Remember that old nursery rhyme that begins, “Hay is for horses…”? As it turns out, that’s sound advice for feeding companion equines—as are the following tips from our experts at the ASPCA Pet Nutrition and Science Advisory Service.
- Base Your Horse’s Diet on Grass and Hay A horse’s digestive system is made to process large quantities of grass, which is high in fiber and water. The basic diet for most horses should consist of grass and good-quality hay that’s free of dust and mold. As a general rule, companion horses should be able to graze or eat hay whenever they want to.
- Feed Several Small Meals a Day
Because horses’ stomachs were developed for grazing, horses function better with a feeding plan based on “little and often.” ASPCA experts recommend that horses should eat several small meals—at least two, preferably three or more—in the course of a day. When feeding hay, give half the hay allowance at night, when horses have more time to eat and digest.
- No Grain, No Gain
Most horses, even fairly active ones, don’t need the extra calories found in grains. Excess grains can lead to muscle, bone and joint problems in young and adult horses. Unless directed otherwise by your veterinarian or other equine professional, it’s best to feed low-energy diets high in grass and hay.
- Be Aware of Individual Needs
Feed according to the individuality of the horse, including condition and activity level. Some horses have difficulty keeping on weight, and need more feed per unit of body weight. However, most horses should eat between 2 percent to 4 percent of their body weight daily in pounds of hay or other feeds. Your veterinarian can help you decide how and what to feed your horse.
- Water Works
Plenty of fresh, clean, unfrozen water should be available most times, even if the horse only drinks once or twice a day. Contrary to instinct, horses who are hot from strenuous exercise should not have free access to water. Rather, they should be allowed only a few sips every three to five minutes until they have adequately cooled down.
- Provide a Supplementary Salt Block
Because most diets do not contain mineral levels high enough for optimal health and performance, horses should have free access to a trace mineral and salt block. This will provide your horse with adequate levels of salt to stabilize pH and electrolyte levels, as well as adequate levels of trace minerals. As long as plenty of fresh water is available, you needn’t be concerned about overconsumption of salt.
- Take it Slow
Any changes in the diet should be made gradually to avoid colic (abdominal pain usually associated with intestinal disease) and laminitis (painful inflammation in the hoof associated with separation of the hoof bone from the hoof wall), either of which can be catastrophic. Horses are physically unable to vomit or belch. Overfeeding and rapid rates of intake are potential problems. Consequently, a horse or pony who breaks into the grain bin, or is allowed to gorge on green pasture for the first time since autumn, can be headed for a health disaster.
- Dental Care & Your Horse’s Diet: Chew On This…
Horses need their teeth to grind grass and hay, so it is important to keep teeth in good condition. At the age of five years, horses should begin annual dental checkups by a veterinarian to see if their teeth need floating (filing). Tooth quality has to be considered when deciding whether or not to feed processed grains (grains that are no longer whole, such as cracked corn and rolled oats). Horses with poor dental soundness—a particular problem in older horses—tend to benefit more from processed feed than do younger horses, who have sounder mouths and teeth.
- Exercise Caution
Stabled horses need exercise. Horses will eat better, digest food better and be less likely to colic if they get proper exercise. Horses should finish eating at least an hour before hard work. Do not feed grain to tired or hot horses until they are cooled and rested, preferably one or two hours after activity. You can feed them hay instead. To prevent hot horses from cooling down too quickly, keep them out of drafts or warm in blankets.
- Don’t Leave Home Without It
Because abrupt dietary change can have devastating results on a horse’s sensitive system, you should always bring your horse’s food with you when you travel. Additionally, some horses will refuse to drink unfamiliar water, so you may also want to bring along a supply of the water your horse regularly drinks.