Nutrition for Horses



Horses are noble and intelligent animals, beloved by millions. Nutrition is key to their health and wellness. Horses need the right mix of carbohydrates, proteins, and vitamins to thrive. Adequate hydration and even vitamin supplements are important. By feeding your horse an optimal diet, you can reduce the chance of injury and increase lifespan.


Horses ruminate their way through about 2% of their body weight per day. Most of this is pure carbohydrates derived from grasses. Forages are by far the largest percentage of a horse’s food. Good pasture grasses for equine nutrition include timothy-grass, alfalfa, rye and clover.


One important variable is the role of climate in determining what grasses are available. Horses in Kentucky, Connecticut and California will all have different diets. Some areas have water with higher mineral content. Horses in areas with less nutritionally dense grass, or water with fewer minerals, may require supplementation.


Only a small percentage, often under 5%, of a horse’s diet comes from fat. In fact, the naturally occurring fats in the plant material a horse consumes are more than adequate to meet nutritional needs. Protein is usually consumed in the form of legume hay. Commercially produced concentrate pellet feed can also be a key source of protein.


Special Considerations

The average horse can thrive on forage. Commercial concentrate feed is a great tool for horses with special needs. These include breeding horses, working horses, and very young horses.


Young horses need to be monitored fairly closely. They should gain weight at a fairly steady pace. For foals, protein ratios of about 15% are common. However, this should be adjusted both before and after weaning.


It’s obvious that horses that work hard require heavier caloric intake than pleasure horses. If your horse is working up a sweat several times a week, it can be appropriate to add an extra ten pounds of feed. However, owners should be careful not to introduce too much feed too quickly.



Horses always require ample fresh water. For a working horse such as a hunter, or for any lactating mare, it is important to provide even more water than normal. It’s also important to remember that water is key to digestion. For each pound of forage a horse consumes, he or she needs about half a gallon of water to process it.


County extension offices, specialty websites and magazines are great resources for further facts and research regarding equine nutrition.