Meeting the Horse's Basic Dietary Needs

Importance of frequent small amounts of forage in a horse's diet.
Importance of frequent small amounts of forage in a horse's diet.

Horses need small amounts of feed frequently... to maintain a healthy digestive system.

The horse's digestive system and its nutritional requirements have not changed since it was domesticated thousands of years ago. 

The horse's digestive system continues to obtain maximum nutritional benefit from a diet of high fiber and low energy grasses and hay. A basic knowledge of horse nutrition can help you provide a cost-effective and complete diet for your horse.

How should I feed my horse and why?

In the horse's natural state, it will spend most of the hours of the day grazing from plant to plant while ingesting various kinds of grasses and plants. When the horse became domesticated, it became dependent upon its owner for its feed, usually at the convenience of the owner or handler. This meant that the horse was given a large amount of feed usually twice a day.

Horse feeding in a pasture

Horse feeding in a pasture

Even pasture fed horses may require additional nutrients for a complete diet.

Unfortunately, the horse's digestive system has not had time to evolve to meet these new demands of larger feedings at given times, and, as a result, horses have a number of problems related to feeding and their digestive system.

Since a horse is unable to vomit or belch, consuming too much feed too rapidly can have disastrous consequences for the horse. The customary way of feeding horses large quantities twice a day can be unhealthy and possibly dangerous. Because the horse's colon bends back upon itself numerous times, it leads to greater utilization of the roughage in the horse's feed, but can also cause digestive problems when a horse is not fed properly.

One of the first natural needs of the horse that we need to recognize as owners and handlers is the fact that horses need small amounts of feed frequently throughout the day to maintain a healthy digestive system.

How much does a horse eat?

The second natural dietary need we should recognize is the amount of feed a horse needs to eat to maintain healthy body weight given the work load of the horse.

Most nutritional experts agree that a horse should consume at least 1.5 to 2 pounds of quality hay, grass, and grain for every 100 pounds of body weight. Horses with heavy work loads and pregnant and lactating mares need to consume up to 3 pounds of dry matter for every 100 pounds of body weight.

Will my horse be OK just eating hay?

A third important natural dietary need of the horse involves the need for a variety of plants in its diet to make sure it gets the necessary nutrients, as well as the necessary amount of chewing and roughage to keep all components of the digestive system in top working order.

A horse will nibble eagerly on all kinds of vegetable matter including tree branches and other hefty plants with thicker stems and branches in addition to grasses and hay.

Eating a variety of vegetation helps wear down the horse's teeth which are continually growing. In the wild, horses did not need to have their teeth rasped, but instead fed in such a way that the growth of its teeth were naturally kept under control.

With a small stomach, a small intestine that is 70 feet long, and a large intestine that adds another 25 feet to the digestive system, the horse needs to continually eat small amounts of feed.

This feed is ideally digested over a rather long period of time as it passes through the intestines where the nutrients are extracted. Grasses and grass hay are considered ideal for the horse's digestive system.

Is this edible? The horse decides.

Is this edible? The horse decides.

A natural diet based on varied forages found in nature is preferred.

Do I need a special horse feeder?

A fourth factor to consider when working toward feeding horses in a more natural way is the fact that wild horses foraged for feed on the ground for the most part, occasionally reaching up for tree branches or into bushes and chewing on coarser vegetation. Most feeders in barns and stalls force a horse to eat with the neck extended and the head raised instead of lowered.

With the neck extended and the head up, the horse cannot properly chew its feed, the amount of saliva decreases, tooth wear is uneven and the possibility of choke or obstruction increases. In addition, fine debris and grass particles bombard the horse's face and neck and can lead to respiratory problems as the horse inhales the falling dust and debris.

What about grain?

A fifth factor to consider in meeting the natural dietary needs of horses is that In the wilds, horses ate very little if any grain except for natural grasses and plants that had gone to seed. Since plant seeds ripen in the fall, the timing was good for the horse since it could gain extra weight to carry it through the winter months. Modern, domesticated horses are often fed too much grain considering their workload and body condition. This leads not only to obesity, but also to additional health problems.

Does my horse need extra vitamins or minerals?

A sixth item of key importance in meeting the horse's natural dietary needs is the importance of minerals which are crucial for normal functioning of the horse's body. Minerals affect energy production, fluid balance, growth, bone formation, and rate of healing. Mineral imbalances can cause a variety of skin, hoof and intestinal problems, as well as poor stress intolerance and lowered immune reserves. In the wilds, horses naturally sought out rock licks and substances along stream beds and in other places to meet their needs for salt and other trace minerals.

The seventh important factor to consider in the nutritional needs of your horse relates to furnishing plenty of clean, fresh, palatable water to your horse. For the most part, horses in the wild tended to live near streams, lakes or other natural water sources with the result that they nearly always had a supply of fresh clean water available.

The horse's daily routine includes visits to the water hole

The horse's daily routine includes visits to the water hole

In nature, a horse migrates long distances over the seasons to keep close to sources of water.


If you are ever around horses that have an opportunity to drink from a stream or pond, you will note that they often submerge their entire muzzle into the water if given the chance.  Not only do they snort and play with the water, but doing this helps clean out the nostrils and provides a refreshing moment especially on warm or hot days. Unfortunately, many horse watering bowls or troughs do not allow this kind of activity because they are too shallow or not at the correct height.

In addition, horses could wade into streams and ponds, giving their hooves an occasional moisturizing bath. Because of the horse's diet, access to water, and natural walking and running that a horse enjoyed in the wild state, the horse's hooves usually stayed healthy. Given the open country, horses were not exposed to build up of urine, manure and soiled bedding that could predispose their hooves to thrush or canker.

While it is true that horse's faced predators and other dangerous circumstances in the wild, and do live longer, safer lives as domesticated horses, you can take some cues from what worked for the horse in the wild when establishing the best feeding program possible for your horse.

Feeding guidelines for more natural nutrition

  1. A diet of high quality hay or grass will provide the energy and protein that a non-working horse requires. Remember that there are big differences between legume hay such as alfalfa and clover and grass-type hays such as Bermuda and Timothy. Consider giving your horse a tree branch or a branch from an edible shrub occasionally to help keep its teeth in working order. Educate yourself about available feeds and use your knowledge to choose wisely for your horse. If a horse is in training or is ridden frequently, you may want to supplement the diet with grain.
  2. Feed your horse as frequently throughout the day as possible. If necessary incorporate automatic feeders and waters into your system. Although not "natural" they will allow for a more grazing-like timing of feeding that will better meet the digestive requirements of your horse.
  3. When feeding hay, weigh it to make sure you are giving your horse the correct amount for its needs and, if possible, place the hay in several small piles either at ground level or slightly above to allow your horse to assume a better position when eating in a more natural grazing manner. Place the hay on in low feeders or on rubber mats or other protective surfaces if you are afraid your horse will ingest sand or dirt.
  4. Choose your hay wisely since all hay is not the same. Good hay is leafy as opposed to having too many stems. It will be a light green color as opposed to brown or dark. It will have a fresh, sweet smell with no moldy or musty odor and will contain a minimum of weeds and debris. A variety of hays and grasses from different sources should be fed to help prevent nutritional deficiencies as a result of hay grown in deficient soil
  5. If your horse's work level makes feeding grain necessary, feed a natural grain diet instead of heavily processed feeds.  Supplementing your horses diet with oats, corn or barley, or a combination of mixed grains works well for most horse owners.  Pay attention to well-researched advances in feed science, and be sure to purchase quality grain and feed according to the needs of your particular horse.
  6. Horses should have access to a free-choice salt and trace mineral product formulated for horses. Most horses instinctively limit themselves to what their bodies need when it comes to salt and trace minerals. In some cases, your veterinarian may recommend supplementing your horse's diet with other minerals and vitamins. These should be given directly to make sure that the horse gets the right amount at the right time.
  7. When providing water for your horse, follow nature as closely as possible with low shallow troughs or bowls that allow the horse to drink closer to the ground. Always make sure that troughs or bowls are clean and algae-free and contain plenty of fresh, clean, palatable water. Occasionally allow the trough or water bowl to overflow to give the horse's hooves an occasional moisturizing bath especially in warm dry weather. Don't over do letting your horse stand in water; however, because too many wet-dry episodes can lead to drying, cracking hooves.

Consider this

Although it may be impossible to imitate nature completely, by taking a few cues from the way horses satisfied their dietary needs in the wild and integrating them into the way you feed and water your equine, you can lay the foundation for a healthier, more energetic animal.

About the Author

EquiMed Staff

EquiMed staff writers team up to provide articles that require periodic updates based on evolving methods of equine healthcare. Compendia articles, core healthcare topics and more are written and updated as a group effort. Our review process includes an important veterinarian review, helping to assure the content is consistent with the latest understanding from a medical professional.