When Horses Have Special Dietary Requirements

Dietary needs as they relate to age, health, and job of horse.
Dietary needs as they relate to age, health, and job of horse.

Several categories of horses need special diets to preserve and improve health and to meet daily nutritional requirements including the following:

  • Horses of different ages from foal to senior horse
  • Horses with heavy workloads or specialized performance horses

No matter what age your horse is, what condition it is in or what its requirements are for necessary energy to meet workload demands or special training requirements, knowing and following a few rules for good nutrition will allow your horse to reach its maximum potential.

How age affects dietary needs: Foals

Mom, the foals basic nutrition source

Mom, the foals basic nutrition source

Foals depend on their mothers milk for the first couple of months, but then begin "creep" feeding.

Most foals get all the nutrition they need by nursing during the first 2 to 3 months of life and are commonly weaned by the age of 6 months. When a foal is a few days to 3 weeks old, it will often begin nibbling on the mare's grain and hay.

Nutritionists often recommend a creep feed ration for foals beginning around 2 months. A creep feed ration is a concentrate mix composed of processed grain specifically formulated to meet the needs of a nursing foal.

A creep feed ration does two specific things for the foal:

  1. It allows the foal to gain weight at a faster rate than a foal that continues to get all its nutrition from nursing.
  2. It helps prevent a compensatory growth spurt after weaning that greatly increases the risk of a developmental orthopedic disease.

The recommended composition of a creep feed ration for a foal contains 16 percent crude protein, 0.9 percent calcium, and 0.6 percent phosphorus based on the total weight of the ration. These formulated rations can be obtained from nearly any equine feed store.

Creep feeds are fed free choice along with all the hay or forage a nursing foal will consume. Once the foal is consuming 4 to 5 pounds a day, the creep feed should be restricted to 1/2 to 3/4 pounds per 100 pounds of weight to prevent too much weight gain leading to developmental orthopedic disease.

A creep feeder can be constructed by placing a feeder inside an enclosure that only the foal can get into, or the ration may be put in a feed box with bars arranged so that the foal can get it's nose through, but the mare or another horse's nose won't fit through the opening.

The foal should also have access to trace-mineralized salt along with plenty of fresh, clean water.

The orphaned foal

An orphan foal or a foal rejected by its mother has special dietary needs beginning with a supply of colostrum if it is not able to nurse shortly after birth. This special milk, high in fat, vitamins, minerals and protein along with immunoglobulin antibodies and other immune substances that protect the foal from neonatal diseases is extremely important

Lack of receiving the necessary colostrum is cited as the singular most important cause of neonatal infection and death during the first few weeks of life.

If the mare's colostrum is not available, the foal can be given cow colostrum, equine blood plasma or freeze-dried IgG (serum immunoglobulin). The best way to give the colostrum is with a feeding bottle. Colostrum also provides the needed supply of vitamin A, and in a colostrum-deficient foal, the vitamin A can be given with an intramuscular injection.

The new-born foal can be placed with and raised by another lactating mare, if available, or with a milk goat if one is available. Although the composition of goat's milk differs from mare's milk, it is close enough to not cause problems. For the foal to nurse, the nanny will have to stand on a platform or some foals appear to be comfortable nursing while on their knees.

If neither a lactating mare or a milk goat are available, most likely the foal will need to be hand raised.

The dietary energy and water requirements of the young foal are high amounting to approximately 14 quarts per day for a newborn foal. When it is necessary to raise the foal by hand, you will need to furnish milk substitute in the correct amount with careful attention to feeding and hygiene. A good quality milk-replacer will have at least 20 percent crude protein from milk sources, at least 15 percent fat and no more than 0.2 percent crude fiber.

The foal may be fed by bottle or by bucket. Bucket feeding is easier and faster. Get the foal used to eating this way by using a shallow pan so the foal's nose can touch the bottom. Dip your fingers into the milk and allow the foal to suck on your fingers. If the foal doesn't suck well, move your fingers against its tongue and palate to stimulate the sucking reflex.

Teaching a foal to feed from a bucket may take only a few minutes to several hours, but is well worth the time spent. When the foal is several days old, you can begin feeding milk replacer pellets that are available in feed stores. Begin by placing the pellets in the foals mouth several times a day, then put the recommended amount of pellets into a bucket.

Once the foal is eating 2 to 3 pounds of milk replacer pellets a day, add a high quality creep feed ration, and, once the foal is eating 4 to 6 pounds of creep feed, the milk replacer pellets can be stopped.


Once the foal reaches the age of 5 to 7 months, weaning usually takes place. Most weanlings will consume 2 to 2.3 percent of their body weight in feed per day. The daily ration should consist of a hay to grain ratio of 40 to 60 percent by weight. The weanling should also consume at least 1 pound of good-quality roughage for every 100 pounds weight.

Ensure that adequate amounts of minerals are included in the weanling's diet. A properly formulated grain mix will meet the mineral requirements,

Over-feeding can become a problem in growing horses because of excessive weight gain and spurts of growth that may cause developmental orthopedic disease. Feeding more than 6 to 8 pounds of grain is not necessary unless hay quality is poor. The daily allotment of high-quality legume hay should be restricted to 1/2 pound per 100 pounds of weight and supplemented with good quality forage.

Yearlings and beyond

The awkward and growing yearling

The awkward and growing yearling

The transition from grain supplemented forage to free choice forage occurs during the second year of the horse's life.

The average horse has reached 65 to 70 percent of its mature weight by the time it is a year old. At this time, growth slows and nutritional requirements change.

Feed for yearlings should be approximately 50 percent hay and 50 percent grain by weight. One pound of grain mix concentrate per 100 pounds of weight, up to a maximum of 9 pounds should be fed.

Once a young horse reaches 90 percent of its anticipated adult weight around age 2, feed can consist of all the free-choice good quality hay or pasture the horse wants to eat along with .75 to 1 pound of grain mix per 100 pounds of body weight per day.

This feed program can continue for the next several years or until the horse's dietary requirements change based on work load, exercise level or other factors.

Senior horses

Specially formulated senior horse feeds

Specially formulated senior horse feeds

Changes to the digestive tract, including teeth, man require changes to how you feed the older horse.

As a horse ages, its digestive system undergoes changes and becomes less efficient. Hormonal and metabolic changes may interfere with the ability to digest, absorb and utilize essential nutrients in feed. In addition horses loose teeth and develop tongue, gum and other mouth-related problems. This creates difficulty in chewing feed properly.

These special needs of senior horses make it likely that you will need to re-evaluate your feeding program as your horse ages. When selecting feed, consider these essentials for the senior horse:

  1. Feed should be highly palatable, easy to chew and swallow
  2. Feed should be clean and dust-free to prevent or lessen possibilities of allergies and lung disease
  3. Feed should provide 12 to 16 percent protein and contain enough high-quality fiber to aid digestion
  4. Essential minerals and vitamins should be provided, especially calcium and phosphorus in the proper ration and vitamin C and the B-complex vitamins
  5. Feed should provide enough readily available energy to maintain proper body condition
  6. Feed should provide adequate, palatable fat from a vegetable source to promote healthy skin, hair, aid digestion and boost energy intake

Because of many improvements in nutrition, management and health care, horses are living longer. While genetics play a determining role in longevity, proper nutrition means a healthier, more productive senior horse.

Dietary needs of the performance or working horse

Energy is the greatest need of the athletic horse. The degree and intensity of the exercise determines how much energy the horse needs above mere maintenance.

The actual amount of additional energy depends on several factors:

  • Type of work
  • Speed and length of work
  • Condition of the horse
  • Parasite infestation
  • Environmental temperature and amount of humidity

One important thing to remember in feeding the performance horse is that you need to increase only the amount of energy fed. The athletic horse in training has no more need for an increase in the concentrate or percentage of other nutrients in the diet than a horse of the same class that is not being worked.

To meet the working horse's energy need, provide 3/4 to 1 1/2 pound of grain per 100 pounds of body weight in addition liberal amounts of good quality hay. The horse needs plenty of long stem forage to aid in normal gastro-intestinal functioning. The ideal ration will include at least 50 percent forage.

The equine athelete needs more

The equine athlete needs more

The heavy workload of a performance horse means potentially heavy grain supplementation to meet the caloric requirements.
© Dale A Stork / Shutterstock.com

For horses working at high intensity, 50 percent hay may not meet its daily nutrient/energy requirements and a high quality concentrate may need to be fed at more than 50 percent of the diet.

Horses consuming less that .5 pounds of forage per 100 pounds of body weight are considered at high risk for colic. When formulating diets for horses at high work intensities, wheat bran should be included to help ensure adequate fiber intake.

Performance horses are individuals and will vary greatly in their requirements for feed. It is important to monitor each horse's condition constantly and feed accordingly.

If the horse is too thin, increase the grain; if the horse is too fat, reduce the amount of grain and increase the hay. According to the National Research Council's Nutrient Requirements for Horse's guide, the energy requirements of horses involved in various activities are:

  1. For light work such as Western pleasure, bridle path hack equitation, etc., the horse needs 21.89 Digestible Energy (Mcal) and 1.0 Digestible Energy Concentration Mcal/lb
  2. For medium work such as ranch work, roping, cutting, barrel racing, jumping, etc., the horse needs 28.89 Digestible Energy (Mcal) and 1.2 Digestible Energy Concentration Mcal/lb
  3. For heavy work such as race training, polo, cross country riding 3-day eventing, etc., the horse needs 34.00 Digestible Energy (Mcal) and 1.25 Digestible Energy Concentration Mcal/lb.

The use of fat in rations for performance horses has two purposes:

  1. To condition the horse to more efficiently utilize fat stores
  2. To adapt the enzymes involved to more efficient fat metabolism. Fat is most likely the horse's primary energy source during long period of exercise and if the horse is adapted to using fat, it can use fat stores more efficiently.

Consider this

Knowing the individual horse's nutrient needs is very important. As a horse person, your skill in feeding the performance horse cannot be replaced no matter what the feeding recommendations are. You are there with your horse and see and feel its energy at various levels. Your good judgment in educating yourself about the horse's dietary requirements and knowing what works best are extremely important.

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.