vitamin supplement unless they are being fed a commercial grain product according to manufacturer directions.
  • Establish a balanced ration for horse: energy, protein, minerals, and vitamins. Owners and managers are strongly encouraged to work with an equine nutritionist or purchase a prepared commercial feed that is professionally balanced to meet the horse’s needs. There are numerous products on the market that are tailored to specific classes of horses, including but not limited to, growing, working, idle, or pregnant horses.
  • Monitor a horse's body weight and body condition score (BCS). When deciding a horse’s nutritional needs, it is necessary to know their body weight and body condition score. Body weight can be determined by weighing on a scale or estimated using the Healthy Horse App, weight tapes, or mathematical equations. Body condition scoring determines the amount of fat deposit under the horse's skin in certain areas and a BCS between 4 to 6 is ideal. Body weight and BCS should be tracked monthly.
  • Routinely care for horse’s teeth. Horse’s teeth continually erupt and are simultaneously ground down as they chew feedstuffs, especially forages. Sharp points occur on the teeth requiring routine filing down or "floating.”
  • Change feeds gradually. Replace only 20 to 25% of a horse’s current feed every other day when changing hay or grain types. This will allow for a complete change over a week or more. A gradual change from one feed to another provides enough time for microbes to adapt in your horse’s gut.  
  • Feed each horse as an individual. All horses have common nutritional needs including water, energy, protein, minerals and vitamins. However, how much of each will vary with age, activity level, and physiological condition.

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