Remember that old nursery rhyme that begins, “Hay is for horses.”? As it
turns out, that’s sound advice for feeding companion equines-as are the
following tips from our experts at the ASPCA Pet Nutrition and Science
1. Base Your Horse’s Diet on Grass and Hay
A horse’s digestive system is made to process large quantities of grass,
which is high in fiber and water. The basic diet for most horses should
consist of grass and good-quality hay that’s free of dust and mold. As a
general rule, companion horses should be able to graze or eat hay whenever
they want to.
2. Feed Several Small Meals a Day
Because horses’ stomachs were developed for grazing, horses function better
with a feeding plan based on “little and often.” ASPCA experts recommend
that horses should eat several small meals-at least two, preferably three or
more-in the course of a day. When feeding hay, give half the hay allowance
at night, when horses have more time to eat and digest.
3. No Grain, No Gain
Most horses, even fairly active ones, don’t need the extra calories found in
grains. Excess grains can lead to muscle, bone and joint problems in young
and adult horses. Unless directed otherwise by your veterinarian or other
equine professional, it’s best to feed low-energy diets high in grass and
4. Be Aware of Individual Needs
Feed according to the individuality of the horse, including condition and
activity level. Some horses have difficulty keeping on weight, and need more
feed per unit of body weight. However, most horses should eat between 2
percent to 4 percent of their body weight daily in pounds of hay or other
feeds. Your veterinarian can help you decide how and what to feed your
5. Water Works
Plenty of fresh, clean, unfrozen water should be available most times, even
if the horse only drinks once or twice a day. Contrary to instinct, horses
who are hot from strenuous exercise should not have free access to water.
Rather, they should be allowed only a few sips every three to five minutes
until they have adequately cooled down.
6. Provide a Supplementary Salt Block
Because most diets do not contain mineral levels high enough for optimal
health and performance, horses should have free access to a trace mineral
and salt block. This will provide your horse with adequate levels of salt to
stabilize pH and electrolyte levels, as well as adequate levels of trace
minerals. As long as plenty of fresh water is available, you needn’t be
concerned about overconsumption of salt.
7. Take it Slow
Any changes in the diet should be made gradually to avoid colic (abdominal
pain usually associated with intestinal disease) and laminitis (painful
inflammation in the hoof associated with separation of the hoof bone from
the hoof wall), either of which can be catastrophic. Horses are physically
unable to vomit or belch. Overfeeding and rapid rates of intake are
potential problems. Consequently, a horse or pony who breaks into the grain
bin, or is allowed to gorge on green pasture for the first time since
autumn, can be headed for a health disaster.
8. Dental Care & Your Horse’s Diet: Chew On This.
Horses need their teeth to grind grass and hay, so it is important to keep
teeth in good condition. At the age of five years, horses should begin
annual dental checkups by a veterinarian to see if their teeth need floating
(filing). Tooth quality has to be considered when deciding whether or not to
feed processed grains (grains that are no longer whole, such as cracked corn
and rolled oats). Horses with poor dental soundness-a particular problem in
older horses-tend to benefit more from processed feed than do younger
horses, who have sounder mouths and teeth.
9. Exercise Caution
Stabled horses need exercise. Horses will eat better, digest food better and
be less likely to colic if they get proper exercise. Horses should finish
eating at least an hour before hard work. Do not feed grain to tired or hot
horses until they are cooled and rested, preferably one or two hours after
activity. You can feed them hay instead. To prevent hot horses from cooling
down too quickly, keep them out of drafts or warm in blankets.
10. Don’t Leave Home Without It
Because abrupt dietary change can have devastating results on a horse’s
sensitive system, you should always bring your horse’s food with you when
you travel. Additionally, some horses will refuse to drink unfamiliar water,
so you may also want to bring along a supply of the water your horse