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Does a Horse Need Grain: Oats, Barley, Both, or None?

Last updated: June 21, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

The question of whether or not to feed your horse grain is the focal point of many discussions. Some owners faithfully feed their horses oats, others barley, and still others believe horses don’t need any grain.

Horses typically don’t need grain, but they do need to consume hay or pasture grass. Horses have a unique digestive system that relies on roughage to operate correctly and efficiently. Oats are an excellent source of calories, and although barley provides protein, it lacks in other areas.

Most horses don’t require grain in their diet; however, there are benefits to feeding it to certain horses. Horses are individuals, and there is a lot to know about feeding grain to your horse.

This article is one in a series I wrote about horses’ dietary needs. The previous article, What do Horses Eat? An Equine Nutrition Guide covers the basics you need to know to feed your horse correctly.

Picture of a grain field,

Horses don’t need grain in their diet.

Most horses don’t need grain, especially easy keepers and those that only do light work. Monday morning sickness or tying up is believed to be caused by overfeeding horses.

Typically, the syndrome strikes horses who worked during the week and were given weekends off but fed the same rations on their day off. The overfeeding of grain without work causes stiffness and is a severe condition.

High-quality hay and grass typically provide all the nutrition and energy a horse needs. However, sport horses and broodmares likely need extra calories.

I wrote an extensive article with a lot of useful information about feeding horses. It has a chart of their necessary daily nutritional requirements; you can check it out here: What Does a Horse Eat? An Essential Feeding Guide

Here are some suggestions on feeding grain to your horses.

If you need to feed your horse grain, follow some simple rules:

  • Horses should be fed multiple times during the day and not one large meal.
  • Make sure you continue to feed high-quality hay in conjunction with the grain.
  • Mix the grain with hay cubes or pellets to slow down your horse’s intake and force them to chew their food.
  • Remember to keep your horse’s digestive system in mind when feeding: small stomach, grazing, forage, and hindgut fermentation.

Oats are a suitable grain choice, but they must be supplemented with essential vitamins and minerals that it lacks, but avoid molasses.

Why do we feed horses grain?

We’ve always fed our horses a daily ration of grain. I never put much thought into the reason we feed grain, but now I wonder if it’s in the horse’s best interest.

Grains are a useful supplement that provides extra energy for working horses. Forages, such as grass and hay, are the foundation of all equine feeding programs, as this is the source of the horse’s essential nutrients.

Most horse owners feed their animals grain at least once a day, whether the horse is working or not. The extra calories provide the energy working horses need. However, for some horses, this practice is risky.

Grain should be fed to working horses.

Typically horses eat about two percent of their body weight per day in forage to maintain their weight. When a horse is working, it requires substantially more calories, or they begin to lose weight and strength.

To keep your horse’s calorie intake at sufficient levels, you can increase the amount of hay or supplement their diet with grain. However, to significantly increase calories, requires feeding a lot of hay, sometimes double their average daily ration.

Horses are fed grain to increase caloric intake.

Eating such large portions of hay may not be practical and can cause horses to develop a hay belly. A more efficient way to increase calories is to supplement your horses’ diet with grain. Most grain provides one and a half times more energy per pound than hay.

Grain feeds typically supply more protein than hay. Working horses perform well on a diet of 12 percent protein; however, for most horses, a minimum of eight percent protein is sufficient.

Send your hay for analysis, so you have a foundation to build and supplement your horse’s diet with grain as needed. Get the advice of an equine nutritionist or your veterinarian to ensure you are feeding your horse correctly because feeding too much grain can cause problems.

Picture of a horse eating hay.

Why horses should not be fed grain.

Many critical diseases afflict horses because of eating an improper diet. And since we feed grain in one form or another to our horses daily, I wondered if it could negatively affect their health.

Horses have a sensitive and complex digestive system, and grain has the potential to disrupt their balance. For some horses, grain causes a myriad of problems, including gut inflammation, chronic diarrhea, colic, founder, and other related diseases.

Grains are often fed to horses out of habit and not out of necessity. Many concentrated feeds include grains comprised primarily of sugar and simple carbohydrates.

If a horse overeats or eats too quickly, the grain passes to the animal’s hindgut without being processed. The unprocessed feed disrupts the fermentation process and frequently causes severe and painful problems.

Grain can cause an equine digestive imbalance.

Horse owners are always looking for ways to give their animals an edge in the competition. One popular method is to feed them grain, which is thought to provide more energy and help them maintain their weight.

However, grain can also cause an equine digestive imbalance, leading to a host of health problems. When horses consume grain, their digestive system produces more acid, which can lead to ulcers, colic, and diarrhea. In addition, grain-based diets can also result in founder, a condition that causes inflammation and pain in the horse’s hooves.

If you notice your horse displaying signs of discomfort, it’s likely experiencing a digestive disorder, most likely because of what you’re feeding it.

Most domesticated horses are fed in contrast to what they need for the natural function of their digestive system. Left on their own, horses eat easily digestible high-fibrous foods such as forage.

These forages are the primary source of energy and are fermented in the animal’s hindgut. Horses do get some grains naturally in the form of seeds from plants and grasses, but these are not processed or mixed with molasses.

A horse’s digestive system is continuously processing food while it grazes. Pastured horses and wild horses often graze eighteen hours a day. As the animals eat, small amounts of forage are taken into the stomach processed and passed to the hindgut.

The constant intake and processing of forage require continual production of acid to break down food as it enters the stomach. The steady acid levels and flow of small amounts of grass through the intestines keep the digestive system healthy.

We feed domestic horses differently; most are fed grain and hay in a controlled environment once or twice daily. The reasons vary from convenience, habit, and unavailable grass pastures.

A horse has a small stomach, so they eat, and food passes through fast, usually within an hour, and they are hungry again. An equine with an empty stomach lacks protective acid that prevents stomach ulcers.

And by the time they are fed again, the horses are starving and devour their next meal. Because of their small stomach and gorging their food, it passes through quickly without processing and reaches the hindgut, often leading to colic or other maladies.

Most horses are fed grain unnecessarily. However, sometimes sport or working horses benefit from the increased nutrition and calories gained from grains, but be smart about choosing the right types and feeding them correctly.

Horse owners must be careful when feeding their animals grain and consult with a veterinarian to ensure that their horse’s diet is balanced and healthy.

Picture of a thoroughbred stallion.

Are oats good for horses?

For as long as I can remember, we’ve fed crimped oats to our horses. But recently, I was told we need to add a supplement because oats don’t provide some necessary nutrients. So are oats a safe grain choice?

Oats are an excellent source of extra calories, oil, protein, and amino acids for your horse. However, they are missing some essential nutrients working horses need to perform their best.

Oats have been a staple of horse owners feeding programs for generations and are the safest grain to feed. However, there is a lot to know about feeding oats to get the most benefit for your horses.

Whole oats have some drawbacks.

Whole oats are unprocessed from the field and include an outer shell encasing a seed. The husk provides fiber, but the seed has the majority of the nutritional value. Most horse owners feed horses whole oats, and if the animal doesn’t sufficiently chew the whole oats, the hull prevents the absorption of nutrients, and the grain passes through the animal undigested.

If you feed your horse oats, check its manure for undigested oats, this will indicate if your horse needs a different form of oats, such as rolled, crimped, or steamed. Rolled and crimped oats are processed to bust the husk and allow access to the nutrients of the seed. Soaking or steamed oats soften and swell the oats to make them easier to digest.

We soak our oats and often even boil them and feed them to our horses like oatmeal. It’s relatively simple; we put a scoop of oats and cover the oats with water, then heat the mixture with a bucket heating wand. The horses love it, and you won’t see oats in their manure.

Oats can also be purchased without a husk. This type of oat is grown without a hull and provides higher protein content per pound than regular oats. We’ve never fed this to our horses, and I am not sure it’s worth the extra costs.

Regular oats typically contain 9-12 percent protein, while the hull-less variety provides 15-20 percent. Also, note that hull-less oats provide a higher content of fat than traditional oats.

Oats don’t provide the optimal levels of all essential nutrients, but they are a safe grain to feed your horse. If you elect to feed oats, use a supplement or choose a commercially mixed feed.

Is barley good for horses?

Barley isn’t a typical grain used in the south where we live. Primarily because it’s not readily available at the feed stores, but it’s also not the best grain to feed horses, although it provides more digestible energy and nutrients than oats.

Barley isn’t a typical grain used in the south where we live. Primarily because it’s not readily available at the feed stores, but it’s also not the best grain to feed horses, although it provides more digestible energy and nutrients than oats.

Barley provides 14 percent protein and 6 percent crude fiber, but it still is not worth the trouble for most U.S. horse owners. If you decide to feed your horse barley, first mix it with hay or beet pulp to give it more bulk.

Picture of an underweight two-year old horse.
Picture of my horse grazing.

Is sweet feed good for horses?

Sweet feed is a hot topic among our friends; some believe it’s essential for their working horses, while others are adamantly opposed to feeding any. So who’s right, should we be feeding horses sweet feed?

Sweet feeds are not all the same. Some are made with high-quality ingredients that provide a good source of protein and fats, while others are not healthy and are primarily molasses mixed with oats, corn, and barley. Sweet feeds are especially beneficial for horses that won’t eat other feeds.

Horses typically love sweet feed, but that’s not always a good thing. It’s essential to feed it with caution and know the ingredients. The pictures above are of the same horse. The first one depicts how a horse looked when we first got him, and the second picture is about five months later after putting him on a diet of sweet feed and high-quality hay.

Molasses is sugar.

Too much sugar in horses, diet leads to high blood glucose and skeletal deformities in young horses. Animal feed is big business, and the manufacturers provide sweet feeds with low levels of molasses for horses susceptible to the adverse conditions associated with high sugar content.

The advantages of feeding sweet feed are that most contain a variety of ingredients that provide essential vitamins and minerals horses require in their diet.

They may also contain specialized ingredients to assist a horse with a particular problem; for example, senior feed is designed specifically to address issues related to aging equines. Likewise, some feeds are explicitly made for broodmares or young horses, each specially formulated.

Sweet feeds offer some benefits.

Sweet feed doesn’t provide enough fiber for horse digestion, so it can’t be the sole source of food for your horse. Your horse requires hay or some other forage in conjunction with sweet feed.

Not all forage is the same; there are hay bales, rolls, cubes, and pellets. This article compares the benefits and drawbacks of alfalfa pellets and cubes: Alfalfa Pellets vs. Cubes: What’s Better for Your Horses?

But sweet feeds offer some benefits that hay doesn’t; it provides extra calories for working horses and lactating mares that can’t get enough from grass or hay.

They also provide additional vitamins and minerals that may be needed by working animals. Sweet feed is especially good for horses that don’t get the necessary salt their bodies require from other feed sources.

I wrote an article about the salt requirements of horses you can read here. The advantages of sweet feed are that it’s readily available, has a consistent quality, is easy to handle, and feeds your animals.

And in comparison to pellets, it requires more chewing and thus slows consumption.

Below is a YouTube video about feeding grains to horses.

YouTube video


What is the best grain for my horse?

Oats are a great grain to feed your horse; they are high in fiber and protein. If you’re looking to put weight on your horse and give them extra energy, corn is a good choice.