A balanced diet
Feed according to body weight and workload while making sure there is plenty of forage in the diet.
Other factors affecting dietary needs include:
- Weather and time of year
- Whether or not the horse is clipped
A balanced diet should aim to maintain a horse at a healthy weight. For this reason, it is important to regularly assess your horse’s weight and condition. It is easy to recognise that a horse being too thin is a welfare issue but being overweight is just as worrying.
Types of feed
Horse feeds are broadly divided into two categories (with some exceptions):
Forage is high fibre and low starch feeds such as hay, haylage, grass and chaffs. Sugarbeet is also a type of forage and many feed companies produce fibre-based mixes or pellets. Forage is essential and should form the basis of any horse’s diet.
Cereals or concentrates are starch rich, energy-dense grains like oats, barley and maize. Many feed companies produce cereal-based feeds which can vary in energy levels. These are only needed by horses in significant work, who need to gain weight or have trouble maintaining condition.
There are a range of feed supplements available on the market. These can help support nutritional deficiencies however it is important to seek guidance from a vet or nutritionist before giving to your horse or pony.
Why is forage so important?
Horses spend around 75 percent of their time eating. This need for extended periods of eating is due to the psychological and physiological makeup of horses.
In the wild, horses would be continuously exposed to a variety of forage on grasslands. The domesticated horse can be deprived of this, reducing natural behaviours which can cause distress and lead to stereotypical behaviours, for example, weaving or crib-biting.
Chewing forage also stimulates saliva production, so the more they chew the more saliva they produce. Unlike humans, horses continuously produce stomach acid. Saliva helps to buffer stomach acids and reduces the likelihood of stomach ulcers, which can be very painful and debilitating to a horse’s performance.
Forage is also important for the function of the digestive system and is beneficial for the gut microflora.
Ensuring your horse has a healthy gut boosts the absorption of nutrients as well as having positive effects on the immune system and helps to prevent colic.
Rules of feeding
Here is a reminder of some rules of golden rules of feeding.
- Provide fresh, clean water at all times
- Feed little and often – horses are naturally trickle feeds and surprising have a relatively small stomach
- Use good quality feed - like our food, horse feed can go out of date, make sure you are storing feed in a cool, dry place, out of the way from pests
- Feed according to bodyweight and workload
- Make changes to feed gradually, ideally over 10-14 days to help prevent colic – horses have a sensitive digestive system and changing feeds can disturb the specialised microbes in the gut
- Avoid exercising 1 hour after cereal-based meals. However, it is always a good idea to ensure your horse has some fibre in their stomachs before exercise to reduce gastric acids splashing again their stomach lining
- Routine – horses thrive off routines so by feeding at the same time each day, this will positively impact their daily routine
- Forage – Ensuring horses have good quality forage is crucial for maintaining digestive health