Skip to Content

Horse Diet Management: Do They Really Need to Eat 24/7?

Last updated: June 13, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

Have you ever observed your horse’s grazing habits and wondered, “Does my horse really need to eat all the time?” It’s a common question among horse owners, often stemming from the observation of natural grazing patterns in the wild. Yet, as we delve into the world of horse diets, we realize that there’s more than meets the eye.

In our quest to provide the best care for our equine companions, understanding their dietary needs becomes crucial not only for their health and vitality but also to debunk any misconceptions that may lead to harmful practices. One such myth is that horses need to graze constantly.

So, join me as I explore the intricacies of a horse’s digestive system, debunk common horse diet myths, and offer useful strategies for managing your horse’s diet effectively. This knowledge will empower you to make informed decisions that best serve your horse’s nutritional needs.

Understanding a Horse’s Digestive System

To better manage your horse’s diet, a fundamental understanding of the horse’s unique digestive system is essential. It’s a complex process that turns grass and grain into fuel and is vastly different from ours and even other animals’.

Picture of a quarter horse outside of his paddock.
Quarter horse mare.

Basic structure and function of a horse’s digestive system

Let’s start with the basic structure of the digestive system. Horses are classified as non-ruminant herbivores. Unlike cows, who are ruminants that have a four-chambered stomach for fermentation, horses have a simple, single-chambered stomach. However, they do have an area for fermentation, which is located in the large intestine, specifically in the cecum and colon.

When your horse nibbles on its feed, the food journey begins at the mouth. Horses have a set of very strong teeth designed to grind food into smaller particles. These small particles are mixed with saliva to form a bolus which then travels down the esophagus and into the stomach.

The horse’s stomach, which is relatively small in comparison to its body size, begins the process of digestion with enzymes. The partially digested food then moves into the small intestine, where most nutrient absorption takes place. Finally, the food reaches the large intestine or hindgut, where fibrous material is broken down by microbial fermentation. It’s a marathon, not a sprint – this entire digestive process takes about 48 hours.

Evolutionary basis for horses’ grazing habits

Ever wonder why horses eat the way they do? The answer lies in their evolution. Horses evolved as grazing animals on the vast grasslands, where they foraged for food for up to 16 hours a day. This foraging behavior was possible because of their constant movement and the constant trickle of food intake, leading to the term ‘trickle feeder.’

Due to this evolutionary trait, horses have a digestive system that is designed to process small amounts of food continuously throughout the day. This is why horses naturally prefer to eat several small meals rather than one or two large ones.

Comparison with other animals

While the horse’s digestive system is unique, it’s informative to see how it stacks up against other animals. Let’s take humans and dogs for comparison.

Unlike horses, we humans are omnivores. Our digestive systems can handle a wide variety of foods, from plants to meat. Also, our stomachs are designed to hold larger quantities of food at once, which allows us to eat fewer meals per day.

On the other hand, dogs are carnivores. Their digestive systems are equipped with a powerful stomach and a shorter gastrointestinal tract, perfectly suited for processing meat quickly.

So, when managing your horse’s diet, always remember their unique digestive design. Understanding this can guide you in making the best dietary decisions for your horse, promoting a healthier and happier life for your hoofed companion.

Picture of young horses in a pasture.

The Common Myth: Horses Need to Eat All the Time

Every horse owner has heard the age-old belief: “Horses need to eat all the time.” It’s time we dug into this belief, evaluate its roots, and verify whether there’s truth to this statement or if it’s merely a myth.

This belief didn’t appear out of thin air. Instead, it has its roots in the natural grazing habits of horses, as we’ve discussed earlier. As wild animals, horses roamed vast plains and prairies, foraging and grazing for most of the day. This led to the idea that horses, in domestic settings, should always have food available to them.

Moreover, unlike humans, who eat big meals a few times a day, horses are “trickle feeders.” This means they eat small amounts of food throughout the day and night, which has also contributed to the myth that horses should always have food in front of them.

Problems with overfeeding horses

However, it’s essential to distinguish between constant grazing on natural pastures and unrestricted access to rich, concentrated feeds. Overfeeding horses, particularly with energy-dense feeds, can lead to numerous health problems.

Obesity is the most common issue that arises from overfeeding. It’s not just a cosmetic problem; obesity in horses can lead to serious health issues like laminitis, a painful condition affecting the horse’s feet, and Equine Metabolic Syndrome, which includes insulin resistance, a risk factor for laminitis.

Moreover, gorging on large meals can potentially cause colic – a leading cause of premature death in horses. Horses are also at risk of developing choke if they eat too quickly, especially dry feed that hasn’t been adequately moistened.

Debunking the myth with scientific facts

Science tells us that while horses are designed to eat small amounts frequently, they don’t need to eat all the time. Their digestive system is engineered to handle a near-constant intake of relatively low-nutrient food like grasses, not rich grains or concentrated feeds that are often used in modern horse diets.

Therefore, while horses need access to forage throughout the day, they don’t necessarily need to be eating all the time. It’s the balance between providing enough forage to keep the digestive system healthy and avoiding overconsumption of high-calorie feeds that’s the key.

Remember, a well-managed feeding regime that respects the horse’s natural eating patterns while controlling calorie intake is the ideal way to a healthy, happy horse. Let’s debunk the myth and understand the science for the welfare of our four-legged companions.

What do Horses Actually Need?

Understanding what horses actually need in their diet is crucial to keeping them healthy and fit. From essential nutrients to the importance of hydration, let’s delve into what constitutes a balanced diet for your equine partner.

Essential nutrients for horses: carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals

Let’s begin with the building blocks of your horse’s diet. Carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals – these are the key ingredients in any horse’s meal plan.

  1. Carbohydrates are the primary energy source for horses. They are found in nearly all plant-based feeds, such as grasses, hays, and grains.
  2. Proteins are essential for growth, tissue repair, and maintaining muscle mass. Sources include alfalfa, soybean meal, and many commercial feeds.
  3. Fats are a concentrated energy source and are particularly useful for performance horses or those needing to gain weight. Many horse feeds now contain added fats.
  4. Vitamins and minerals are necessary for a range of bodily functions. Most horses can obtain these from a balanced diet, but sometimes supplements may be needed, especially for hard-working horses or those with specific deficiencies.

Hydration: the importance of water

Never underestimate the importance of water. Horses, like humans, are mostly water. On average, a horse needs to drink between 5 and 10 gallons of water per day, but this can increase significantly with exercise or high temperatures. Without adequate water, horses are at risk of dehydration, which can lead to serious health complications, including impaction colic.

Remember, always provide your horse with access to clean, fresh water, and monitor their drinking habits for any changes which could indicate a health problem.

Differences in dietary needs based on a horse’s age, size, breed, and workload

Just like humans, horses have different nutritional needs depending on various factors. A young growing foal will have different dietary needs than a mature, idle horse or an older horse.

  1. Age: Younger horses need more protein for growth, while senior horses might need more easily digestible feeds.
  2. Size: Larger horses typically require more overall feed than smaller ones. However, the ratio of nutrients remains similar.
  3. Breed: Some breeds are known as “easy keepers” and gain weight easily (like many ponies), while others are “hard keepers” and may require additional nutritional support (like some Thoroughbreds).
  4. Workload: Working horses burn more calories and may require additional energy, protein, and specific vitamins and minerals compared to horses that are not regularly worked.

Understanding these variables can help you tailor a diet that’s just right for your horse. Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to equine nutrition. Each horse is an individual with individual needs. So when you plan your horse’s meals, think about what they actually need, not just what the feeding chart suggests.

Picture of a horse eating hay, which is an essential element of a horse diet.

The Ideal Horse Feeding Schedule

The old adage, “You are what you eat,” certainly holds true for horses. But the “when” of eating is just as important as the “what.” Let’s take a closer look at what an ideal horse feeding schedule looks like and what factors can influence it.

Explanation of an ideal feeding schedule.

The ideal horse feeding schedule closely mimics a horse’s natural feeding patterns. In the wild, horses spend most of their day grazing, eating small amounts of food almost continuously.

Your goal should be to replicate this as closely as possible, which usually translates into multiple small feedings spread throughout the day. If you’re feeding grains or concentrates, these should be split into at least two or three feedings, with no more than 0.5% of the horse’s body weight fed at a time.

However, the most critical part of the horse’s diet is forage – grass or hay. This should make up at least 1.5-2% of the horse’s body weight per day and be available as much as possible.

Factors influencing the feeding schedule.

The ideal feeding schedule can be influenced by several factors. These can include:

  1. Workload: Horses with a heavy workload or high activity levels may require more frequent feeding with higher-energy feeds.
  2. Health status: Horses with certain health conditions, like gastric ulcers or insulin resistance, may require specific feeding schedules tailored to their needs.
  3. Availability: Your own schedule can also impact feeding times. The key is to try and keep feeding times consistent from day to day.

Remember, any changes to your horse’s feeding schedule should be made gradually to avoid digestive upset.

The role of constant access to forage.

Despite the need for a schedule, horses should ideally have constant access to forage, whether that’s grass in a pasture or hay. This doesn’t mean they’re eating all the time, but it allows them to follow their natural ‘trickle feeding’ instincts.

Constant access to forage keeps the horse’s digestive system working as it should, helping to prevent issues like ulcers or colic. It also promotes natural behaviors, which can reduce the risk of behavioral problems like cribbing or weaving.

Creating the ideal feeding schedule for your horse can take a bit of tweaking and adjustments, but the result – a happy, healthy horse – is well worth it. Always observe your horse closely and consult with a vet or equine nutritionist if you have any concerns.

Picture of yearling colts in a pasture.

Strategies for Managing Your Horse’s Diet

Managing your horse’s diet might seem challenging, but with the right strategies, it can become second nature. Let’s delve into some practical and effective tactics to ensure your horse’s nutritional needs are met while encouraging natural eating habits.

Using slow feeders to mimic natural grazing

One excellent tool for managing your horse’s diet is a slow feeder. These are specially designed feeders that limit the amount of hay a horse can eat at one time, essentially slowing down their eating and mimicking the natural grazing behavior. Slow feeders come in many forms, from nets to boxes with small holes.

The benefits of slow feeders are numerous. They help prevent overeating, extend feeding time, reduce boredom, and can even help alleviate some health problems like ulcers by maintaining a constant supply of food in the stomach.

Variety in a horse’s diet: the benefits of different types of forage

Just like us, horses enjoy a varied diet. Offering different types of forage can make meals more interesting and enjoyable for your horse and can also help ensure they’re getting a broad range of nutrients.

For instance, different types of hay, like timothy, alfalfa, or orchard grass, have varying nutrient profiles. Mixing them can balance your horse’s nutrient intake. Additionally, if pasture is available, grazing on grass can add another dimension of dietary variety. Always introduce any new feed gradually to avoid digestive upset.

Manage grazing

Remember, 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.

Using feed supplements wisely

Feed supplements can play a role in managing your horse’s diet, but it’s important to use them wisely. Supplements should only be used to fill specific gaps in a horse’s diet and not as a substitute for a balanced diet.

For instance, if your horse’s diet is deficient in a particular vitamin or mineral, a supplement can help meet that need. Similarly, performance horses or seniors might need specific supplements to support their health.

Always consult with your vet or an equine nutritionist before starting any supplement to ensure it’s necessary and won’t interact negatively with your horse’s current diet.

Regular veterinary check-ups and advice

Finally, regular veterinary check-ups are an essential strategy for managing your horse’s diet. Your vet can assess your horse’s body condition, monitor for any health issues related to diet, and provide advice on feeding based on your horse’s age, breed, workload, and overall health.

Remember, managing your horse’s diet is a dynamic process. Changes in your horse’s life, such as aging, workload adjustments, or health conditions, might require diet modifications. Staying informed and adaptable will ensure your horse receives the best nutrition for their needs.

Risks of Poor Dietary Management

As much as a well-managed diet can contribute to a horse’s health and vitality, poor dietary management can lead to several health issues and economic costs. It’s important to understand these risks, as prevention is always better than cure.

Common health issues related to poor diet

Poor dietary management can lead to several health problems, some of which can be severe or even life-threatening. Here are a few:

  1. Laminitis: This painful and debilitating condition affects a horse’s feet. It’s often associated with overconsumption of rich, sugary grasses or grains, obesity, or metabolic disorders.
  2. Colic: Colic refers to abdominal pain in horses, often caused by problems in the digestive system. It can be triggered by a variety of dietary factors, including abrupt changes in feed, overfeeding of grain, inadequate access to water, or inadequate forage intake.
  3. Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS): This is a metabolic disorder linked to insulin resistance, obesity, and a high risk of laminitis. A diet too rich in sugars and starches can contribute to the development of EMS.

All these health problems can be prevented or managed with proper dietary management, highlighting the importance of understanding and implementing good feeding practices.

The economic costs of poor dietary management

Aside from the risk to your horse’s health, poor dietary management can also have significant economic impacts. The costs of veterinary treatment for conditions like colic or laminitis can be substantial. In severe cases, these conditions may require surgery, long-term medication, and significant aftercare, all of which adds up.

Moreover, a horse suffering from these conditions will likely require time off from work, whether that’s competitive events, breeding, or even recreational riding. This can represent a loss of income for some horse owners and a decrease in the horse’s overall value.

Prevention, through proper dietary management, is not only better for your horse’s health but also makes sound economic sense. An investment in good nutrition is an investment in your horse’s long-term well-being and performance.

Picture of a young Thoroughbred.

Case Studies

Real-life examples can provide powerful insights into the impact of good and poor dietary management. Let’s explore some case studies that highlight the importance of proper nutrition for horses.

Real-life examples of effective dietary management in horses

Consider the story of Jimmy, a two-year-old Thoroughbred stallion who was underweight with a dull coat when I bought him. Recognizing that Jimmy’s condition was likely due to poor nutrition, I consulted with a veterinarian and equine nutritionist.

We devised a diet plan consisting of quality forage, a balanced concentrate feed, and a fat supplement to increase caloric intake. With slow and steady changes, our horse started to gain weight. After several months, he was not only at a healthy weight but also had a shiny coat and plenty of energy for training.

Then there’s Olivia, a broodmare who had difficulty maintaining her weight while nursing foals. We decided to introduce alfalfa into her diet for its higher protein and calorie content, supplemented with a balanced mineral pellet to ensure she was getting the nutrients she needed. Olivia thrived on her new diet, and she was able to maintain a healthy weight even while nursing.

Lessons learned from poor dietary management

Unfortunately, not all stories have such positive outcomes.

An example is Greely, an older Thoroughbred who was prone to laminitis. Despite his owner’s attempts to manage his condition with medication, Greely kept having flare-ups. After a consultation with a vet, the owner realized that his diet, which was heavy on grains and light on forage, was likely contributing to the problem. They switched Charlie to a diet high in fiber and low in starch and sugars, helping to manage his laminitis.

Finally, we have Mickey, a performance horse who developed severe colic after his owner abruptly switched his feed. In an effort to enhance Mickey’s performance, the owner had swapped his usual feed for a high-energy mix without a gradual transition. Mickey’s story serves as a reminder of the dangers of sudden dietary changes.

These cases underscore the importance of careful, knowledgeable dietary management for horses. It’s crucial to remember that each horse is an individual and that what works for one might not work for another. Consulting with a vet or equine nutritionist, observing your horse carefully, and making dietary changes slowly can help prevent health problems and ensure your horse thrives.

Picture of a horse wearing a grazing muzzle.

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.

A horse’s weight 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 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, fermenting usually 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.


Understanding and managing your horse’s diet is a crucial component of horse ownership. The complexities of a horse’s digestive system, combined with their unique dietary needs and the risks associated with poor dietary management, underscore the importance of proper feeding practices.

It’s essential to remember that horses are not designed to eat large meals at fixed times like humans. Instead, they thrive on a feeding schedule that mimics their natural ‘trickle feeding’ behavior, supplemented with a balanced and varied diet to meet all their nutritional needs.

While the idea that horses need to eat all the time is a myth, providing constant access to forage and using tools like slow feeders can support a horse’s natural eating habits. Regular vet check-ups and informed use of supplements can further enhance dietary management.

Remember, when it comes to feeding your horse, a little knowledge and a lot of observation can go a long way. Here’s to happy, healthy horses and the joy they bring into our lives.

YouTube video

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 based on the presence or lack of fat to determine if a horse is at a healthy weight.

Is your horse too skinny to ride?

To determine whether a horse is too skinny to ride, evaluate their muscle strength and mass using the Henneke Equine Body Condition Scoring System (BCS). If the horse is too thin or lacks sufficient muscle mass to support a rider’s weight and protect their back, it is at risk of injury.

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 why horses eat dirt, read this article: Why Does My Horse Eat Dirt?