As herbivores, horses evolved to consume a plant-based diet. Over the millennia, their working partnerships with humans resulted in different kinds of horse food, especially the development of feeding grains for energy purposes. While the modern horse owner has more choices than ever regarding commercial horse feeds, hay and pasture still remain the basics of the equine diet. Consult your vet for recommendations on the best way to feed your particular horse.
Pasture for Horses
Not only can sufficient pasture sustain your horse during the late spring into early fall, it also provides regular exercise. If you intend to feed your horse solely on pasture during the prime growing season, you'll need at least 1 acre per horse for sustainability -- more if you have mares and foals. If planning a pasture, your county agricultural extension service can advise you on the best grasses to plant based on your region and soils. Typical pasture grasses include timothy, Kentucky bluegrass and perennial rye grass.
Hays and Legumes
Your horse should consume between 1 and 2 percent of his body weight daily in hay or other forage. Use a measuring tape designed for horses to ascertain his weight. Hay is a vital part of the diet if the horse is not on good pasture. The type of hay you feed your horse may depend on regional availability. Common grass hays include timothy, orchard grass, brome and coastal Bermuda -- the latter two usually found in the southern United States. These hays might be mixed with alfalfa, a legume high in protein and calcium. You can give your horse straight alfalfa, but be wary of feeding free choice, as with other hays. In the western U.S., alfalfa is often in greater supply than other types of equine forage.
Horses don't necessarily need grain. Those in light work, or easy keepers, can often do without grain meals. Your vet can advise you on whether your horse should have grain, based on his work level and any health issues. Oats, corn and barley are among the common grains fed either straight or in concentrates making up commercial feeds. Today's horse owner can choose from special diets designed for young, old, athletic and pleasure horses.
Carrots and apples are the classic equine snack food. Always feed a horse with the snacks flat in the palm of your hand, so he won't accidentally grab a finger. Because of choking hazards, cut up apples and break apart carrots before feeding. Feed stores and tack shops sell commercial treats designed especially for equines. Stud muffins, anyone?
- University of Missouri Extension: Feeding Horses
- Purdue University: Selecting Quality Hay for Horses
- Equisearch: Is Alfalfa a Wise Choice?
- Penn State Extension: Pasture and Hay for Horses
- Rutgers Equine Science Center: Nutrition Grain and Feed Mixes
- Merck Veterinary Manual: Feeding Practices in Horses
Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.