Correct feeding and nutrition will help to ensure your horse is in optimum health and condition. It is important to find a suitable feeding regime for your individual horse as feeding requirements vary from horse to horse. If you have any concerns you should talk to your vet or nutritionist.
Feed or forage?
Horses have evolved as trickle feeders, designed to be chewing/occupied by feed for a large portion of their day. Their digestive systems are primarily designed to digest fibre and therefore forage (hay/haylage/grass) should represent the majority of their diet.
As we expect much more of the domesticated horse in terms of workload, and often the forage provided is limited or of less than ideal quality, a forage only diet is unlikely to provide all the nutrients a horse needs.
Although it can often be obvious whether or not calorie/energy requirements are being met, whether vitamin and mineral requirements are being met is often less obvious.
In their domesticated situation, forage may not be able to meet a horse’s nutritional needs on its own so hard/compound feeds (mixes, cubes, balancers etc) need to be fed to complement the forage.
Basic horse feeding dos and don’ts
Feed little and often – due to the design of the horse’s digestive system (designed to trickle feed rather than eat large meals), the stomach only represents around 10 percent of their digestive capacity. As a result, meal sizes need to be small – for a 500kg horse we would recommend that meal sizes don’t exceed 1.8kg (dry weight).
Try and promote a good routine – horses thrive on routine and therefore promoting this through feeding and management can help to reduce stress.
Feed plenty of fibre – as a trickle feeder, providing ample fibre helps to satisfy the horse’s psychological need to chew and in doing so also helps to keep the digestive system healthy.
Provide clean fresh water - an average size (500kg) horse will drink between 30 and 50L per day.
Avoid making sudden diet or management changes – doing either will present a significant challenge to the digestive system causing the microbial population to be disrupted, which can lead to colic or diarrhoea.
Feed each horse as an individual – taking into account workload, age, nutritional status, reproductive status etc.
Supplement the forage with an appropriate concentrate source – fed at manufacturer’s recommended levels, to ensure that the diet is fully balanced and the horse is not missing out on essential nutrients.
Potential problems with horse nutrition
In simple terms, not providing your horse with a balanced diet may, at best, result in your horse having insufficient energy, a dull, lacklustre coat or poor hoof condition, and at worse it could lead to more serious illness.
As the horse is designed to trickle feed on a high fibre diet, when this is not achieved and the horse is without adequate fibre for a significant period of time, the digestive system is negatively affected, which can lead to problems such as colic and gastric ulcers.
Likewise, any situation where the digestive system is overloaded with sugars and starches, that are designed to be digested in the foregut, can cause problems such as laminitis, colic or gastric ulcers.
Any horse which has suffered from a nutrition-related problem should be fed with this in mind and if you have any specific queries, it is best to contact a nutritionist or your vet.
If you have chosen the correct feed for age, clinical condition e.g. laminitis, workload and calorie/energy requirements, and are feeding the most appropriate forage source but are still having difficulties or are not sure whether you are on the right track, speaking to your vet or a nutritionist is the best option to ensure your diet is the best it can be for your horse.