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Horse Feeding Basics: A Beginner’s Guide

Last updated: June 21, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

My neighbor’s daughter just got her first horse, but they’re at a loss regarding equine care. I couldn’t bear to see them fumble through the journey alone, so I offered to lend a hand by sharing some basic knowledge of horses and specifically feeding.

One of the most important aspects of horse care is proper nourishment, which is why I put together this beginner’s guide to horse feeding. In this post, I cover the basics of horse nutrition, how to choose the right feed, and tips for creating a feeding schedule and portion control plan.

Horse Feeding in a Nutshell

Here is a quick overview of the essential elements to keep in mind when it comes to feeding your horse.

  • Always have fresh water available for your horses.
  • Feed good high-quality hay. Don’t feed moldy or dusty hay.
  • Give your horse one pound of forage per 100 pounds of its weight daily.
  • It’s crucial to avoid pastures and hay that have been overgrazed or contain a high abundance of weeds. If you’re relying on the pasture to provide your horse’s nutrients, it’s recommended that they have at least 2-3 acres per horse.
  • Use caution when providing your horse with supplements and other similar products. These products should only be used if your horse’s basic diet lacks the necessary nutrients.
  • It’s best to feed horses separately, if possible, to prevent aggressive horses from eating too much and submissive horses from not getting enough food.
  • Don’t give hot horses large amounts of grain or water at once; instead, offer small amounts of water frequently to help them cool down and prevent dehydration. It’s important to be cautious when feeding and watering a horse that’s just finished a hard workout.
  • Check your horse’s teeth to see if they need floating, and keep your horse on a deworming program.
  • Don’t make sudden changes in your horse’s diet. Abrupt changes can cause digestive issues and other health problems. You should make any changes gradually over a period of 7-10 days. Additionally, when increasing the amount of grain in their diet, it’s important not to exceed an increase of 1/2 pound per day. This will allow the horse’s body to adjust to the new diet and prevent adverse effects.
  • Don’t overfeed your horse. Be mindful of the amount of food you’re feeding your horse because overfeeding can lead to severe health issues, such as laminitis, founder, and colic.
Picture of a horse that is fit and looking good.

Importance of Proper Horse Feeding

Horses are large animals that require a significant amount of food to maintain their health and energy levels. Feeding your horse the right types of food and in the right amounts is essential for maintaining their overall well-being.

It is crucial to provide your horse with a balanced diet that meets their nutritional needs, considering their activity level, age, and breed. A diet deficient in certain nutrients can lead to numerous health issues, such as weight loss, muscle wasting, decreased energy levels, and even lameness.

On the other hand, an excessive amount of food can lead to colic, weight gain, and related health issues such as laminitis and founder. It’s also important to provide access to clean water at all times, as dehydration can have serious health consequences.

Furthermore, the timing and frequency of feeding are also important, as it affects the horse’s digestion and metabolism. Establishing a regular feeding schedule and monitoring your horse’s body condition to ensure they are getting the right amount of food is vital.

Understanding Horse Nutrition

Understanding the nutritional needs of horses is crucial for providing them with a balanced diet. Horses require assorted nutrients to maintain their health, including protein, fiber, fats, vitamins, and minerals.

When you buy a sack of commercial feed, it will have a tag showing the ingredients and their nutritional value. I feed our horses in training 12% Stock and Stable made by Nutrena.

feed.sweet edited scaled

Here is a reference chart that shows the recommended daily nutritional intake for a 1,100 lb horse.

NutrientFunctionRecommended daily intake (1,100 lb horse)
ProteinBuilding and repairing muscle tissue1.4 lb for maintenance or light work
FatConcentrated source of energy10% or less of the total diet
Fiber (ADF)Maintaining a healthy digestive system2300 g ADF per day
CalciumBuilding and maintaining strong bones30 to 40 grams per day for horses in light to heavy exercise
PhosphorusBuilding and maintaining strong bones14.3 g of phosphorus per day
Vitamin AMaintaining healthy skin and vision15,000 to 30,000 IU/day
Vitamin EMaintaining a healthy immune system1,000-2,000 IU/day

This table is just an example, and the recommended daily intake of each nutrient can vary depending on the horse’s activity level, age, and breed. Also, the percentage of a nutrient in the diet can vary depending on the type of feed and the source of the nutrient; for example, the percentage of protein in hay is usually low compared to concentrates.

Protein is essential for building and repairing muscle tissue, while fats provide a concentrated energy source. Fiber is also important for providing energy and maintaining a healthy digestive system.

Vitamins and minerals are vital in maintaining overall health, including strong bones and teeth, healthy skin, and a strong immune system. The nutritional needs of horses can vary depending on their age, breed, and activity level.

For example, growing horses and pregnant or lactating mares require more protein and energy than adult horses. Additionally, horses used for high-intensity activities, such as racing or jumping, may require more energy than those used for less demanding activities.

Picking the Most Suitable Food for Your Horse

Several food types are available for horses, including hay, grains, and supplements. Hay is an important roughage source, essential for maintaining a healthy digestive system. Grains, such as oats, barley, and corn, are high in energy and protein.

Supplements, such as vitamins and minerals, can be added to a horse’s diet to ensure they get all the nutrients they need. When choosing what to feed your horse, it’s essential to consider their individual nutritional needs.

For example, if your horse is prone to weight gain, you should choose a low-energy feed. Additionally, it’s important to read ingredient labels to ensure the feed you’re purchasing is free of contaminants and meets your horse’s nutritional needs.

I have one horse that is challenging to keep at a proper weight, so I add supplements to his meals and feed him additional rations of alfalfa hay. Here is a chart showing the common horse hay and feed nutritional values.

FeedProtein (%)Fat (%)Fiber (%)Energy (Mcal/kg)
Alfalfa hay18-202301.5
Grass hay8-142251.2
Beet pulp142172.5

It’s important to note that the nutritional value varies depending on factors such as the variety of the plant, the maturity, the region of growth, and the storage conditions.

Picture of a bale of Alfalfa hay we use for feeding horses.

Feeding Schedules and Portion Control

Establishing a regular feeding schedule for your horse and controlling the amount of feed they receive is important. Generally, horses should be fed at least twice a day, with a small amount of feed offered in the morning and a larger amount offered in the evening.

Portion control is essential for maintaining a healthy weight in horses. Overfeeding can lead to weight gain and related health issues like laminitis and founder. On the other hand, underfeeding can result in weight loss, muscle wasting, and decreased energy levels.

To create a feeding schedule and portion control plan, it’s important to consider your horse’s nutritional needs, activity level, and health conditions. Also, the type of hay matters; I recommend feeding mature timothy hay to overweight horses.

You can use a feeding chart or consult a veterinarian or equine nutritionist to determine the appropriate amount of feed for your horse.

Here is an example feeding chart.

Time of DayFeedQuantity
MorningHay1-1.5% of body weight
MorningGrain0.5-1% of body weight
EveningHay1-1.5% of body weight
EveningGrain0.5-1% of body weight

This feeding chart is based on the assumption that the horse is in moderate work, and it’s important to remember that the horse’s nutritional requirements can vary depending on factors such as activity level, age, and breed.

Therefore, it’s recommended to consult with a veterinarian or equine nutritionist for a personalized feeding plan that meets your horse’s specific needs. Also, a feeding chart should be flexible, and it’s important to observe your horse’s body condition and adjust the feeding accordingly.

This is an example of a feeding chart, and the exact feeding schedule and quantities may vary depending on the horse’s needs. I recently altered my horse’s feeding schedule. I increased their daily grain and feed them three times daily. I did this because their workload increased, and I wanted them to maintain weight.

Here is a good YouTube video about feeding horses.

YouTube video

Ground feeding

Feeding horses at ground level is a common practice, but it may not always be the best option. When horses eat from the ground, they can easily inhale dust and debris, which can irritate their respiratory system and increase the risk of respiratory problems.

Additionally, feeding from the ground can increase the risk of sand colic, as horses may inadvertently consume sand or dirt along with their feed. However, there are some situations where feeding horses from the ground can be beneficial.

For example, horses that are turned out in a pasture or paddock may naturally graze and eat from the ground. In this case, feeding hay or other feed from the ground can help promote a natural eating posture and reduce boredom and stress.

For horses that are kept in stalls or other confined areas, feeding from the ground may not be the best option. Using a hay net or other elevated feeding option can help reduce the risk of respiratory issues and sand colic while also making it easier to monitor the horse’s feed intake.

Overall, the best feeding option for horses can vary depending on their individual needs and living situation. It’s important to consider factors such as respiratory health, digestive health, and the horse’s natural feeding habits when deciding on the best feeding method.

Consulting with a veterinarian or experienced equine specialist can also be helpful in determining the best feeding practices for your horse.

Special Considerations

Horses with certain health conditions, such as laminitis or metabolic disorders, may require special feeding considerations. It’s important to consult a veterinarian or equine nutritionist to determine the appropriate diet for a horse with a health condition.

Feeding requirements may also change during different seasons and weather conditions. For example, horses may require more energy during the colder months to maintain their body temperature.

For example, I ensure my horses have hay around the clock in the winter. Additionally, giving horses access to clean water at all times is important, as dehydration can have serious health consequences.


The basics of horse feeding include understanding horse nutrition, choosing the right feed, and establishing a feeding schedule and portion control plan.

Proper nutrition is essential for maintaining the health and well-being of horses, and it’s important to consult with a veterinarian or equine nutritionist for personalized feeding advice.

Picture of a three year old filly that is an easy keeper.


How much hay does a horse need to eat daily?

Typically, a horse should consume 1.5-2% of their body weight in hay daily. This means that a 1,100 lb horse would need to eat between 16.5-22 lbs of hay daily. The amount of hay a horse needs depends on several factors, such as size, activity level, and nutritional needs.

How much does a bale of hay weigh?

A typical two-string square hay bale weighs between 40-75 pounds, while a three-string square bale weighs from 100 to 140 pounds. Round hay bales are significantly larger, with an average weight of 1,250 pounds. These figures are averages, and the weight of hay bales will vary depending on the type of hay and how it was baled.