What Do Horses Eat? A Complete Guide to Feeding Your Equine Friend

Horses are majestic creatures, beloved by many. Whether you’re a horse owner or simply an enthusiast, one of the most important aspects of caring for these animals is ensuring they have a healthy and well-balanced diet. But with so many options available, selecting the right food for your equine friend can be a daunting task. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll take a dive into the world of horse nutrition, exploring what horses eat, why certain foods are essential, and how to establish a feeding routine that keeps your horse happy and healthy. So let’s saddle up and get started!

Understanding Horses’ Digestive System

The Cecum and Hindgut

The Cecum and Hindgut play a crucial role in the digestive system of horses. These organs are responsible for breaking down fiber-rich foods that horses consume, such as hay and pasture.

The Cecum is a large fermentation chamber that houses billions of microbes. These microbes help break down complex carbohydrates that cannot be digested by the horse’s small intestine. The Cecum also absorbs water and electrolytes from the partially digested food before passing it to the colon.

The Hindgut includes the colon and the rectum. It further breaks down the partially digested food and extracts essential nutrients such as amino acids, fatty acids, and vitamins. This process is called fermentation, where the microbes digest the fiber, producing volatile fatty acids (VFAs), which are used as an energy source by the horse’s body.

However, too much grain consumption can lead to a disturbance in the microbial population in these organs, resulting in colic and other digestive disorders. Therefore, feeding horses with high-quality forages is crucial for maintaining healthy cecum and hindgut microbial populations.

In conclusion, the cecum and hindgut play a crucial role in the digestion and absorption of essential nutrients in horses. Ensuring adequate fiber intake through forages and avoiding overfeeding grains will support the healthy microbial population and ultimately result in a happy and healthy equine friend.

Forages and Their Importance

Forages are an essential part of a horse’s diet and provide many benefits that contribute to their overall health and well-being. Hay, pasture, and chaff are some of the most common types of forages used in horse feeding, and each has its unique characteristics and importance.

Hay is the most widely used type of forage, consisting of dried grasses or legumes that have been cut and baled for storage and feeding. It is an excellent source of roughage and fiber, which helps maintain healthy gut function and prevents digestive problems such as colic. Hay also contains essential vitamins and minerals required by horses, including calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin A.

Pasture is another important forage source and provides horses with access to fresh grass and other plants. Grazing on pasture provides horses with a natural environment that mimics their wild ancestors, allowing them to move around freely and engage in natural behaviors such as grazing and socializing. Fresh pasture also contains higher moisture content than hay, which helps ensure that horses remain hydrated and maintains their electrolyte balance.

Chaff is a type of forage made from chopped hay or straw and is often used as a supplement to a horse’s diet. It is highly digestible and can be mixed with grains or concentrates to add bulk and increase chewing time, promoting better digestion and preventing boredom. Chaff can also be wetted and used as a mash, making it easier for horses with dental issues or those recovering from illness to consume.

In conclusion, forages play a vital role in maintaining a horse’s health, and their importance should not be overlooked when developing a feeding plan. Hay, pasture, and chaff are three of the most commonly used forages, each with unique advantages that contribute to overall equine nutrition. Providing a balanced diet that includes plenty of forages can help ensure that your horse remains healthy, happy, and performing at their best.

Digesting Grains and Concentrates

Digesting Grains and Concentrates

Grains and concentrates are often a common addition to a horse’s diet. They are a great source of energy and can help support intense physical activity. However, it is important to understand how horses digest grains and concentrates to ensure optimal health.


Oats are a popular grain for horses and have been used as feed for centuries. Horses are able to digest oats easily because they contain a higher proportion of soluble starch than other grains. This means that the starch is broken down more efficiently and absorbed into the bloodstream quickly, providing an immediate source of energy. Oats are also rich in fiber, which helps keep the digestive system healthy.


Barley is another grain commonly used in horse feed. It has a lower glycemic index than oats, meaning that it releases energy slowly over time. Therefore, it is an excellent source of sustained energy for horses engaged in long periods of exercise or work. Barley is also high in protein and minerals, making it a nutritious component in a horse’s diet.


Corn is a grain that is high in starch and calories. As such, it should be used sparingly in a horse’s diet, especially those that have a predisposition to obesity or metabolic issues. Additionally, corn is not easily digestible by horses and can cause digestive problems if fed in large quantities or without proper preparation.


Molasses is a sweetener that is often added to horse feed to make it more palatable. While molasses does provide some nutritional value, it is also high in sugar. As such, it should be used in moderation and avoided altogether for horses with insulin resistance or other metabolic issues.

In conclusion, understanding how horses digest grains and concentrates is essential to maintaining their overall health and well-being. When feeding grains, it is important to do so in moderation and to select grains that are easily digestible and provide the necessary nutrients for the horse’s specific needs.

Essential Nutrients for Horses

Protein Sources for Horses

Protein Sources for Horses

Protein is essential for horses, but not all protein sources are created equal. Here are four protein sources commonly used in horse feed:

1. Soybean Meal

Soybean meal is a byproduct of soybean oil production, and it’s a highly digestible and palatable source of protein for horses. It contains all the essential amino acids that horses need for growth and maintenance. However, soybean meal is also high in phosphorus, so it should be balanced with calcium to avoid mineral imbalances.

2. Alfalfa Hay

Alfalfa hay is another popular protein source for horses. It’s high in protein (15-20%) and contains all the essential amino acids. Alfalfa hay is also rich in calcium and other minerals, making it an excellent choice for growing horses or pregnant mares. However, it can be too rich for some horses, and overfeeding alfalfa can lead to weight gain and other health issues.

3. Peas

Peas are a relatively new protein source for horses, and they’re becoming increasingly popular due to their high protein content (20-25%) and low starch levels. They’re also a good source of lysine, an essential amino acid that horses need for muscle development. Some horse owners have reported improved coat condition, muscle development, and overall health after adding peas to their horse’s diet.

4. Wheat Bran

Wheat bran is a byproduct of the wheat milling process, and it’s a good source of both protein and fiber. However, it’s lower in quality than some other protein sources and may need to be supplemented with additional lysine. Overfeeding wheat bran can also lead to digestive issues such as colic.

In conclusion, there are several protein sources available for horses, and each has its own advantages and disadvantages. When choosing a protein source for your horse, consider their individual needs, dietary restrictions, and overall health to ensure they’re getting the nutrition they need to thrive.

Vitamins and Minerals

Vitamins and minerals are vital for maintaining a horse’s health and wellbeing. Among the essential vitamins, vitamin E is one of the most important as it plays a crucial role in muscle function, immune system health, and nerve function. Horses deficient in vitamin E can suffer from muscle weakness or even paralysis.

Selenium is another important mineral that horses require in small amounts. It works together with vitamin E to support muscle function and the immune system. However, too much selenium can be toxic, so it’s important to ensure your horse is getting the right amount.

Calcium and phosphorus are two minerals that must be balanced in a horse’s diet to ensure healthy bones, teeth, and muscles. Calcium is needed to build strong bones, while phosphorus is essential for energy metabolism. A deficiency in either mineral can result in bone diseases such as rickets or osteoporosis.

It’s important to note that the specific vitamin and mineral requirements for horses can vary based on their age, weight, and activity level. Consulting with a veterinarian or equine nutritionist can help ensure your horse is getting the proper nutrients they need.

In addition to providing these essential vitamins and minerals through a balanced diet, some horse owners choose to supplement their horse’s diet with additional vitamins and minerals. However, it’s important to research and consult with an expert before adding supplements to your horse’s diet as they may not be necessary and could potentially cause harm if overconsumed.

Overall, understanding the importance of vitamins and minerals in a horse’s diet is essential for keeping them healthy and thriving. With proper nutrition and care, you can ensure your equine friend is happy, healthy, and ready to take on any challenge.

Importance of Water

Water is essential for any living creature, and horses are no exception. In fact, water plays a crucial role in keeping horses healthy and happy. Dehydration, which occurs when the body loses more fluids than it takes in, can have severe consequences for horses. A dehydrated horse may experience lethargy, dry skin and mucous membranes, sunken eyes, decreased appetite, and decreased urine output.

Electrolytes, such as sodium, potassium, and magnesium, are also vital for horses’ health. These minerals help regulate fluid balance, nerve function, muscle contractions, and heart activity. Horses that sweat excessively, such as those engaged in strenuous exercise or living in hot and humid environments, require additional electrolyte supplementation to replenish what they lose through sweat.

To ensure that your horse stays well-hydrated and maintains proper electrolyte balances, there are a few things you can do. First, provide access to fresh, clean water at all times. Horses can drink up to 10 gallons of water per day, depending on their size and activity level. Keep water sources clean and free from debris, and monitor water intake to detect any changes in drinking habits.

In addition to providing water, you can also offer your horse electrolyte supplements, especially during periods of heavy sweating or increased activity. Electrolyte supplements come in different forms, including powders, pastes, and liquids, and can be added to feed or administered orally. However, be sure to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for dosage and administration, as excessive electrolyte supplementation can cause imbalances and other health problems.

By understanding the importance of water and electrolytes in your horse’s diet, you can help keep them healthy and thriving. Always consult with a veterinarian or equine nutritionist to develop a feeding and hydration plan that meets your horse’s individual needs and ensures optimal health and wellness.

Feeding Practices for Horses

Establishing a Feed Schedule

Establishing a Feed Schedule

When it comes to feeding horses, establishing a regular feeding schedule is crucial to maintaining their health and well-being. Two common approaches to feeding horses are small frequent meals and free choice feeding. Let’s take a closer look at each of these methods.

Small frequent meals involve breaking up the horse’s daily ration into several smaller portions that are fed throughout the day. This approach can be particularly beneficial for horses with certain health conditions, such as ulcers or metabolic disorders. By providing smaller, more frequent meals, these horses are less likely to experience digestive upset or fluctuations in blood sugar levels. In addition, small frequent meals can help prevent boredom and reduce the risk of colic caused by overeating.

Free choice feeding, on the other hand, involves providing horses with continuous access to hay or pasture throughout the day. While this approach requires less labor than feeding multiple meals, it may not be suitable for all horses. Free choice feeding can lead to overeating and weight gain, particularly in horses that have limited exercise or access to pasture. It may also result in wasted feed if horses trample or soil the hay.

Ultimately, the best approach to feeding your horse will depend on a variety of factors, including their individual needs, activity level, and health status. Consult with your veterinarian or equine nutritionist to determine the most appropriate feeding schedule for your horse. By providing your horse with a consistent feeding routine, you can help ensure they receive the nutrients they need to thrive.

Controlling Portion Sizes

Controlling Portion Sizes

When it comes to feeding horses, portion control is an essential factor in maintaining their health and weight. Overfeeding can lead to obesity and other health problems, while underfeeding can result in malnutrition and decreased performance. Therefore, it’s crucial to establish a feeding schedule and limit the amount of food given to your equine friend.

Weight management is a significant concern for horse owners, especially those with performance horses. Feeding by weight is one way to ensure that your horse is getting the right amount of food. A horse should eat between 1.5% to 2.5% of its body weight in forage per day. For example, a 1000-pound horse should consume between 15 to 25 pounds of forage daily.

Many horse owners use a kitchen scale or a commercial hay weigher to measure the amount of hay they feed. It’s also important to note that the weight of hay can vary based on its moisture content. Therefore, it’s recommended to monitor the weight of hay regularly to ensure consistency in portion sizes.

Another way to control portion sizes is to feed small frequent meals instead of one or two larger ones. This approach can keep your horse’s digestive system functioning correctly and prevent overeating. In addition, feeding small meals can help horses that have trouble digesting large amounts of food at once.

In conclusion, controlling portion sizes is vital to maintaining your horse’s health and weight. Feeding by weight and establishing a feeding schedule are two effective methods to ensure that your horse is getting the right amount of food. By monitoring your horse’s diet and making adjustments when necessary, you can keep them happy, healthy, and performing at their best.

Supplementing Your Horse’s Diet

Supplementing Your Horse’s Diet

Supplements can be a great way to keep your horse healthy and happy. They provide additional nutrients that horses may not get from their regular diet, and can help prevent or manage certain health conditions. In this section, we’ll explore some of the most popular supplements for horses: joint supplements, probiotics, and omega-3 fatty acids.

Joint supplements are designed to support joint health and prevent or treat joint problems in horses. These supplements typically contain ingredients such as glucosamine, chondroitin, and hyaluronic acid, which are known to promote joint flexibility and reduce inflammation. Horses that are older, have a history of joint problems, or are involved in high-impact activities such as jumping or racing, may benefit from joint supplements. It’s important to note that joint supplements work best when combined with proper exercise and a balanced diet.

Probiotics are another popular supplement for horses. Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that live in the gut and help maintain digestive health. They can improve nutrient absorption, reduce inflammation, and strengthen the immune system. Horses that are under stress, have a history of digestive problems, or are taking antibiotics may benefit from probiotic supplements. When choosing a probiotic supplement for your horse, look for one that contains multiple strains of beneficial bacteria and has a high CFU (colony forming units) count.

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fatty acids that play a crucial role in many bodily functions, including immune response, hormone production, and cell function. They also have anti-inflammatory properties, which can be beneficial for horses with conditions such as arthritis or allergies. Horses that are on a primarily hay-based diet may not be getting enough omega-3s, so supplementing with a fish oil or flaxseed oil supplement can be beneficial. It’s important to choose a supplement that is specifically formulated for horses and does not contain any harmful additives.

In conclusion, supplements can be a valuable addition to your horse’s diet. Always consult with your veterinarian before adding any supplements to your horse’s diet, as they can interact with other medications or cause adverse effects if not used properly. With proper research and guidance from a veterinary professional, supplements can help keep your equine friend healthy and happy for years to come.
Feeding your horse the right food is crucial for their overall health and well-being. By understanding their digestive system, essential nutrients, and feeding practices, you can ensure that your equine friend receives a balanced and nutritious diet. Forages such as hay and pasture are vital, while grains and concentrates should be fed in moderation. Protein, vitamins, minerals, and water should also be included in their diet. Establishing a feed schedule, controlling portion sizes, and supplementing when necessary can help maintain their weight and health. In conclusion, providing your horse with the proper nutrition is an investment in their long-term health and happiness, making it a responsibility that every horse owner should prioritize.

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