How to Feed a Horse

Feeding Methods

Naturally, horses are grazing animals. Grass is cut by the incisors and ground by the molars. The food is mixed with saliva and swallowed, and then it passes to the stomach. The stomach is designed to hold only small amounts of food. This means that a horse doing heavy exercise may be unable to eat enough grass or hay at one time to replace the expended energy. This problem can be avoided by feeding small amounts of concentrated feeds; concentrates provide more energy for a given volume of food than grass or hay.

Giving food on the ground allows a horse to eat in a natural way, as if it was grazing on grass, but it is wasteful. The food is mixed with soil and spread out so thinly that the horse cannot pick up all the individual pieces. Another disadvantage is that the horse may pick up silt or sand that may result in colic.

A bucket is designed to keep food together, making it easier to eat. Keep one bucket per horse and use ones that do not have handles so that a horse cannot get its foot trapped. In a field, place the buckets far apart, so that horses do not eat from another horse’s bucket. A horse with respiratory problems should always be fed with its head down; this lets mucus drain out of the respiratory system and not into the lungs.

Feeding in a manger ensures that the horse cannot spill any of the contents, as it could by easily kicking over a bucket. Besides saving space, it also stops a stabled horse from playing with the container if it becomes bored.

Feeding Rules

Always make any feeding changes gradually. This allows the digestive system to adjust. It applies to new batches of hay, new brands of feed, as well as changes in food type; this even includes grass.

Never increase the amount of food in anticipation of a future increase in work. Feed a horse more concentrates if it has lost weight, not because you might want to increase its workload. An imbalance between food and work can lead to azoturia or lymphangitis. You should also reduce feed before reducing a horse’s workload.

Feed your horse only good-quality food. Cleanliness is a reasonable guide to quality for concentrated feeds. If feeds are dull and dusty, their nutritional value will be low. Perfectly good and nutritious hay, on the other hand, may still be a health hazard because of a potentially high number of fungal spores.

Allow the horse access to roughage of some sort for most of the day. The horse’s digestive system is designed to deal with almost continuous amounts of roughage, but is not designed for intakes of large meals.

Always feed by weight rather than volume. Feeds vary in their volume for a given weight, so a scoop of one feed may not be the equivalent of a scoop of another feed. Each type of feed also varies in its volume for a given weight with every batch you buy.

Do not disturb or work a horse during or immediately after feeding. Also, do not feed a horse immediately after working. The blood supply to the horse’s muscles is increased during work. Consequently, the supply to the digestive system is decreased, which can cause faulty digestion. Also, if the horse is alarmed, it may swallow the food before it is properly chewed, possibly causing colic or choking.

Feed your horse concentrates in small amounts at the same times every day. This balances out the workload of the horse’s digestive system, reducing the risk of colic. Feed at regular intervals, not only when it is convenient.

Make clean water readily available, but do not let a horse drink too much right after exercising. Hay and concentrates are drier than grass. Therefore, water can be added to the feed or the hay in order to wet down prior to feeding.

Checking a Horse’s Weight

Use the horse’s weight to assess the effects of your feeding and exercise program, not to determine how much to feed. Large animal hospitals and veterinary schools have scales that can weigh a horse. At home, you can use an ordinary tape measure to find out the horse’s girth and length (from the point of shoulder to the point of buttock), and calculate the weight in pounds using the formula below.

Weight (lb.) = girth2 (in.) x length (in.) ÷ 300



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