Feeding a Horse

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How to Feed a Horse

All horse owners and caregivers are responsible for making sure that their horses are properly fed. A horse relies on its owners or caregivers to give it access to feed. The horse’s behaviour, feed intake, weight and condition should be monitored to ensure that it is receiving the nutrition it needs. It’s recommended that you consult with your veterinarian or equine nutritionist when developing a feeding plan and diet for your horse.

Body condition scoring is an important strategy in regular monitoring of body weight and nutrition. Body scoring assigns a numerical value from 1 to 9, based on the amount of fat on horses in the areas of the loin, ribs, tail head, withers, neck and shoulders. The system works by assessing fat both visually and by palpation, or feeling for fat in each of these six body areas. This body condition scoring system is a helpful management tool that can be used across breeds and by all horse people.


Horses require a balanced diet that includes the right proportion of nutrients, vitamins and minerals for proper digestive function. Nutrients include carbohydrates, protein and fats. This should ensure the maintenance of a good body condition, a healthy weight, repair from injury and should provide energy for growth and work.

Carbohydrates, in the form of naturally occurring sugars, starches and cellulose, provide energy. Sugars provide quick-release energy while starches provide slow-release energy. Roughage, which includes hay, grass and legumes, provides dietary fibre. Roughage is broken down by bacteria in the horse’s cecum and is an important source of nutrients.

When feeding a horse, consideration must first be given to the type and quantity of forage provided. Good quality forage should form the bulk of a horse’s diet. Whether fresh from grazed pasture, or fed as hay, forage is an important source of energy, nutrients and fibre.

Protein and fats are present in proportionately smaller quantities in forages. They are important for body function, growth and repair and as sources of energy, particularly for horses with a high energy demand such as those in hard work, growing foals and mares that are in foal or lactating, or producing milk. They are included in many supplementary feeds.

Vitamins and minerals are also an essential part of a horse’s diet. They occur naturally in forage and are included in supplementary feeds, though the proportions may vary. Mineral blocks and licks are available and can be used in the field or stable to ensure the horse has access to the necessary minerals that may be lacking in the diet. This may be the only supplement required for the diet of most horses. Balance is essential – providing too much of one vitamin or mineral can inhibit, or prevent, the uptake of others by the body.

Access to salt must be provided to all horses in the form of a block or loose salt to meet their daily requirements for chloride and sodium, which is vital for hydration. Loose salt can be provided in supplementary feed or in a bucket or tub.

Sources of Fibre Roughage

Fibre is essential to maintain good digestive function. The primary source of fibre is roughage. The fibre content increases during the grazing season and is higher in the more “stalky” mature grass. Mature grass can be conserved hay, providing high-fibre feed for the winter months or when the horse does not have access to grazing. If managed correctly, grazing can provide a balanced diet from spring through autumn. During the winter months, the energy content of the grass decreases, and it may be necessary to supplement a horse’s diet with hay or hay cubes. Many horses in rest or light work do not require any supplement to their diet.


These are foods with proportionately high, concentrated levels of nutrients and energy. Examples of concentrates include oats, barley and corn. When fed, concentrates should be fed no more than necessary to provide the required energy needs for the horse. Usually, concentrates make up only a small percentage of the horse’s diet, with roughage making up the majority. Many horses do not require concentrates and excessive provision of concentrates can led to obesity, digestive upset and laminitis.  


Hay is generally fed from hay feeders, preferably placed so the hay is below chest level. This promotes natural dental wear and reduces the risk of respiratory conditions. There should always be more feeding stations than horses. Hay can also be placed in slow-feeding bags, hay nets, or tickle feeders which helps prolong feeding consumption and reduce hay wastage.  

When feeding hay in the field, scatter it in small piles so that horses can walk from pile to pile as if they were grazing. If horses are sharing a field, make sure there are more piles of hay than horses. This will help minimize any conflicts over food resources.


Horses drink approximately 25 to 55 litres of water per day depending on the weather, their diet and the level of work they are doing. Water is essential to maintain a horse’s health and it is vital that horses should have access to clean, safe and palatable water at all times, in the stable and the field. 

Water in the Stable

Water buckets should be made from a safe, durable material and inspected regularly for any signs of repair that might be needed. The water should be changed frequently and the buckets kept clean. Where possible, water buckets should be placed in the corner of the stable to prevent them from being knocked over. Buckets and automatic watering devices must be kept clean.

Water in the Field

It is important that a horse has a constant supply of fresh clean water while outdoors. Water tubs are often used. Another way of providing this is with an automatic waterer. These waterers contain a heating element so horses have free access to water in the winter. An automatic waterer is also easy to maintain and keep clean.

Relying on natural water sources – such as streams and ponds – for horses is not recommended, as they may be contaminated and a safety risk.


  • The best diet is forage based.
  • Provide clean, safe, palatable water at all times.
  • Feed at the same time every day.
  • Make any changes to the horse’s diet or routine gradually.
  • Always feed good quality forage that is free from dust or mold.
  • Feed according to body condition, the horse’s activity or reproductive status and weather/seasonal conditions.
  • Provide horses with daily access to salt.
  • Minimize the provision of concentrates, and only feed as needed to reduce the risk of obesity, digestive upset or laminitis.

What does the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Equines say about feeding practices?

“The amount of feed horses need is based on the horse’s maintenance needs (i.e. to maintain at rest or idle) plus the horse’s activity needs (growing, in work, pregnant, lactating). The average mature horse will consume 1.5 to 2 percent of its body weight in feed per day to meet its daily maintenance needs. As forage is important to maintain proper gut function, it is crucial that forage forms the majority of the ration.

The nutrient content of hay can vary. With forages of good nutritional content, little to no supplementation is needed. Donkeys, mules, miniature horses, ponies, and some breeds of horses are particularly prone to obesity. These equines may need special feed management (e.g., provide coarse grass types of hay and/or some straw). 

Feeding haylage or silage can be suitable for horses, provided these feedstuffs are of excellent quality, are free from toxins and ruminant-specific additives, and the horses are given time to adapt to this type of feed. Horses fed haylage or silage should also be vaccinated against botulism poisoning.

Concentrates are fed at different rates based on the increased energy needs not met by the forage. The quantity of concentrates fed should be no more than that necessary to provide the required energy – many horses will not need concentrates to meet their energy needs. Feeding excessive concentrates can contribute to obesity, digestive upset and laminitis.

Minerals and vitamins may be deficient in some diets. It is advisable to consult a nutritionist or veterinarian familiar with the nutrient content of feeds grown in your region.“

The following requirements are identified in the Code of Practice:

  1. Horses must receive a diet that is adequate for maintaining health and vigour. 
  2. The daily ration must address the horse’s maintenance and activity needs and other factors relevant to individual horses and the environment. 
  3. Horses must have access to salt either provided in the ration or free access (a block or loose salt). 

These recommended practices are also provided in the Code of Practice:

  1. Consult a nutritionist or veterinarian to develop a feed program and balanced ration.
  2. Monitor the weight and body condition score of individual horses on a weekly basis and adjust the feed to maintain an optimum body condition score.
  3. Have feeds, including forage, analyzed to obtain accurate nutrient values. 
  4. Provide feed on a regular daily schedule, preferably divided into several meals.
  5. Make any changes to the type or quantity of feed gradually over 7 to 10 days to avoid gastrointestinal upset.
  6. Feed on the basis of the energy value and weight of the feed (not volume of feed).

What does the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Equines say about water?

“Water is the single most important nutrient in the management of horses. Equines (in particular, donkeys and mules) will limit their water intake to the point of dehydration if the quality (palatability) of drinking water is compromised. 

They may also limit their intake of water from a new source, such as when moved to a new location. It may be advisable to take a supply of water with you on trips. 

Generally, the minimum daily amount of water required by horses at maintenance and in a moderate environment (i.e., 5°C-20°C) is 5L (1.32 gal) of water for every 100 kg (220 lbs) of body weight. The amount of water the horse needs will go above this minimum with: 

  • Increased humidity
  • Increased ambient temperature 
  • Increase in the horse’s metabolic activity level (in work, pregnant, lactating)
  • The presence of some health conditions (e.g., diarrhea)
  • A diet high in salt or potassium content.”

The following requirements are identified in the Code of Practice:

  1. Horses must have access to safe, palatable and clean water in quantities to maintain health and vigour. 
  2. In extreme weather conditions (cold or hot), special attention must be paid to ensure water availability, access and intake. 
  3. Water troughs, containers and any automatic watering devices must be cleaned regularly and maintained in working order with no sharp or abrasive edges.

These recommended practices are also provided in the Code of Practice:

  1. Construct and locate water troughs and buckets so they are protected from contamination and freezing.
  2. Check automatic watering systems daily to ensure they are dispensing water properly.
  3. Check for stray voltage from the water source (e.g., electric fence ground rods and defective heaters). Horses may refuse to drink if they receive even a slight electric shock when drinking.
  4. Offer tepid water in cold temperatures to encourage intake, especially for geriatric horses (water can be heated up to 20°C to optimize intake in cold temperatures).
  5. Test water quality at least annually, unless it is from a previously tested water supply safe for human consumption.
Excerpts from the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Equines (©2013) have been used with permission, Equine Canada and the National Farm Animal Care Council. The process for the development of Codes can be accessed through the National Farm Animal Care Council.

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