Your horse is a valuable member of your family, even if he can’t pull up to the table to dine with you at Thanksgiving. And much like we want to make sure our human family members eat a healthy, balanced diet, we want our horses to eat healthy, natural foods that will improve and maintain their health. To help make sure your horse stays healthy, and in top shape, we’ve pulled together information on what do horses eat, and the foods he should avoid.
Best Nutrition Practices for Your Horse
We’ll take a look at the best foods your horse should be eating on a regular basis. This includes everything from hay to pasture grass and plants, and anything else. Here are some tips on how to best approach your horse’s dietary needs and habits.
When it Comes to Grains, Think Small but Often
While not all horses need grains, if they’re going to be fed grains, you should take the approach of small meals. For those who don’t need a lot, you’ll go with two small meals per day. For those horses who need a bit more, you’re going to do your horse a favor by feeding her three small meals of grain per day instead.
More frequent feedings for horses work much the way they do for humans: better digestion, better metabolism.
Do Gradual Feed Changes
If you need to change your horse’s feed, or his feeding schedule, it’s best to take a gradual approach to either. Sudden differences can cause colic or founder for your horse, which can lead to serious health issues.
If you’re changing the amount of feed your horse is getting, increase or decrease the amount of food a little at a time. One recommendation is small changes per meal, taking two or more weeks to make the full change.
If you’re changing the food that your horse is receiving, try replacing 25% of the old food with the new food once every two days. This means within six days, your horse is now eating 100% of his meals of the new food.
Be Accurate and Consistent When You Feed Your Horse
Grab a kitchen or postal scale, and start off by measuring the horse’s food by weight. Once you figure out how much that ration is, you can start using a cup, cap, scoop, or other instrument that holds that proper amount for an easier daily practice.
Avoid Food Right Before and Right After Exercise
Be sure to take your horse’s eating schedule into account as you plan your riding sessions. They need to have at least one hour before a ride to properly digest their meals. If you’re going for something more strenuous than a regular ride, be sure to give them three hours to digest.
If your horse is eating after his workout, make sure he cools down completely, with normal breathing rates and dry skin before feeding time commences.
Stick to a Routine
Like many people, horses require a routine to thrive. They have extremely accurate internal clocks, and are in fact, far better timekeepers than their human partners. It’s important to keep your horse on a consistent meal schedule, meaning they eat at the same times every day.
Horses that are prone to colic especially need a consistent mealtime, as sudden changes in their routine can actually trigger an episode of colic.
The Best Foods a Horse Should Eat
These foods are the best, healthiest things your horse should eat every day, or on a semi-regular basis.
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The number one, absolute best food for your horse is pasture grass and plants. Grass and similar tender plants are a horse’s natural diet if he were to live in the wild. These plants contain silica, which is vital for dental health. Plants that are a healthy choice for those able to plant their own pasture include timothy grass, Kentucky bluegrass, and perennial ryegrass.
Grazing at pasture not only provides the majority of the roughage your horse needs, but gives a minimum of exercise that helps her digest her food properly, and stay healthier for a much longer lifespan.
If you’re planning to feed your horse solely on pasture grass during the prime growing season, you’ll need to have one acre per horse for sustainability. You’ll need more than this for mares and foals, as they will require a larger volume of food.
It is important to limit the amount of pasture grass your horse has access to, however, as obesity and similar health issues can arise from having too much easy access.
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Most horses, unless they live at a very large farm, don’t have the luxury of getting the majority of their feed from pasture grass. Hay is the second-best choice for these horses. It’s important to find the right hay, though.
If possible, have the hay you’re planning to use tested for vitamins and minerals, to make sure your horse is getting enough nutrients. If you find the hay you’re using falls short, you’ll need to find corrective supplements to incorporate into your horse’s diet to make up for those shortfalls.
3. Grains for Your Horse’s Diet
Not all horses need grains. But for those who do, oats are the traditional go-to grain. Horses may also benefit from small amounts of other grains like corn, but wheat is a bad idea for your horse.
Feeding too many grains to your horse can be dangerous, though, so be sure to limit the amount you give her. Grains as we have them available to us today don’t require the chewing time, don’t contain the necessary silica of grass and have other elements that may contribute to ulcers and dental problems, if not given in small quantities to your horse.
Before you start giving your horse grains, consider things like the size of your horse, and the amount of work he does. The larger the horse, the more grains are needed. The more active and hard-working the horse, the more he’ll need as well.
Also, consider the amount of pasture and hay your horse gets before you settle on the amount of grains to feed him. If your horse has sufficient pasture, and sufficient hay, he’s not going to need much grain at all.
4. Concrete Mixes Can Fill the Gaps
Concrete mixes are usually a mixture of grains, beet pulp, molasses, and flax seeds. These mixes may also include things like bran, minerals, vitamins, and other ingredients to provide a well-rounded dietary supplemental food for your horse.
These concrete mixes can also help make up for any shortfalls in your horse’s diet, and provide a quick source of energy. They’re also especially beneficial to nursing mares, their foals, and working or performance horses.
5. Treats for Your Faithful Friend
Most of us love giving our horses treats. And they love it when we do. Apples, carrots, and other favorite fruits and veggies, handfuls of grain, or even the occasional sugar cube can be fine for your horse. Avoid candy and sugar being a frequent treat, and instead, focus on healthy options like carrots and lettuce.
Other Healthy Nutrition Aspects of Your Horse’s Diet
Horse need other nutritional elements as well, like salt, water, and supplements. Here’s what you should look out for in these areas.
Salts and Minerals for Optimum Health
Horses need some supplements for their best possible health. Sometimes, these are incorporated into concrete mixes, as we’ve mentioned before, but they may also need something like a salt lick, or loose salt in the pasture or stall. If these are available to them, they can get that salt fix whenever they have a craving.
Mineral supplements can be added to grains or concentrate meals or can be free choice in your horse’s stall as well.
Clean Water Should Always Be Available
Of course, one of the absolute most important things for your horse’s health is good, clean water available at all times. You’ll want to clean out water tanks regularly and make sure they are clear of any algae, mold, or other build-up that can develop when water sits stagnant for a time.
Horses Should Never Eat These Things
Not only do you need to know the good choices to incorporate into your horse’s diet, but the things they should never eat. So, we’ve compiled a list of the things horses should never eat.
Too Much Fruit
It’s tempting to give our equine friends as many apples as they’d like when we’re treating them. And while we humans can’t handle too much fruit at once, a horse can actually get colic, and even founder, which can be crippling.
While you probably wouldn’t give more than an apple or two to your horse, the danger is when they have access to the fruit that falls from a tree nearby, or someone dumps spoiled fruit near them. Be sure to post warnings or let kids and visitors know not to give so many to your horses.
Garden and Lawn Clippings
Clippings from your lawn and garden can contain a variety of hazards to your horse’s health. Toxic plants may be in the mix, like lily of the valley, or rhubarb leaves. The sprays from the lawn and garden that control pests are definitely in the clippings and may cause serious health issues for your horse.
The sugars in just-cut or semi-wilted plants may also cause a problem in a couple of ways. First, they could cause colic or founder because of the sugars in the clippings that may cause an imbalance in your horse’s gut flora. This can also lead to laminitis – founder.
The other reason clippings can cause issues for your horse is because they don’t have to graze and chew, they may fill up too fast, which can cause choking and colic.
Meat and Animal Protein Items
Most of us think horses don’t eat meat, even when it’s available to them. But they can sometimes get a little exploratory and try things out. They may grab onto your bucket of fried chicken or other meat items that have been left within reach.
But just because a horse might eat meat or poultry doesn’t mean they should eat it. A little bit won’t harm him, most likely, but because horses are herbivores, their teeth and digestive tracts are designed for working with plant-based materials.
Moldy or Dusty Hay
If you don’t have a pasture available to your horse, high-quality hay is the next best choice for feed. But dusty and moldy hay can make your horse ill, so dispose of it properly and get some new hay in.
Bran Mashes for “Cleansing”
Some horse barns have used the method of serving bran mash to their horses once quarterly. However, horses eat mostly fiber already, so adding bran in can affect the gut flora and cause issues because of that. Plus, bran has little nutritional value, so it’s rather a waste of time and energy doing this process.
Cruciferous Vegetables from the Kitchen
Broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and bok choy are delicious for humans when they’re prepared properly. But horses can get uncomfortable and gassy from these, just like humans do. You can give them a few leaves or bites of these tasty plants, but it’s highly recommended you don’t do more than that to help your pal keeping well.
Cattle Feed and Other Non-Horse Feeds
Cattle feed contains some supplements that are great for cows and bulls but are very toxic to horses. Drugs like Rumencin are often added to cattle feed and are deadly for horses. Always make sure you buy food for your horse that comes from mills that specialize exclusively in making horse feeds.
Alsike Clover, a Dangerous Weed
This kind of clover may be pretty, but it can cause some pretty serious issues for your horse. Nasty sunburn, sores in the mouth, colic, diarrhea, and even “big liver syndrome” may result from your horse chowing down on this plant.
Alsike clover can grow up to 30-inches high and has round pink flower heads.
Keeping Your Horse Healthy with the Right Foods
Your horse has a very strict set of dietary needs that should be met through a variety of healthy options. Pasture grass is, of course, the number one food, followed by hay. They need clean water, and access to minerals and salt that they may not get naturally through their daily food choices in the fields.
You’ll always want to make sure you avoid giving them harmful foods, like yard clippings or alsike clover, and always keep them away from meat, even if they think they like it.