How Much Does a Horse Need to Eat?

In The Well Horse program, we focus quite a bit on what we feed our horses. We consider forage quality, daily nutrition values, and concentrate ingredients carefully for the individual horse’s needs. As important as quality is though, we can’t forget about sheer amount. Feeding a horse ‘enough’ not only optimizes weight management efforts, but also determines proper gastro-intestinal function and satisfies innate psychological needs. The question is, How much is Enough?

Forage

Forage is King. By weight & volume, a horse should eat more forage than anything other feedstuff in his diet. Horses are designed to forage— to nibble at grass or hay all throughout the day. By doing so, their digestive tracts remain active and lubricated, with balanced pH.

The natural foraging pattern also stimulates the horse’s parasympathetic nervous system (relax, rest, & digest state of mind). Innately, when a horse chews, he has already addressed his safety concern. He is not under duress in the moment. Of second most importance, when he is chewing, he is not starving, so he is safe. Horses live in the moment, so they understand that when they eat, they are safe. Unfortunately, the same understanding works in reverse as well. When a horse doesn’t have access to food, he understand that he may never eat again. So he can revert to the sympathetic response (flight, fight, & survive). This is where we see horses becoming aggressive at meal times and generally more urgent in nature.

**Most importantly from a physiological standpoint** the constant foraging pattern promotes a healthy environment for the microbes living in the hind-gut. These bacteria, protozoa, and fungi that live in the horse’s cecum and colon actually digest the horse’s dietary fiber. Because fiber(forage) makes up the bulk of a horse’s diet, it’s easy to recognize the importance in microbial digestion. If the microbes are left without fiber to digest for long periods of time, they die off. Thus- an underpopulated, unhealthy microbial environment.

How Much Forage

Horses will typically eat 2%-3% of their body weight per day. Because forage is king at The Well Horse, we like to calculate forage rations to complete this general requirement. Concentrate formulas can be added in as supplementation or to an adjusted daily ration as needed for a horse’s individual requirements.

  • The table below is based off a horse who requires 100% of his forage consumption from hay. When horses have access to pasture, whatever they consume from the field can be deducted from their hay requirements.
  • Rationing hay by the flake is NOT a reliable measurement. Flakes can range from a single lb to 10 lbs. The table below rations volume by the square bale, and while this is also not an ideal measurement, most square bales average around 40-60 lbs. This table assumes a 50 lb bale of hay.
  • Free choice hay is an ideal way to feed IF the environment supports this practice and a horse maintains good weight. Good quality round bales in the winter months are an example of free choice hay.

Horse Size

Forage Recommendation by Weight

Forage Recommendation by 50 lb Bale

Small Horse (800-1000 lbs)

Ex: 15 hh Arab/QH

20-30 lbs 1/3 – 1/2 bale
Average Horse (1250 lbs)

Ex: 16.2 hh Thoroughbred, 16 hh QH

25-38 lbs 1/2- 3/4 bale
Large Horse (1500 lbs)

Ex: 17 hh warmblood

30-45 lbs 2/3 – 1 bale
Draft (2000+ lbs)

Ex: Belgian, Percheron, Clydesdale

40-60 lbs 1 – 1.5 bale

Concentrate

Concentrate formulas (often called grain) serve as diet additives where the horse’s forage diet falls short for his nutritional needs. Concentrate formulas can help a horse maintain weight and meet his daily nutrient requirements, and it can include nutraceutical properties.

These formulas need to be fed in small portions because they utilize concentrated, fore-gut oriented nutrients (nonstructural carbohydrates, protein, and fat) to provide the horse with energy and dietary protein. In order to optimize digestion and GI health, concentrate meals will ideally be no more than .3% body weight per meal. For a 1000 lb horse, this is 3 lbs per meal. For a 1500 lb horse, this is 4.5 lbs per meal, and so on. Where a horse with high nutritional needs may need 10 lbs concentrate each day, the meals should be broken up to fit the horse’s digestive capacity.

Supplements, Nutraceuticals, & Oral Medications

Supplement and medication doses will also vary with the horse’s size. As a nutritional nut and feed programmer, the following label drives me UP A WALL.

***Feeding recommendation for the average 1000 lb horse…***

Many horse owners have horses bigger than this. But when the product label reads 1 scoop per day, the owner’s instinct is to feed one scoop per day. Active ingredients in supplements, nutraceuticals, and oral medications are concentrated in such small volumes that a quarter scoop or cc will make a difference in the product’s desired effect.

Ergo, for those with 16.2 hh thoroughbreds feeding a supplement with the label above, think about feeding 50% more of the recommended dosage. Moreover, for an owner de-worming her 17 hh warmblood, check that the dosage doesn’t max out at 1200 lbs. If it does, you may need to give the horse a tube and a bit.

 

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