The Basics of Horse Nutrition and Feeding

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If your soil is deficient in nutrients, it may be necessary to supplement your horses' diets.

First-time farmers usually do pretty well with gardens, chopping wood and building outhouses . . . but the birth of that first calf or litter of pigs generally sets ’em back a couple of notches. R.J. Holliday, DVM, a veterinarian in Missouri and MOTHER EARTH NEWS contributor, intends to remedy the situation. His tool? A new handbook precisely designed to explain all the animal facts of life in language that new back-to-the-landers can understand

MOTHER EARTH NEWS is serializing the manual as Dr.Holliday completes each chapter. In this installment he explains the equine digestive system, common problems, basic horse nutrition guidelines and the importance of determining what to feed horses, how much to feed them, and when. 

It has been said that feeding horses is more of an art than a science. Even today, much of the theory of equine nutrition is based on studies done on other classes of livestock and there are still many myths and misconceptions floating about, especially in some so-called “scientific” circles. Anyone can compile a mass of data on how to feed horses, but it takes a herdsman to artfully develop and follow a complete nutritional regimen that brings out the best in each of his animals. Most of the really valuable information we have at our disposal today is the result of practical observations by horsemen who are actually raising and using the creatures for profit. Rations and feeding programs are favorite topics for discussion whenever two or more such individuals get together, and much good practical information is shared at most of these meetings.

Years ago, when horses and mules provided the motive power for this country, little attention was paid to equine nutrition. The fertile soil of our farmland had not yet been mined of its nutrients and humus, and the animals got along nicely on native hays and grains. Today, however, the picture has changed. Our land has been depleted to the point that the commercial feeds don’t contain the necessary elements to support life without the addition of various forms of supplemental protein, vitamins, minerals and antibiotics to keep our disease-prone creatures from falling prey to any germ that comes along. The more natural your approach to farming and nutrition, the less you’ll need to be concerned about these various additives to livestock feeds.

The subject, nevertheless, is a complicated one . . . because horses vary tremendously in their individual nutritive requirements. A ration suitable for one animal may be entirely unsatisfactory for an almost identical stablemate. As perplexing as these variables can be, they do at least allow a good herdsman to be creative in his choice of basic diet and feeding regimens for his charges.

The program presented in this article includes considerable leeway, so don’t bind yourself too tightly to sample formulas that are meant only as guidelines for the beginner. Stay within the main principles, but experiment with the suggested feeds and observe each animal’s response to them until you find the combination best tailored for every one of your horses.

The Equine Digestive System

The digestive system of the horse can best be characterized as “simple-stomached herbivorous with cecum”. The cecum, a large blind pouch located between the small intestines and the large colonis, is very similar anatomically to our own appendix but has a capacity of about seven or eight gallons. Most authorities feel that a moderate amount of microbial digestion and synthesis takes place in this organ, but nothing that compares with the activity in the rumen of a cow. Even though some essential amino acids may be formed in the process, it’s best to make sure that those substances are also present in the diet (especially the diet of young animals).

The sequence of equine digestion is much like the general digestive pattern found in most monogastric animals, man included: The ingested food moves through the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, cecum, large colon and small colon . . . and is then passed from the body. In the horse, however, there are three places where the digestive tube’s diameter narrows rather suddenly. These “bottlenecks” to the normal flow of stomach and intestinal contents are responsible for the tendency of the species to all sorts of digestive problems. If, for one reason or another, a mass of fibrous or doughy material plugs one of the tight passages, the buildup of gas in front of the obstruction causes ballooning of the intestine, interference with circulation and mild to severe pain. This condition, known as colic, can also result from a spasm of the intestine.

Symptoms and Treatment of Colic in Horses

The symptoms of colic (often alarming to a novice) can vary from those of a mild bellyache, with some pawing, kicking at the abdomen and vague uneasiness, to a violent thrashing about, profuse sweating and lying down and rolling from side to side. Many such spells are transient, but a severe episode can result in death . . . usually from a ruptured stomach or intestine. In mild attacks, moving the horse about at a trot may aid the restoration of normal function, but serious cases are best handled by a vet. It’s dangerous for an unskilled person to attempt the medication of a 1,000-pound animal that is almost crazy with pain. Treatment is intended primarily to relieve the discomfort with narcotics or anesthetics, and then to break up the blockage by means of oil and anti-ferments given via stomach tube, enemas, manual massage of the mass through the rectum or even abdominal surgery.

Since the results of these measures are often disappointing, every feeding practice must be calculated to avoid colic or impaction. Horses need some bulk in their rations but should not be given highly fibrous material such as straw bedding or cornstalks. Nor should you offer them any feed that is finely ground or tends to become doughy when chewed. Use 10 to 15 percent bran in the diet to regulate the firmness of the animals’ bowel movements, and take care not to overfeed your horse or horses. Give each one plenty of exercise and make any changes in his or her ration gradually.

Don’t water a horse when it’s hot from exertion but do remember that, unless the animal consumes a sufficient quantity of the fluid, its intestinal contents can become too dry. This is a major cause of colic in cold weather. Many other factors can predispose an animal to colic, but attention to the precautions I’ve just listed will prevent most cases.

Grazing Horses and Pasture Management

Grass growing on well-managed, fertile soil is undoubtedly the best equine nourishment. A good pasture provides not only economical feed, but also a place for proper exercise and the ideal environment for young and old horses alike. Permanent pasture, a valuable addition to any homestead, can be planted with grass or legumes or a combination of the two. Since horses are not subject to bloat, as cattle are, you can safely sow alfalfa or almost any of the clovers. Any grass that is suitable to your climate can be included, but bluegrass has always been a favorite (probably because it does best on soils that are high in the minerals needed to build good bone in growing horses). Other varieties such as timothy, fescue or orchard grass are also satisfactory.

At times when permanent pastures are dormant or unavailable, temporary grazing can be provided by planting oats, wheat and rye. Naturally, these crops must be pastured before they begin to form grain.

If your animals consume large amounts of mineral supplements while on pasture it probably indicates that your soil is deficient. In such a case, it’s much cheaper in the long run to add the required elements to the land (and thus begin a soil building program that will gradually eliminate the need for the more expensive supplements). Remember, just any old rundown patch of grass isn’t necessarily a pasture.

The arrangement of horses’ teeth enables them to nip off grass very near the soil surface. If your animals are kept in one field until they’re forced to eat down to the ground, they can actually damage the planting by such close cropping. In addition, they’re more likely to pick up the larvae of intestinal parasites in the process.

A source of clean water should be available in each pasture, as well as a few shade trees or some kind of shelter from the sun. Many people, however, keep their horses in the stable during the day and turn them out to graze at night. One advantage of this practice is the availability of the animals for daytime use.

What to Feed Horses

Hay: If pasture isn’t available, good-quality hay is the next best feed. Most horses are wintered on such fodder, and some are kept on it all year round. The recommended allowance is approximately 1 to 1 1/2 pounds of hay daily for each 100 pounds of body weight. Thus a 1,000-pound horse would be fed 10 to 15 pounds daily, depending on how much gain he receives and how much work he does. See the table below.

Daily Allowance of Hay and Grain per 100 pounds of Body Weight

Light Work
(1 to 3 hours daily)

Medium Work
(3 to 5 hours daily)

Heavy Work
(5 to 8 hours daily)

Hay   1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds    1 to 1 1/4 pounds    1 pound
Grain     1/2 pound    1 pound 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds

The nutritive value of any hay depends on both the fertility of the soil on which it grew and on the techniques with which it was harvested. If you’re unable to raise your own, then it pays to check the quality of any hay you plan to buy.

Timothy, cut at the right stage of development and correctly cured and stored, is traditionally considered best for horses. Other types of hay can be used, however, provided they’re leafy, reasonably free from weeds, not dusty or moldy and a pleasant green in color. Alfalfa is high in protein and can be a valuable part of your animals’ ration . . . but when given as the only rough feed it has been implicated as a possible cause of colic, founder, impactions and urinary problems. It’s best not to use alfalfa as more than a quarter to a third of the daily hay allotment.

Clover tends to be very dusty and is not a good equine feed. As mentioned in the November/December 1973 issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS, clover can be a factor in causing heaves, and horses fed on clover by hay or pasture are apt to slobber profusely. A small amount in mixed fodder isn’t critical, but large quantities should be avoided.

Grain: Of all the commonly available grains, oats are unquestionably the best for horses (partly because they don’t tend to pack tightly in the stomach and are not likely to cause impaction).

Old-timers used to say that oats were a good summer feed because they produced plenty of energy but not much heat. Corn, on the other hand, was said to be heating and was the grain of choice for cold weather. Whether or not this is true, corn may be substituted for oats on a pound-for-pound basis. It can be fed whole or cracked . . . but should never be finely ground because cornmeal is apt to form a solid mass in the stomach.

Barley can replace most of the oats or corn offered to a horse. Since this grain is quite hard, however, it’s advisable to roll, crack or soak the kernels before feeding.

Horses should not be given large amounts of wheat or milo because the ground or chewed cereal has a doughy consistency. Wheat bran, though, is a good source of the B-complex vitamins and its bulk helps to keep the contents of an animal’s stomach and intestine at the proper consistency to avoid colic or impactions. This valuable addition to the equine diet should be incorporated into the grain ration at the rate of 10 to15 percent.

Since grains today are deficient in protein, rations for high performance will require the addition of moderate amounts of a protein supplement. The most popular for horses is linseed meal, which is abundant in essential fats and oils and makes the coat glossy . . . really “slicks ’em up”. Linseed meal can be replaced by soybean meal if necessary.

Most commercial feed companies have their own brands of horse feed. While these are usually satisfactory if you have only one or two head to care for, they’re likely to be more expensive than similar mixtures you can prepare yourself. A 12 to14 percent dairy ration can be used as a substitute as long as it contains only natural protein (no urea), but hog, poultry or steer fatteners should never be given to horses. These products are apt to contain additives, chemicals or growth stimulants of one sort or another, and the equine system doesn’t tolerate the drugs or the higher protein content very well.

Water is necessary to the well-being of all animals and a clean, generous supply at moderate temperature should be available to horses at all times. (The average horse will drink 10 to 15 gallons a day.) If your charges are stabled they should be watered at least twice and preferably three times daily. Never let your horses drink large quantities of water while they’re hot from exercise. Cool the animals down first and then give them only a few gallons at a time until they’ve had their fill. In cold weather it may be necessary to warm the water somewhat to encourage them to take adequate amounts.

Salt: In warm weather, or when doing strenuous work, horses sweat profusely. Since perspiration rapidly depletes the body of salt, it should be available to them in loose form at all times. Up to two ounces may be consumed by an animal daily. In addition, salt can be mixed with the feed at the rate of 0.5 to 1 percent of the gain ration.

Horse Feed Supplements

Equine vitamin requirements have not been adequately researched but it is known that vitamins A and D, present in green, leafy hay, are essential. Additional vitamin D should be given to animals that receive little or no exposure to sunlight. Although vitamin E occurs in the rations normally fed to horses, some stockmen add wheat germ oil to breeding animals’ feed. Horses synthesize vitamins C and K. B-complex vitamins may also be synthesized but, in any case, the B group is found in gains, especially the bran portion, fed to the animals.

Horses have strict requirements for calcium and phosphorus. The two minerals must be present in the ration not only in adequate quantities, but also in the proper balance: generally in a ratio of one part calcium to four parts phosphorus. If the diet is very high in one element, the excess will interfere with the absorption of the other and create a relative deficiency, even though both are provided. Vitamin D must be available for the assimilation of both minerals . . . and high levels of iron, magnesium or aluminum can interfere with the utilization of phosphorus.

When this vital calcium-phosphorus pair is out of balance, more often than not phosphorus is the deficient member. Steamed bone meal, a valuable source of the element, can be mixed in the gain offered to a horse at the rate of 0.5 to 1 percent. The bone meal also can be provided free choice along with salt so that the animal can adjust its own intake.

As our soils and the quality of the feeds grown on them continue to decline, it becomes more important to add a good source of trace minerals to the diet of livestock. Iodine, copper, cobalt, magnesium, iron, potassium, zinc, sulfur and others are all necessary in varying quantities. Kelp is a good (though somewhat expensive) supplement for this purpose and can be provided free choice or added to the ration in amounts of 1 percent or more. It’s important not to force-feed high levels of these elements, however, because (as I mentioned in connection with calcium and phosphorus) they may interfere with the absorption of other nutrients. Again, the key word is BALANCE.

Many commercial mineral supplements (made from highly purified chemicals) are incorrectly proportioned and, in fact, often contribute to an already existing imbalance. Look at the tag on almost any such preparation and you’ll find that the calcium/phosphorus ratio is about 4:1 when it should be closer to 1:4. An excellent vitamin-mineral product for livestock composed predominately of natural ingredients in the proper relative amount is available from ECO-AG Products Corporation.

How Much to Feed a Horse

It’s possible to formulate on paper very detailed and complex rations for each class of horses: foals, yearlings, geldings, stallions, nursing mares, pregnant mares, etc. While there’s nothing wrong with this, it does sometimes become ridiculous since the nutritional requirements of horses in general are not well known and the nutritive value of grains and hays varies considerably. In any case, as I’ve already said, oats alone make a very satisfactory gain ration, especially if gown on highly fertile soil.

The following rations should be fed with pasture or good quality hay. (Suggested daily allowances for both hay and grain are summarized in the table above.) Horses should be brought up to maximum consumption of gain gradually over a period of 10 days to 2 weeks, and the amounts fed can be increased or decreased as necessary to maintain the desired condition or body weight. Idle horses probably need very little gain, or none at all.

Here’s an example of a simple ratio:
Oats (rolled or whole): 40 pounds
Corn (preferably cracked): 40 pounds
Linseed meal: 10 pounds
Wheat bran: 10 pounds

This basic mixture can be modified in many ways. For instance, 0.5 to 1 pound of salt and a like amount of steamed bone meal can be added to each 100 pounds of the suggested feed. If you want to increase the ration’s palatability-or if some of the ingredients are dusty-10 pounds of molasses can be worked into each 100 pounds. An addition of 5 percent dried milk to the gain mix will benefit foals or yearlings. Alfalfa leaf meal is an excellent source of vitamins and minerals and can be used at the rate of 5 to 10 pounds per 100.

The final formula might look something like this:
Oats (rolled or crimped): 35 pounds
Corn (cracked): 30 pounds
Bran: 10 pounds
Linseed meal: 8 pounds
Alfalfa  leaf meal: 5 pounds
Kelp: 1 pound
Salt (iodized): 1/2 pound
Steamed bone meal: 1/2 pound
Molasses: 10 pounds

Obviously, unlimited variations are possible, depending on your own personal preference and on the price and availability of the various ingredients.

When to Feed Horses

Horses should be fed at least twice a day . . . always at the same time and, if possible, by the same person. These sensitive creatures respond better to some handlers than others, and personality conflicts should be avoided at feeding time. If several animals are fed from one feed bunk, allowances must be made for the slow eaters. See, too, that feed and water containers are free from splinters, exposed nails or jagged edges of metal.

On days when a horse is idle, cut its gain ration by at least half. If the diet must be changed, do so gradually to avoid digestive upsets.

Happy feeding . . . and don’t forget to give old Dobbin an extra special grooming once in a while!