Do Horses Need to Eat All the Time? Managing Your Horse’s Diet


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Some owners provide constant access to hay or grass for their horses because they believe horses need to eat all the time. But is this necessary? I decided to research the issue to find out if horses really need to eat all the time or can a rationed diet work just as well.

Horses don’t need to eat all the time, but it does help their digestion to eat small amounts of forage throughout the day. Constant access to hay helps promote healthy digestion; however, you need to consider your horse’s age, diet, and digestive health, along with the type of forage it’s eating.

Many horse owners feed their horses on a standard schedule. But all horses aren’t the same, and some may need to eat more often than others to stay healthy and perform their best.

Should horses have free access to hay?

Feeding horses isn’t complicated, but there are critical considerations, they require forage in their diet, and too much grain can cause severe health issues.

picture of a horse grazing in a pasture,

There is no downside to allowing most horses constant access to hay, but is it necessary? No, but they do need to consume enough during the day to keep their digestive system performing optimally.

If your horse doesn’t have the opportunity to graze in a pasture all day, then it’s a good practice to feed it hay multiple times per day.

Constant access to hay or pasture isn’t good for all horses.

I said there are no negatives to free access to hay, but that’s not entirely accurate. Too much rich hay can cause health complications in some horses, especially ones considered “easy keepers.”

“Easy keepers” are horses that tend to put on weight, even on a sparse diet. They are great for owners because you don’t need to supplement their diet with grain or quality hay.

But the downside is they are at a higher risk of founder from overeating lush pasture grass or rich hay. Founder is a severe inflammation of the hoof’s laminae, which can result in permanent lameness.

Picture of a fjord horse. They are "easy keepers."
Fjord horses:” easy keepers”

Horses that eat too much rich hay also can develop diarrhea. Diarrhea caused by eating lush grass or hay typically only last a couple of days. But you need to control the amount of time your horse has access to these rich forages to prevent it from recurring.

Rich or lush grasses are ones high in starch and carbohydrates. Most new grass, i.e., spring pastures, are rich, and because of this, horses’ grazing time should be limited.

Alfalfa is rich and should be fed in limited amounts. To make portioning alfalfa easier, you can buy it in pellets or cubes. Some horse owners turn out their horses in the spring with grazing muzzles to limit their grass intake.

Grazing muzzles are a great option for many owners because it allows a to be kept in a pasture but limits their grass intake.

Picture of a horse wearing a grazing muzzle.

Managing grazing and feeding times

Let’s start back-up and tackle the big question, do horses need to eat all the time? The simple answer to the question is no. Horses do not need to be fed all the time.

Their feeding schedule is influenced by their breed and the amount of exercise a horse gets in a day. Managing a horse’s diet can be a bit tricky as you have so many options to choose from.

Such as grain, supplements, pastures(grass), hay, and whatnot. So do horses need to eat all the time? No, they, in fact, have a precise internal clock when it comes to feeding. Let’s dive deep into the subject to know more.

Horses have a very delicate digestive system. So if they’ve been stall kept for a period, you should introduce them to pasture grazing slowly. Start by turning them out for a few hours a day.

Once they are accustomed to grazing pastures or grass, you can increase the time and let them graze anywhere between 3 and 4 hours twice a day, depending on the pasture’s size. If you have a large field with good green grass, you can even let them graze for 6 hours straight.

For horses that spend most of their time inside a stall without any access to pastures, you need to feeding them hay multiple times a day. Three times a day is better than two times, and four times a day would be ideal.

I would even suggest putting enough hay in the stall to last them eight hours. That way, whenever they can eat a small amount whenever they feel hungry.

The digestive systems of horses are designed to take most of their nutrition from grass or hay. Technically speaking, a horse’s consumption of hay or grass should be one to two percent of its body weight.

Feeding schedules

As mentioned earlier, horses have an internal clock that lets them know when to eat. It would be best if you avoided any abrupt changes to their feeding schedule.

You shouldn’t make significant changes to the amount of feed and type of feed quickly either because of a horse’s sensitive digestive system; dietary changes can cause severe health issues like colic.

So you should feed based on a schedule and follow it through to ensure that the horses are fed at approximately the same time every day, even if you are letting them out to graze. Don’t suddenly disrupt your horse’s feeding pattern.

Can your horse survive on grass alone?

Horses can survive and thrive on a forage only diet. The horse’s digestive system is designed to take most of its nutrition from hay and grass. Yes, you can feed them grain and other supplements.

But the truth is you don’t have to. Their weights may fluctuate with seasons and the kind of work they are doing, but grass on its own should be enough to feed the horse and meet its nutritional value.

If you want to learn more about why horses eat grass and what types of grass they eat, you should read Grass For Horses: Why it’s Essential and the Different Types.

Can you feed your horse lawn clippings?

Feeding a horse lawn clipping is a big no! Lawn clippings are usually fermenting, which is the reason why freshly cut grass is warm when you touch it.

If you feed your horse’s lawn clippings, they will surely gorge it, which is dangerous. First, the horse won’t chew on it, and as a result, it won’t mix with saliva as it should.

The saliva helps dilute the grass. Second, usually fermenting happens much later when the food arrives in the horse’s gut. The already fermenting grass releases gasses that could lead to stomach expansion to the extent that it ruptures. Feeding your horse lawn clipping can be fatal to them.

If you want to feed your horse some healthy treats check out my article: What Do Horses Like to Eat? 11 of Their Favorite Treats

Conclusion

Horses don’t have to eat all the time, but having constant access to hay helps keep their digestive system working correctly. Allowing your horse to graze on pasture grass is safe and keeps them healthy.

A healthy pasture provides all the nutrition horses need. However, limit their time grazing on rich fields, especially in the spring. If you keep your horse in a stall, make sure you provide an ample amount of high-quality hay.

With access to good hay or grass, you don’t need to worry about adding grains and supplements to their diets. But one caveat, all horses are individuals, and some may need extra energy, especially if you are working your animal.

How can you tell if your horse is overweight?

The most reliable method to determine if your horse is overweight is to use the Henneke equine body condition scoring system(BSC). The BSC system assigns a score to the amount of fat a horse’s body you can use to determine if a horse is at a healthy weight.
To learn more about the proper weight of horses you may find this article helpful: Is My Horse Overweight? A Plan to Reduce Weight Safely

Is your horse too skinny to ride?

Horses without sufficient muscle strength or mass to support a rider’s weight and protect their back are too skinny to ride. To find out if your horse is fit enough to ride, apply the Henneke Equine Body Condition Scoring System (BCS). You can learn more about horses’ fitness to ride in this article: Is Your Horse Too Skinny to Ride? Let’s Find Out!

Why do some horses eat dirt?

Horses eat dirt for various reasons such as salt deficiency, boredom, ulcers, diet change, or intestinal parasites (worms). And some horses may eat a small amount of soil for no particular reason. For a more in-depth look at the reasons horses eat dirt read this article: Why Does My Horse Eat Dirt?

Miles Henry

I love animals! Especially horses, I've been around them most of my life but I am always learning more and enjoy sharing with others. I have bought, sold, and broke racehorse yearlings. I have raised some winning horses and had some that didn't make it as racehorses, so we trained them in other disciplines. Miles Henry

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