Horse Food – Everything you need to know about horse feed

What do you feed a horse? How do you provide adequate nutrition to a horse without a detrimental effect? These are good questions to ask if you want to lay a foundation to maintaining a healthy horse. With so many different types of horse feed and supplements flooding the market daily, finding the answer can be a daunting task.

Furthermore, there is a lot of myth associated with horse feed. All this concocted together makes it even more difficult to comprehend. Generally, horses must be fed adequate amounts of roughage with small amounts of grain. It is also important to understand that if you are altering the food of the horse, it must be done so gradually. Furthermore, supplementation too should ideally be ingested in the horse. This is due to the fact that generally, horses do not get all their nutrition requirements from their traditional diets.

This guide intends to help you understand how to provide adequate nutrition to your horse, the types of food you can feed, the basic principles, and more. This can act as the guide or rulebook to follow to provide your horse with a healthy, nutritional horse feed.

Horse food – What do they really like to eat?

Horses like to eat roughage and grains. A horse’s diet must mainly consist of roughage as many breeds of horse do not require grain. Also called dietary fiber, roughage is food that constitutes high crude fiber. Some examples of roughage are chaff and hay. In most cases, high quality hay would suffice as horse feed for the horse to receive most of its nutritional requirements. While majority of the horse feed must comprise roughage, grains play a role in filling up the nutritional gap that roughage alone doesn’t fill.

The reason that roughage is largely recommended as horse feed is due to the fact that a horse’s digestive system is designed in a way that it efficiently absorbs the nutrition from such foods. Nevertheless, it is imperative to understand that too much of dietary fiber can be detrimental to their health. As a rule of thumb, a horse must only consume 1-2% of their bodyweight in roughage.

Grains must be fed in small quantities across several meals rather than filling up its food tray with the full daily quota at once. This is more natural to the horse and it makes the digestive process much easier too.

With the above information registered, it is imperative to also understand that you mustn’t change a horse’s diet rapidly. It must be a gradual process wherein it is advised to add on 25% of the new horse feed daily into its current diet. This would mean that the horse completely change its diet only within a week.

Horse eating grass: Why do they do it and what are the benefits?

Horses love eating grass as it is their natural food and it works wonders for their digestive system. However, it must be noted that a horse that eats too much grass can be prone to laminitis. It is important to limit this, and one way to go about it is by introducing a horse to a grazing muzzle. It is also vital to ensure that your pasture is fully cleared from any plants that can be harmful to your horse.

Benefits of grass

Grass generally contains lesser protein than other roughage. Therefore, horses eating grass can curb their appetite without an excess of protein and calories.

Since it is natural for a horse to graze on pasture the entire day, an underweight horse can be left to graze for long hours to gain weight.

  • Grass is generally rich in vitamins, minerals, and calcium.
  • It is a more natural for of horse feed.
  • A horse left to graze reduces behavioral problems.
  • It is more cost effective for your horse to eat grass.
  • It can help fix many nutritional deficiencies a horse might have

Horse grain – Introduction

Not all horses need grain, but horse grain is an imperative part of working horse’s diet. Although it may not constitute to being the majority of the horse feed, it does fill nutritional gaps that roughage cannot. Horses, especially working horses, cannot thrive on roughage alone. The most common grains are oats, barely, and corn.

All horse feed portions are determined by a horse’s size, its energy requirements, and age. For example, pregnant mares, race horses, and working horses would require larger portions of grain that other horses. By large, however, horse feed is rationed based on the weight of the horse

What is horse grain?

A horse grain is a small, dry seed that is harvested for a horse’s consumption. The most common grains you would find in horse feed are oats, barley, and corn. In the wild, the seed head of grass would be the closest that a horse would come to consuming grains. It is easy to feed a horse too much grain and therefore must be monitored closely when adding it to their feed.

A horse will eat roughly 3% a day of its bodyweight in horse feed. A 1,000lbs horse would roughly eat 30lbs horse feed a day. This should be the horse’s daily ration. Roughage would comprise majority of this ration, while grains should constitute only a small percentage of this. As a starting point, you can multiply your horse’s weight by 0.3 to determine how much grain you it can consume. On average, a 1000lbs horse can consume 1-8lbs of grain daily. However, this amount can vary depending on the horse’s exercise levels. An extremely hard-working horse can consume up to 15lbs of grains daily.

A lot of factors must be taken into account before determining the actual ration of horse feed. Too much of grain can be detrimental to a horse’s health. A lot of diseases like colic, founder, and other bone issue can be linked to overfeeding grains. For an accurate number, it is advised that you consult a veterinarian.

What grain should I feed my horse?

All horse grains are virtually equal with regard to its nutritional content. The major difference between grains lies in how easily they can be digested, its price, and its taste. The most common and accessible horse grains are oats, rye, corn, barley, and rice barn.

Rolled, crimped, or cracked grains are more digestible than whole grains. Horses can also absorb nutrition more efficiently this way. Finely ground grains rationed into the horse feed, on the other hand, can cause digestive issues.

Types of horse grain

The most commonly fed horse grains are oats, barley, and corn. Each of these horse grains can be included in the horse feed. More details pertaining to each are mentioned below.


Oats are the most popular and safest horse grain to include in your horse feed. It is regarded as the safest because of its fiber content. With about 13% fiber content, oats have more bulk per calorie. This means that a horse’s appetite is satisfied faster and it makes it more difficult for them to overeat, which, as mentioned earlier, causes diseases in horses.

Oats can be included in the horse feed as whole or processed. Processing includes, crimping, crushing, or rolling the oats. This makes it easier for the horse to digest the grain.


Barley is yet another grain that can be included in the horse feed. When compared to oats, barley has lesser fiber and is considered ‘heavy feed’. It is also more energy dense and weighs more per unit of volume than oats. It is also way harder than oats, and therefore, it is crushed or ground before it can be included in the horse feed. If not ground or crushed properly, it can cause colic in horses.


Corn is one of the most energy-dense horse grains and it also contains high volumes of carbohydrates. 1 volume of corn contains the energy of approximately 3 volumes of oats. Corn is therefore classified as ‘too hot’ a horse feed. However, for horses that have very high energy requirements, corn can be an excellent feed.

The quality of corn is measured by the well-formed kernels and the moisture content in it. However, the moisture content must not exceed 14%. Very little damaged kernels must be present in the corn for it to be considered high quality. Furthermore, kernels must be firm, plump, and separated.

Corn can be fed in the following forms.

  • On the cob – This is a form that can be introduced in the horse feed of horses that habitually eat their grains too fast. It acts as a management tool and slows down the rate of eating. It is important to note that horses with bad teeth or older horses may have difficulty in chewing corn on the cob.
  • Shelled whole corn – Some whole corn may not be digestible. Therefore, it is advised to process the kernels before introducing it to the horse feed.
  • Cracked corn – It is advised to crack the corn before feeding your horse as this allows for better digestion.
  • Steamed rolled corn – This further processes the corn and further aids in digestion. Steam rolling creates more surface area for the digestive juices to act upon.
  • Crushed or ground corn – This is corn that is further processed. However, this causes the corn to be too small. If this passes through the small intestines too rapidly, it can lead to unwanted issues

How long does horse grain last?

The more processed the horse grain, the shorter its shelf life is going to be. Nevertheless, all grains stored are susceptible to moisture seeping into them and thereby damaging the grain. Horse grain stored poorly is also vulnerable to rodent damage. Grains maintain their freshness best when stored in a cool, dry, place. Ideally, it must also be stored in air tight container to preven moisture and rodent damage.

If properly stored, the shelf life of most horse grains is up to 6 months. However, it is advisable to utilize this sooner as it may lose its nutritional value way before this. Furthermore, it also depends on the type and quality of grain. Therefore, it is wise to not store horse grains for long durations.

Should you feed your horse ‘horse grain’?

Many pleasure and trail horses do not require horse grain. High quality pasture is more than enough to fulfill their nutritional requirements. However, for horses that have high energy expenditure, like race horses or pregnant mares, grain can be added into their horse feed. It should be noted however that bulk of its calories should still come from roughage.

Horses are meant to eat roughage, and must consume 1-2% of their bodyweight in roughage a day. If this does not meet their daily nutritional requirement, small portions of grains can be included in their diet across several meals. You must avoid giving a horse too much grain in one sitting as this can cause indigestion and more severe issue like colic.

Most horses that consume grains as part of their horse feed are fed twice a day as it is convenient for their caretakers. It must be understood that not only is small, frequent meals more natural to the horse, but it also allows for easy digestion.

When starting off with horse grain, less is more. Do not overburden the horse’s digestive system by including too much grain in its horse feed. Start small and increase the quantity gradually.