Food Management - Advice on Basic Feeding

Feeding horses can be a complicated business and this advice is not intended to be a comprehensive guide. There are many excellent books available on the subject and any reputable feed manufacturer will have a customer helpline. The BHS Welfare Team are always happy to talk through issues related to feeding and nutrition.

Horse feeds are broadly divided into two categories (with some exceptions);

1. Forage are bulky high fibre and low starch feeds such as hay, haylage, grass, chaffs and haylage. Sugarbeet is also a type of forage and many feed companies produce fibre-based mixes or pellets. Forages are the essential part of every equine diet.

2. Cereals or concentrates are starch rich, energy dense grains like oats, barley and maize. Again, many feed companies produce cereal based, high energy mixes. These are only really needed by horses in significant work, or who need to gain weight/have trouble maintaining condition.

Many feed supplements are available, but it is prudent to seek advice (from a vet or nutritionist) as to whether your horse really needs an expensive supplement.

horse eating grass

What to feed and how much?

All horses are individuals and should be fed as such. Consequently, if you are unsure about feeding, you should get expert advice from a feed company helpline or our BHS Welfare Team.

However, in all cases, forage should form the basis of any horse’s diet. A diet should also always aim to maintain a horse at its correct weight. For this reason it is very important to assess and regularly monitor your horse’s weight and condition. Almost anyone would recognise that a horse being too thin is a welfare issue, but being overweight is just as significant a problem.

The two main things that you need to consider when calculating a horse’s ration are its body weight and its workload. However, many other factors also can affect its dietary needs. These include:

  • the horse’s temperament
  • the weather and time of year
  • whether or not the horse is clipped
  • feed quality
  • age
  • health


Why is forage so important?

Forage must form the basis of any horse’s diet but why is it so important?

  • feedingFibre takes time to eat and chew. Horses naturally spend around 75 percent of their time eating and have a psychological need to chew. If we don’t meet these natural behavioural drives it can be distressing to the horse and may lead to undesirable behaviours like weaving, crib-biting or damaging the stable.
  • Chewing forage stimulates saliva production. A lack of saliva is associated with choke.
  • If a horse is receiving cereal feeds, it is best to allow the horse access to forage immediately beforehand. Chewing the forage will stimulate saliva production and this saliva will buffer the acidity in the stomach caused by the cereal feed. Otherwise, this acid may lead to the development of gastric ulcers.
  • The fermentation of forage in the large intestine produces a lot of heat. This heat is important to help the horse maintain the correct body temperature, particularly in winter.
  • If insufficient forage is provided, it can disrupt the health of the digestive system leading to conditions such as acidosis and colic (see the BHS Advice on Colic).

Other rules of feeding

Whilst providing plenty of forage is absolutely essential, it is not the only important rule when it comes to feeding horses.

  • HayFeed little and often
  • Do not make sudden changes to the diet
  • Do not work fast after feeding
  • Feed something succulent
  • Always provide fresh, clean water
  • Feed only high quality feed


Remember, the key to a healthy horse is to treat him as an individual. Feed according to body weight, workload and temperament whilst always ensuring there is plenty of forage in the diet. This is only a basic guide, so remember there are plenty of sources of further advice if you feel you need it.

For more information on food management please email or call 02476 840575 or 02476 840571.


 horse grazing muzzles

 Caring for your horse 

 support the bhs

Please wait while we complete your membership

Processing your details...