What Do Horses Eat?

Horses are large animals, weighing anywhere from 840 to 2,200 lbs, able to carry a fully-grown human being many miles on their backs. To keep their bodies supplied with energy, therefore, they have to eat vast quantities of food. But what, exactly do horses eat? And how much should you feed them? Let’s find out. 

What do horses eat?

Domesticated horses have a richer and more energy-dense diet than their wild cousins. Most owners provide domesticated grasses, such as oats, alfalfa, and other grains when they become available. Many also offer hay, which is just mown grass, used for fodder. Horses may even receive the occasional treat, such as apples or carrots.

When it comes to feeding horses, it is important to supply them with essential nutrients (similar to humans). These include: 

  • Carbohydrates
  • Proteins
  • Vitamins 
  • Minerals
  • Water

For horses, carbohydrates are the main energy source. As herbivorous animals, they derive the vast majority of their calories from plant matter. 

Horses also need some protein to allow them to create tissues throughout their bodies, such as muscle. Usually, they can get all they need from grass and grain. Their bodies break down the protein chemicals in these plants into small chunks called amino acids and then recombine them to make their tissues.

Horses need protein for hair, hooves, skin, and much more. If the animal doesn’t require the amino acid building blocks, it will convert the protein into carbohydrates and burn it as energy. 

Horses also need vitamins and minerals in small amounts. For instance, horses must get plenty of iron to carry oxygen in their blood to all their cells. They also need ample supplies of calcium and phosphorus to keep their bones strong. 

How much should horses eat?

Horses use energy as sparingly as they can. But, despite this, the average animal still requires around 10,000 to 40,000 calories per day, depending on how heavily you work them. Lactating mares are closer to the upper end of this range because of milk production. 

How much you should feed your horse depends considerably on the calorie density of the food. Green pasture – common fodder – contains only around 245 calories per pound, meaning that the average horse will need to consume around 50 pounds of grass per day (or more) to meet its energy requirements. Alfalfa hay is more energy-dense, containing around 977 calories per pound, so you require less. And corn has even more calories, at 1,536 per pound. 

These facts mean that if you were to feed your horse a diet of primarily alfalfa hay, you would need to provide between twenty and forty pounds of feed per day. Giving your horse corn, you might only need to offer ten to twenty pounds. 

Oats – a popular horse food – offers approximately 1,250 calories per pound. Thus, the average horse can consume anywhere between five and ten pounds per day in combination with regular roughage.

Lactating mares will require more. Oats are a popular food because they are inexpensive to grow and readily available in large quantities from most agricultural vendors.

You can also purchase commercial horse feed mixes. These tend to contain a variety of ingredients, designed to provide horses with all the nutrients they need. 

Recommended diet quality depends on your horse’s breed. Wild-type horses (or breeds with close lineage to feral or wild ancestors) don’t usually need a specialized diet. Hay, alfalfa, and pasture will suffice. However, race breeds often require special nutrient ratios to keep them healthy and growing strong. 

You should note that horses require an enormous amount of fiber in their diets for their gut to function normally. Breeders typically recommend around a pound of roughage per day for every 100 pounds the horse weighs. So a 1,500-pound animal would require 15 pounds of roughage per day.

Too little fiber can cause digestive discomfort, including colic. Problems usually emerge when owners feed their horses too much grain in ratio to other foods. Too many of a certain type of bacteria build up in the gut, leading to the creation of excess gas, acid, and endotoxins. 

Lastly, water is a critical nutritive component for horses (just as it is for all other species). The average horse drinks between ten and twelve gallons of water per day. If the weather is hot, this figure can increase to 15 to 20 gallons. Please note that if you raise horses outside in the winter, you may need to provide water heaters in cold weather. 

How to feed a horse

Feeding a horse can sometimes be a challenge: they need a lot of food, and they’re grazers, meaning that they don’t have set mealtimes. 

Here is some guidance on how to feed a horse. 

  1. Provide a mixture of grass roughage and complementing grains to provide sufficient fiber and nutrient diversity
  2. Measure the amount of feed you use by weight, not volume. Calculating the weight will allow you to determine how many calories you are giving. 
  3. Keep half the ration or more as roughage (such as grass or hay) and with the remainder a feed mix or grain
  4. Keep a large supply of water nearby at all times
  5. Don’t feed your horse lawn clippings
  6. Don’t feed your horse any moldy or dusty food
  7. Regularly clean your water containers to prevent the buildup of mildew and algae
  8. Watch your horse as it eats, checking for any abnormalities, such as a lack of appetite
  9. Allow your horse to take regular exercise throughout the day to assist proper digestion
  10. Check your horse’s teeth regularly for sharp edges that could reduce feeding efficiency

Despite their length, horses’ stomachs are quite small. For that reason, they can only take on a limited amount of food at any given time. If you feed at set meal times, do so at least twice per day. Some breeds of horses benefit from more frequent mealtimes. Try to make roughage available throughout the day. 

What do horses like to eat?

Horses will naturally graze on grass all day long if provided. For that reason, they love grass as food. It’s natural and suits their digestive system (except lush spring grass which can cause laminitis). 

Horses also love hay and haylage. Again, these grass derivatives help keep their digestive tracts working correctly. Feed it from late autumn to early spring when regular pasture isn’t available. 

Fruits and vegetables are a great addition to a horse’s diet. However, there are some you shouldn’t add. What can horses not eat? You should avoid feeding your horse stone fruits (as this can lead to choking), potatoes and tomatoes, and any veggies in the cabbage family (such as broccoli, bok choy, Brussel sprouts, and kale). 

Lastly, horses love to have access to a salt lick. Salt helps them stay hydrated in the summer months. 

What do wild horses eat?

What do horses eat in the wild? Glad you asked – typically, they eat grass and brush. Mostly, they forage for whatever plant matter their stomachs can digest.

The energy content of their food is low, so the average animal spends around 16 hours a day grazing and looking for food. They often have to search far and wide to find a variety of foods that contain all the nutrients they need. 

Change feed and feed schedules

If changing your horse’s rations, do so gradually over the course of several days to prevent upsetting the stomach. Don’t make quick changes as this can lead to colic and founder. 

When changing food types, replace a maximum of 25 percent of what it is eating right now every two days. After around six days using this method, you can alter 100 percent of the diet. 

If the change in diet is not urgent, then you can change 25 percent of the diet every four days. This way, the full transition will take twelve days. 

Measure feed accurately and feed consistently

Lastly, you need to ensure that you’re feeding your horse the correct amount of food for its weight. This requires both measuring the weight (and calorie content) of the feed, and the weight of the horse. 

Fortunately, there is a formula you can use to estimate your animal’s weight that doesn’t involve putting it on a scale. Take the heart girth in inches, square it, multiply by the length of the body, and divide by 300. So, for instance, if your horse has a girth of 60 inches and a length of 75, then the calculation is: 

60 x 60 x 75 / 300 = 900 lbs. 

Once you know the weight, you can determine the amount of food that it needs. The simplest way to do this is to use a horse feeding calculator. In general, you will need to provide around 20 to 40 calories per pound of body weight, depending on the activity level of the horse. When measuring grains and roughage, always weigh them using a scale to make sure that you’re providing the correct amount of food. 

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