A herbivore, your horse was made to consume grass and hay; forage naturally appeals to him. He needs it for his internal systems to function properly. If he’s one of those horses who needs more, either for weight gain or for performance requirements, feed him grain as a supplement. Remember that his diet should be forage-based with only as much grain as necessary.
Forage is plant material. For your horse, that's grass and hay. Horse owners who engage in good pasture planning plant grasses ideally suited for horses, which will vary by geographical region. Some landowners plant legumes, like alfalfa and clover, with their pasture grasses so horses get additional protein. Fertilization, weed control, and manure management maintain healthy pastures for foraging. Some fields are planted for grazing; others specifically for harvesting, to be cut, dried and baled for hay so the horses can feed on forage year-round.
Amount of Forage
When left to his own devices, your horse is hard-wired to eat about 2.5 percent to 3 percent of his body weight per day. With unlimited access to high-quality forage, he could eat as much as 25 pounds of it daily -- that's about average for a 1,000-pound horse. If his weight is good and he has no other supplemental requirements, a forage diet is all he needs. If he's overweight, he will need more exercise, or you will need to restrict his forage intake. If he's underweight, he will need another food source, such as grain.
You can buy whole or processed grains, and commercial feeds. Common grains for horses are oats, corn and barley. Commercial grains include sweet feed, which is a mixed grain concentrate that contains molasses. Other concentrates are classified as either pelleted or extruded. Each is processed to be more appealing to horses and slightly easier to digest. Most commercially processed feeds are fortified with an appropriate balance of vitamins and minerals suitable for your horse’s particular job. A feed labeled “complete” has more fiber. These feeds are designed for older horses who eat less hay, or horses who live in areas with poor-quality forage.
Amount of Grain
Work activity and dietary needs determine how much grain a horse needs. Performance horses need more energy, so offering moderate portions of grain in addition to forage is standard practice. Conversely, if your vet tells you that your horse is an “easy keeper,” he is telling you that your horse does not need grain and that you may have to find a way to limit his forage intake or to exercise him more to prevent obesity. An average 1,000-pound horse can require 10 pounds of grain per day to supplement 10 to 15 pounds of hay or pasture grass.
- University of Kentucky, College of Agriculture, Cooperative Extension Service: Forages for Horses
- The Humane Society of the United States: The Rules of Feeding Your Horse
- University of Nebraska – Lincoln Extension, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources: Basics of Feeding Horses: Reading the Feed Tag
- Southern States: Feeding the Easy Keeper
- Department of Animal Science, University of Connecticut: Pasture: Evaluation and Management of Existing Pasture
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Based in Central Texas, Karen S. Johnson is a marketing professional with more than 30 years' experience and specializes in business and equestrian topics. Her articles have appeared in several trade and business publications such as the Houston Chronicle. Johnson also co-authored a series of communications publications for the U.S. Agency for International Development. She holds a Bachelor of Science in speech from UT-Austin.