14 October 2023

Horse diet: how and what you need to feed to keep a healthy and happy horse

Horse field management: a herd of horses graze in a lovely green paddock

Horse diet is at the core of keeping your four-legged friend happy, healthy and able to do the job you enjoy doing together the most. Every horse owner wants to do the best by their horses, yet modern management and feeding practices aren’t always helpful when it comes to nourishing their bodies in a natural, most effective way. It can be a difficult balance for many owners to meet their horse’s mental, physical and dietary needs.

Correct horse diet is important for supporting their immune system, which is the body’s defence against disease and is one of the most complex systems in the horse. Making sure your horse gets a high quality and fully balanced diet with all the vitamins and minerals they need is essential for a healthy immune system.

Appropriate feeding that meets (but not exceeds) the horse’s nutritional needs can help prevent immunity-related problems developing. Correct horse diet means feeding a balanced diet, with concentrate feed given at the recommended amounts for the horse’s size and workload. If you’re feeding less than this, it’s important to add a broad spectrum vitamin and mineral supplement to make up for any short-fall.

Choosing a feed or a supplement that contains prebiotics and probiotics can also benefit your horse as these help to maintain a healthy digestive system, which in turn promotes all-round good health. A variety of herbal supplements are available that are thought to provide natural support to the immune system as well.

Improving horse diet

According to Rossdales vet and former BEVA president Lucy Grieve MRCVS, there are two lifestyle areas that you can reassess to improve your horse’s quality of life. The first is diet:

1. Make forage and balancer a priority 

Only feed hard/concentrate feed if forage intake is at a maximum/ad-lib and more energy is required in order for your horse to carry out the work he does. Speak to a nutritionist for advice on this.

2. Slow the rate of feeding

Where forage intake needs to be limited, try to slow the rate of feeding by using trickle feeding nets and grazing muzzles. Cafeteria feeding can also help if done correctly. Strip grazing (when done correctly) and track systems can slow grass intake.

3. Feed your horse as an individual

Much like people, every horse is different and one of the golden rules of feeding is ‘feeding the individual’, which can be viewed as a dietary check list that should be considered when creating or reviewing your horse or pony’s diet.

Physical and mental wellbeing

The second lifestyle area that you can reassess to improve your horse’s quality of life, says Lucy, is physical and mental wellbeing:

1. Provide as much turnout as possible

Getting your horse out and moving will benefit your horse mentally and physically, but access to too much grazing can cause their waistline to expand and they risk becoming overweight. Grass intake needs to be regulated by type of field, size of field, number of horses grazing and use of grazing muzzles. When turnout is not possible, alternative access to outdoor space and equine company is important.

2. Turnout with other horses

Interaction between horses increases the amount they move when turned out.

3. Use a track system

Any field can be adapted to encourage greater movement. There are some fabulous guides to this available. Track system expert Dr Tamzin Furtado recommends this online article about grazing systems, the book Paddock Paradise by Jaime Jackson, and the Facebook group Track Systems UK.

4. Ride as frequently as you can

Consider sharing your horse if you struggle to find the time yourself.

5. Vary the type of exercise

Adding variety can stop you and your horse from getting bored. Try schooling, jumping, lungeing, hacking, and in-hand groundwork. Interval training is also easy and enjoyable to do, with great results.

6. Vary the terrain

Riding on a variety of terrains can also make your horse work harder. Use your arena, but also work them on grass and roads, incorporate hill work and, if possible, ride in water.

7. Avoid rugging or use the lightest rug possible

Horses don’t feel cold in the same way that people do and eating fibre enables the body to heat itself. Of course there are exceptions and most horses will need a rug at some point, but by avoiding rugging when a horse doesn’t really need one, or not reaching for the thickest one you can find, you encourage movement and your horse will use any excess calories to keep themselves warm. It is particularly important for a good doer to be able to do this.

8. Toys and feeders

Safe toys and trickle-feeders, such as treat balls, can be used to increase movement and create mental stimulation in order to access food. It is important to do what you can to prevent boredom in a horse who is on box rest or restricted turnout to prevent them becoming stressed and unhappy.

9. Forage feeding

Where there is a need to supplement the diet with hay or concentrate feed, this can be done in a way that increases movement; for example, by dividing up rations and locating them in different parts of the field.

Teeth condition and horse diet

The condition of your horse’s teeth is one of the main influencing factors on how effective the diet is that you are providing your horse. That’s because, quite simply, if their teeth are in poor condition, or they are in pain, the horse won’t be able to eat what you are giving them. Regular teeth checks from your equine dental technician or vet, at least every six months unless you are otherwise advised, are essential. Prevention is better than cure when it comes to dentistry, and so spotting a potential problem earlier often makes it easier to fix and will have less long-term effects on your horse’s diet and overall health.

One sign of poor teeth condition is dropping bits of partially chewed hay, which is called quitting and can be a sign that the horse is struggling to chew long fibre.

Unfortunately, even with the best care and regular routine treatments, there is little that can be done to prevent the deterioration in dental condition that occurs with age,” says Allen & Page nutritionist Joanna Palmer. “Old horses and ponies with worn, loose, or missing teeth can struggle to chew efficiently or be deterred from doing so by a dental pain and sore gums.

“Normal fibre sources, such as grass, hay and chaff can become difficult to eat, so providing alternative sources of fibre that can be easily chewed may be necessary. Feeding a quick-soaking fibre feed as a complete or partial hay replacer is a way of providing your horse with the essential fibre he needs in a form that is easy to eat.”

Further reading from Your Horse about horse diet

Horse diet is a massive topic and there will always be new things to learn, knowledge to refresh and updated advice to be aware of. Other key areas that may be of interest to you are: how to feed a poor doer or a good doer; how to feed a competition horse or a horse who has a tendency to get excited; why straw does have a place in most horses’ diets, why the time of day you ride and feed affects the risks of gastric ulcers, plus how to calculate how much forage your horse requires and how to check the quality of the hay you are providing.

Your Horse’s feeding advice area is updated regularly with the latest expert know-how from vets, nutritionists and other experts.

Have you heard about Your Horse’s #FitNotFat campaign? Equine obesity is an enormous welfare problem that goes hand-in-hand with horse diet and we’re on a mission to provide owners and riders with the knowledge, skills and information you need to keep your horse in tip-top health. It could be life saving! Find out more

Lucy Grieve MRCVS

by Lucy Grieve MRCVS

Lucy Grieve MA VetMB MRCVS is an ambulatory vet at Rossdales in Newmarket. She works with all types of horses, from happy hackers through to amateur sports horses to elite racehorses. Her main areas of interest are horse lameness. diagnostic imaging and poor performance, and she is passionate about maximising the welfare of horses at all times. Lucy is a former President of the British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA).

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