Nutritional Needs of a Horse

Nutritional needs of a horse

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Every horse has an individual body structure that determines its height and body shape. A horse also has a unique metabolism which influences how well it digests food and absorbs nutrients. The same amount of food for one horse will have a different effect on another. Its nutritional needs vary depending on whether it is stabled, kept in a field, clipped or not clipped. In order for your horse to meet its daily nutritional needs, it should be fed a balanced diet of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.

Parts of a Balanced Diet

Part of the Diet

Nature of the Element



Proteins act as the body’s building blocks. Muscle is mostly comprised of protein; tendons and ligaments also have high protein content.

The needs of most horses are met by grass in the summer or hay in the winter. Soybean is a good, inclusive protein found in pellets.


Carbohydrates, the source of energy, are stored as glycogen in the muscles, ready for instant use during exercise.

Grass or hay gives enough for maintenance, but usually not for work. Grains, such as oats, are the major energy source.


Fats or oils are another valuable energy source because they can be broken down to simple, easily used carbohydrates.

Many premixed foods include vegetable oils. Up to 15% of a horse’s energy needs can be efficiently provided by vegetable oil.


Much of the horse’s body contains “built-in” water; it is the primary medium for carrying substances around the body.

Spring grass may have high water content, but most of a horse’s needs are taken care of via drinking. Water must be fresh and clean.


Bones need minerals; other body tissues have some mineral requirements.

Alfalfa is a rich mineral source. They are also taken in with soil during grazing. Salt is generally obtained through a salt lick.

When performing physical labor, a horse should be fed mostly roughage. However, grass and hay cannot usually supply all the necessary energy needed for extensive work. Their digestive system cannot handle the bulk needed; extra nutrients are fed as horse supplements.

You must feed your horse according to its particular needs. Some ponies and horses do not need the extra nutrients, even when they are working. It is important to understand what types of activity indicate each work classification to better understand how much you should be feeding.

  • Activities of a light work horse include walking with some trotting - feed up to 15% concentrates.
  • Medium work includes some jumping, cantering, or galloping - feed up to 30% concentrates.
  • Horses that spend two hours per day galloping or competing are considered hard working - feed up to 45% concentrates.
  • Maintenance (no work) horses usually require no extra nutrients and do well instead with high quality roughage as a way to maintain normal weight.

Special Needs

If a horse is out of kilter in weight, whether it be over or under, do not suddenly alter its diet to compensate. It can be harmful to put an overweight horse on a crash diet since its digestive system cannot cope. As a guide, you should be able to see where the ribs end, but not be able to see the shape of each rib.

A horse that lives outside will use more energy for warmth in damp, wet and windy weather; they’ll need extra nutrients. It may also need additional folic acid supplements to make up for lower levels of the nutrient in grass. A stabled horse may not need more food than usual in the summer.

Senior horses may benefit from processed roughage like chopped straw or complete horse pellets. Lost teeth sometimes reduce their ability to eat hay. Senior horses need protein to replace muscle tissue broken down by metabolic aging, instead of carbohydrates which provide energy. If the horse is working, regular feeds maintain the energy levels.

Planning a Diet

When mixing feeds, first decide what type of work the horse will be performing; this parallels how much energy it must receive. Once you determined this, you can then combine feeds that will provide the necessary energy; make sure the feeds are concentrated enough for the horse to eat in one day.

In equine nutrition, energy in food is usually expressed in megacalories (Mcal) in a pound (1 Mcal = 1,000,000 calories).

Here is a list of energy values for specific feeds:

Oats: 1.5 Mcal/lb., Corn: 1.7 Mcal/lb., Barley: 1.6 Mcal/lb., Beet pulp: 1.3 Mcal/lb., Bran: 1.2 Mcal/lb.

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