Nutrition for the horse




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Introduction to Nutrition :

Several breeds and types of horses are used in a wide variety of activities and the majority of horses are owned and managed for recreation or sport and not for profit by the owners. One of the greatest expenses in owning horses is feed. Feed costs can be minimised by keeping the horse healthy and by feeding a balanced ration that meets the horses nutritional needs.

More myths are associated with feeding horses than with feeding most other animals. This is in part due to the lack of current nutritional research information as well as an increasing number of horse owners who are unfamiliar with the basics of horse nutrition. Nutritional needs will vary considerably among horses depending on individual age, weight, and level of activity. There are no magic supplements, high performance feed "secrets", or short cuts that will transform any horse into a champion. Horses naturally use forages as a primary component of their diets. Adequate forages are a basic necessity for normal functioning of the horses digestive system. This requirement for forages is most easily supplied by pasture and hay.


Mature horses will generally consume 2 to 2.5 percent of their body weight in feed each day. For example, a 1,000 pound horse should consume approximately 20 to 25 pounds (90 percent dry matter) of feed per day. The anatomy of the horse's digestive tract restricts effective digestion and utilisation of low quality forages that are high in fibre. The poor digestion of low-quality forages can restrict the amount of dry matter that a horse can eat to a level below what is necessary to meet the horses nutrient needs. Therefore a premium should be placed on using high-quality forages in the horse's diet.

Ideally, horses should consume a minimum of 1 percent of their body weight in hay or pastures each day. Mature horses performing minimal or no work can be maintained on high quality forages without supplementing their diet with grain. However, growing, breeding, or working horses require supplementing the forage with a grain or concentrate to meet their additional nutrient requirements. As a general rule, forages should supply one half or more of the total weight of the feed consumed daily for optimum horse growth and development.

Forages can provide varying amounts of the nutrient requirements depending on the forage quality and amount consumed. The nutrient content of the forage and concentrate in the horse's diet must be known to properly balance the diet. Once the quality of the feeds are known, then proper amounts of each can be calculated to meet the nutrient requirements.

Pasture for Horses

High-quality, properly fenced pasture represents one of the best and least expensive sources of summer feed for a horse. In addition, a well kept pasture can provide the most natural and healthy environment for exercise and rest.

Productive, well-managed pastures can provide most of the feed requirements of horses at the lowest cost. In fact, good pasture alone is sufficient to meet all of the nutritional requirements for many classes of horses. Yet, poorly-managed pastures supply little or no feed, and are frequently the source of many internal parasites.

General guidelines for the pasture needs (if the pasture is to serve as a feed source) for horses which have a mature weight of 1000 to 1200 lbs are:

Mare and foal 1.75 to 2 acres
Yearlings 1.5 to 2 acre
Weanlings 0.5 to 1 acre

When acreage is very limited (less than one acre per horse), exercise may be the main use of the pasture. Pasture for this purpose will not supply more than a minimum amount of feed. However, with limited pasture pasture acreage, rotational grazing systems are the most effective method to maximise forage production and consumption. In this system, a group of compatible horses can graze a paddock (area of divided pasture) for approximately 3 to 6 days and then be moved (rotated) to a fresh paddock.

Hay for Horses

High quality hay can provide most of the nutrients needed for a mature horse. High quality hay is cut early and is leafy, green in colour, and is free of must, mould, dust, and foreign material such as weeds and stubble. This type of hay is usually rich in energy, protein, minerals and vitamins, and is readily consumed by horses.

Alfalfa hay, while normally high in protein, may contain an excessive amount of calcium in relationship to phosphorus (wide Ca : P ratio) when fed as the sole source of forage to young, growing horses.

To be sure of the nutritive quality of the hay which is being fed, have it analysed.

Health Concerns when Feeding Forages to Horses

Horses are extremely susceptible to moulds, fungi, and other sources of toxic substances in forage. Mould problems generally occur in hay that has been baled at too high a moisture level (20% or more) without the use of a preservative. This is especially a problem with first cutting hay because it is harvested during a period of time when it rains frequently and the weather conditions are less than ideal for hay drying. Always use clean, un-mouldy forages when feeding horses. In addition to moulds and fungi, some forage species contain chemical compounds that can have negative health effects on horses.

Poisonous plants in pastures or hay can be fatal to horses. Some poisonous plants are highly palatable and should be identified and removed from pastures. However, many poisonous plants are not palatable and horses will not eat them unless there is inadequate forage available to meet their needs.

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