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Understanding the Basic Principles of Horse Nutrition

What are the proper ways to feed your horse? With so many different feed options for hay, supplements and hay available, many are left wondering what their horse requires for optimal health and nutrition. A myriad of horse-feeding beliefs and myths make choosing which feed to feed your horse more complicated. The law obliges commercial horse feed producers to include information about their products on the form of a “feed label,” or a tag that can be mounted to or printed directly onto the bag. The tag contains vital information about what the horse is eating. But, the majority of horse owners don’t know or aren’t willing to go through the information. This book explains your horse’s requirements for nutrition, the most common rules to follow in feeding your horse, as well as how to know the nutritional needs of your horse are met.

Essential Nutrients

In feeding your horse, it’s crucial to remember the six primary nutrients which must be fulfilled such as protein, carbohydrate vitamins, fats, minerals and water. Most feed companies mix the first five nutrients for us, but it is crucial not to overlook water. A healthy, normal horse consumes between 5 and 15 (or more) gallon of water per day, depending on humidity, temperature and the level of activity. Clean water must be available every day, and, ideally, should be readily available at all times to allow horses to drink water when it’s thirsty. If this isn’t possible the horses should be fed every day at least two times and allowed a minimum of a half-hour to drink every time. Horses who don’t get enough fluids are prone to ailments such as the impact of intestinal fluids, dehydration and various kinds of colic.

The remainder of the horse’s diet must be planned in accordance with the needs of each of the five nutrients. The requirements vary from person in each individual. They are affected by the body mass of the horse as well as age, workload, and metabolism. It is a valuable capability to read the label on a feed and decide whether the feed is going satisfy your horse’s needs. Let’s examine each type of nutrients that you’ll encounter in evaluating your horse feed program.


Carbohydrates are most likely to constitute the biggest component of the diet of horses. They can be classified into two categories which are structure (fiber) as well as structural (sugars and other starches). These are the carbohydrates found in the greatest quantities in the roughage horses eat (e.g. the in hay, grass) and can be digested due to the structure of the horse’s intestinal tract. After digestion within the stomach and small intestine, horse’s digestible material is absorbed into through the large intestinal tract (hindgut) which is comprised of the colon and the cecum. The colon and the cecum contain microorganisms which are capable of breaking down structural carbohydrates into an energy source that horses is able to absorb. This is the reason horses receive an abundance of nutrients from hay and grass.

It is essential to feed high-quality hay which is clean of dust and mold and cut to the right length and maturity stage. Hay that is excessively coarse stems or is too fine could cause digestive issues, such as impacts. Hay that is mature when cut does not provide any nutritional value to the horse because of the increase in a substance known as lignin. It is not digestible by horses or bacteria that live in the gut.

Horses are able to easily digest non-structural carbohydrates, usually within the small intestinal. These starches and sugars are mostly found in the grains (e.g. corn, oats or barley), oats or oats) and offer an even more concentrated source for energy than those that are structural (thus”concentrates”) “concentrates” is commonly employed when talking about grains and mixtures of grains). It is crucial to understand that the digestive system of horses evolved to handle roughage-based food; thus concentrated foods should be used in conjunction with the forage diet and satisfy the nutritional requirements that are not satisfied by forage by itself. Horses should be fed at least 1 percent of body weight when foraging (on an empty matter basis) The ideal amount range is 1.5 up to 2 percent the body weight. A diet that is less than this could cause health issues like ulcers and colic.

There is a variety of “safe” food products that are sold for the use of horses. These feeds are produced using ingredients that are rich in digestible fiber but less sugars and starches. For instance, “safe” feeds often make use of ingredients like soybean hulls and beet pulp that have high levels of digestible fiberand with a low amount of starch and avoid ingredients like corn, which is a high starch source. Most feed labels will provide an average percentage of starch in their guarantee analysis so that owners of horses with specific requirements (e.g., Cushings, metabolic syndrome, chronic laminitis ulcers , or chronic colic) to choose a feed that has a lower starch content.


Proteins, essential for maintaining and growth of the body is a nutrient that is not well understood by the majority of owners of horses. The protein is broken down the small digestive tract into amino acids, which are then recombined to create proteins within the body, which compose hair, muscle and hoof. It is essential to recognize that proteins are made up of amino acids and the proteins are produced by the body have particular amino acid patterns. The quantity of protein the body can produce is restricted because of the amino acid that will run out first. For horses, this is usually an amino acid called lysine. Thus, on many packages of feed for horses in which the percentage of protein is stated in addition to “added Lysine” and include an additional percentage of level of lysine. This basically enhances the protein’s quality, without increasing the amount of protein contained in the feed.

There are benefits for improving the quality of protein, without increasing the amount of protein in total. There is a common belief in the industry of horses that higher levels of protein are associated with greater energy. Actually proteins are the most difficult fuel source for horses in digesting and converting into usable energy. Protein requirements for maintenance and growth depend on the age of the horse and work load. In general, horses growing require a greater amount of proteins than older horses. The growing horse typically requires between 12 to 18 percent crude protein to ensure the proper development and growth. Horses require more protein as tissues are laid down to support growth (i.e. young horses going through fast growth stages or gestating mares during their final trimester, as well as lactating mares who have to produce large amounts of milk). Older horses will likely be able to do well on less protein (8 between 12 and 12 percent) dependent on the amount of work they do. Horses who are engaged in intense training require more protein than a maintenance horse due to the fact that they are forming muscle tissue. However, they will do fine with the 12 percent protein diet. Feeding horses more protein than they require implies that the horse will break down excess protein and excretes it in urine. This quickly transforms into ammonia. This is not a good thing because excess ammonia could cause respiratory issues for stabled horses.

It is essential to realize that forage can also be an excellent food source for protein. Choose hay that can help fulfill the requirements of the horse for protein. Hays are classified as grass-based hays (e.g. Bermudagrass and Timothy) as well as the legume type hays (e.g. alfalfa and clover, peanut). In general the case of legume hays, they are more on protein levels than grass hays. The best quality legume hays can be between 18 and 22 percent crude protein and good quality grass hay may have between 10 and 16 percent protein in crude form. Quality and the growth stage at the time of harvest determine how digestible the hay and determine how much protein the horse gets from it.


The feeding of high-fat diets is a relatively recent trend in the world of horses. It has been proven the ability of horses to tolerate a large amount that they consume fat. Fat is a great and digestible food source for energy. Commercial feeds that aren’t supplemented by additional fats have about two to four percent of fat. The majority of commercial feeds are supplemented with fat in the form any type of stabilized oil. They can have anything from 6 to twelve percent fat. Since adding fat to feed can increase its energy density, and the horse will need less feed so it is crucial to make sure that the additional nutrients (i.e. proteins, vitamins minerals) are in sufficient quantities to satisfy the needs of your horse. Although commercial feeds are nutritiously balanced, when adding fats to your horse’s diet by adding a kind of oil or fat supplementation on your feed, it is vital to make sure you’re meeting your horse’s other nutritional requirements, not just his energy needs.


Vitamins are vital organic substances. They must be present within the body for vital reactions to occur that allow animals to live. Vitamins are classified into two groups that are water-soluble and comprise of vitamin B complex (e.g. B1 and B2) and the fat-soluble category comprises Vitamins A, E, D and K. Certain vitamins have names associated with them (for B1, for instance, is also called Thiamine). It is crucial to understand that horses synthesize many of the nutrients it needs and does not usually require supplementation from food sources for all vitamin. This could include vitamin C, B-vitamins , and vitamin K. Therefore you won’t find these vitamins on feed tags for commercial horses. It is crucial to review your feed to ensure that your horse’s nutritional requirements are satisfied since deficiencies in vitamin levels can cause a variety of health issues. However, it’s crucial to recognize that excessive amounts of these vitamins is not recommended also, especially with regard to fat-soluble vitamins. The excess water-soluble vitamins are usually excreted through urine. however, fat-soluble vitamins can be easily stored in animal fat tissue, and could build up to extremely large levels if they are consumed in high amounts. Because high levels of vitamins could cause toxic effects, it is essential to be cautious in feeding supplements rich in specific vitamins. Most times an appropriate forage regimen paired with a concentrated concentrate that is well-formulated will supply enough nutrients to meet your horse’s needs.


Minerals are essential inorganic substances which must be present in adequate quantities to allow our bodies to work optimally. Minerals are another ingredient you can find in feed supplements and the shelves of tack stores. It is crucial to realize that the requirements for minerals will vary dependent on the age of your horse and state (i.e. depending on whether your horse is in lactation, or is working). Commercial feed companies typically adjust their feeds to meet the needs of minerals for different classes of horses. Forage can also supply minerals. In certain situations, further mineral supplementation may yield beneficial outcomes. For instance, biotin, copper and zinc supplemented over needs have been found to increase the strength of hoofs. However, care must be taken since the excessive amount of minerals can also cause toxicities, contribute to serious health problems or affect the absorption of other minerals.

If your horse doesn’t get commercial concentrates or eats a small amount in it, it could be beneficial to add more nutrients and vitamins into his diet with a supplement known as the balanced ration. Ration balancers are produced by a variety of feed manufacturers and are intended for feeding at a moderate quantity (approximately 1 one pound daily) with the necessary nutrients, vitamins, and proteins. You can also satisfy the requirements for vitamins and minerals with a free-choice loose salt-vitamin-mineral blend. Horses are not efficient lickers and loose mixes tend to perform better over salt block. Mineral blocks generally contain smaller than 5 percent minerals, and greater than 95 percent salt. As such, they don’t provide the required vitamin or mineral intake for horses. A loose vitamin/mineral premix , or the ration balancer can be an excellent alternative for horses kept in pastures and who are adapted to eating a diet that is all forage. If you are providing a loose mix an average guideline is to allow the horses’ consumption to be 1.5 to 3 ounces. per day.

The most common mineral ratio you’ll find when looking at a feed bag is the ratio of calcium to phosphorus. It is crucial to ensure whether commercial feeds as well as mineral premixes with a calcium:phosphorus ratio that is between 1:1 and 2:1. If the levels of phosphorus are elevated in comparison to calcium levels, calcium will be taken from the bone and absorbed into the bloodstream to equalize the calcium:phosphorus ratio. This is not a problem for animals that are grazing because phosphorus levels are low in grasses. However, grains are rich in phosphorus. Commercial feeds are usually supplemented with a type of calcium. Feeding a single grain like oats can result in an unbalanced calcium-phosphorus ratio if calcium isn’t supplemented with some form of. Another crucial mineral aspect to consider is your horse’s sweat loss. Horses who are doing moderate or intense activity and sweat heavily shed electrolytes through sweat. For these horses it is possible to add salt as well as other electrolytes (such as potassium). A balanced electrolyte mix may be added into the horse’s food mix as required.