What to feed my horse? Where to Start!
When you purchased or leased your horse the current owner should have told you what they are currently feeding the horse. It is always wise to continue the same feeding type and amount during the transition period and for at least a few weeks after your horse comes home.
The transition to a new home can be stressful enough on some horses’ without adding a complete change of diet for them to contend with, if you do change the diet immediately and suddenly you are increasing the risk of didgestive upsets from diarrhoea to the more severe colic.
But soon after you might be saying “He’s settled in so what to feed my horse now?”
How to start formulating a balanced diet for your horse?
Feeding horses’ can be as simple as you like or as complicated as you make it.
There are a few basic rules to remember.
Roughage = Fibre
Horses are herbivores and are designed to forage for much of the day. Forage includes hay and pasture if you have it. Ideally your horse would be able to graze around most of the day on good quality pasture, this is what our equine friends have evolved to do.
Unfortunately many of us do not have access to any paddocks or pasture let alone a high quality one. So what to do?
Feed good quality hay as the basis of your feeding program. Hay should smell sweet, not have any mould or be wet/damp and a good quality small bale will be heavy (at least 20kg).
How much do I feed?
A full-grown horse should eat anywhere from 1.5% to 3% of its body weight in hay each day. So an average fully grown adult horse, at approx. 450kg would eat 7kg to 9kg) of hay a day. A pony would be considerably less and the large draft horse breeds can be upwards of 13 – 14 kg daily.
A word of caution about ponies
Many ponies have a very efficient metabolism, so not only do they generally weigh less but they are they generally better “do-ers” and get fat very quickly which can lead to all sorts of health issues. It is always wise to err on the side of too little with ponies and increase the amount of hay rather than too much and have to try to drop weight from them.
You need to monitor your horse’s condition as no-one can tell you to feed say 8kg of hay to your horse and he will be fine. Many factor contribute to how much hay any one horse needs including quality of the hay, exercise requirements of the horse, metabolic rate, other supplements being give, weather, rugging etc…
It is very useful to take a critical look at your horse and assess their Body Score before making any changes to feed. This gives you an accurate starting point and you can assess your horse weekly against the body score to see if your horse is increasing in weight or decreasing, or if you have the balance just right.
How to Body Score your Horse
There are many charts and different systems out there but I find the simplest 5 Score system, developed by Huntington & Carroll to be the easiest and to use.
Source: Kohnke, Kelleher & Trevor-Jones
How to weigh your horse
A weight tape is the easiest and remarkably accurate way to weigh your horse, if you do not have access to livestock scales or a weighbridge. These tapes are readily available form fodder stores or online horse supplies. You simply wrap the tape around the horses’ girth area and read off the measurement.
You can do this with a normal soft tape measure but a little more maths is required as follows:
- Measure the heart girth – , this is obtained by measuring the circumference of the horse’s midsection just behind the elbows and withers.
- Then measure the body length of the horse – this is the measurement from the point of the shoulder straight back along the horse’s side to the point of the buttock. To accurately measure this distance you do need two people.Then get out your calculator and use the following equation to estimate body weight: Heart girth (cm) x Heart girth (cm) x Length (cm) divided by 11900 = Weight (kg)
How do I know the weight of my hay?
The most accurate way to determine this is to take your bathroom scales to the hay shed, weigh yourself and then yourself with a bale of hay, subtract your weight from the total and you have the total weight of your bale of hay.
If this all sounds like too much hassle, or you are like me and prefer not to know your weight, the average small bale of hay in Australia is between 20 and 23kg. Look at your bale of hay and you will see it breaks into biscuits, count the number of biscuits and divide this by the average weight. Say 20kg bale divide by 10 biscuits is 2kg per biscuit.
So in this scenario I would start my average 450kg horse on 4 biscuits a day if I wanted to keep his condition the same, and obviously increase the amount and probably start adding a concentrated feed (often called hard feed, more on this later) and monitor my horse.
If you are trying to take weight off your horse you need to decrease the amount of hay but do not dramatically decrease the amount. Remember horses’ need fibre for the digestive system to work properly, horses’ starved of roughage are at an increased likelihood of colic, ulcers and other digestive upsets.
OK so now you have a starting point – what next?
The other 3 points to consider are:
• How much and what type of work is your horse doing?
Please be realistic about this and decide your diet on what you are doing now, not what you might be planning. If you do increase your horses’ exercise or daily routine you can increase the feed to match at that time.
So activity level is usually broken up into 4 levels – light, moderate, heavy or very heavy.
So if you are like most recreational riders and ride 1 – 4 times a week for up to an hour each time, doing walk, trot and a little bit of canter, and it’s mostly arena work or the leisurely trail ride your horse would be considered as doing light work and would be on a Maintenance ration.
Conversely if you have a racehorse which is in full training this would be considered very heavy work as it includes longer distances, at greater speeds eg. ¾ pace or gallops in short burst on a daily basis.
• What age is your horse?
Young horses’ up to 2 years of age have higher requirements as obviously they are in the growth stage. Higher amounts of protein to ensure adequate growth are required. This is a topic in itself and if you do have a youngster I suggest you contact a reputable feed supplier and discuss these 3 points with them.
On the other end of the scale we have the older horse. Nutritionally this doesn’t just mean old in actual years, a horse may be considered “senior” is they can no longer sustain their weight on the same diet they were previously eating. This maybe due to dental issues or simply the older horses’ do not process vitamins & minerals as easily so may need some help in this department.
If you have a middle of the range say 4 – 15 year old horse, they would be considered the “normal” and the diet will be decided on the other key factors discussed here.
• Does you horse have any medical conditions/health issues?
A veterinary diagnoses medical condition such as colic, gastric ulcers, insulin resistance or Cushing’s Disease will mean you need to consider these issues when formulating your diet. Contact your vet or an equine nutritionist to discuss any changes you are considering and to formulate any additional supplements your horse may need.
Now you have considered the various aspects of your horse and are feeding him enough hay to sustain him, you can delve deeper into the many commercial hard feeds, supplements and oils available to the horse owner.
There are lots of sites dedicated to correct feeding of horses including supplements and commercial feeds. I recommend you check out only reputable companies who have been around quite a while for your information sources, as there is quite a lot of misinformation out there. Hygain’s Nutrition Centre is one such resource and they have a fantastic website full to the brim with quality information.
Please comment below if you would like to share what you are feeding your horse now, or have any questions about what you are feeding your horse.