Articles - Horse Health

What (and How Much) Should I Feed My Horse?

by Letitia Hise

Ideally, your horse should have free choice graze on adequate pasture when not “at work.” Most folks don’t have the ideal situation however, in which case, good quality grass hay—no mold and not too dusty—should make up the bulk of your horse’s diet—at least 1.5% of the horse’s body weight daily or up to 3%. We will discuss determining body weight shortly.

Your horse’s digestive system was designed for grazing, so if pasture is not an option, feeding grass hay free-choice is the next best alternative.

If free-choice won't work in your situation, or your horse’s feed intake needs to be restricted for one reason or another, feed a minimum of two meals a day, or optimally three or more smaller meals a day.

Your horse’s digestive tract requires the long fibers found in grass or hay for optimum digestive health. Do not replace hay or grass with concentrated feeds. If you want to supplement your older horse’s diet or your horse-athlete’s diet, limit concentrated feeds to 5-6 lbs. daily for an average-sized horse. Measure by weight, not volume. You can purchase a hanging style spring-action scale at most livestock feed stores which will only set you back a few dollars and will allow you to weigh a bucket of feed or a flake of hay held in a net feeder. You'll be surprised by the significant weight variance you'll find in hay from batch to batch.

Be aware that high carbohydrate/sugar content in concentrated feeds may increase your horse’s risk for laminitis. Sweet feeds and other sources of sugar should be kept to an absolute minimum to avoid serious health problems. Fortunately, feed manufacturers today are offering many more choices in equine supplements which include low sugar and low carbohydrate mixes for at-risk horses.

Does My Horse need Supplements?

A mature horse in light work (i.e. pleasure riding) should get all the nutrition it requires from an adequate amount of good quality hay* or good pasture, along with free choice salt and fresh water. If your horse has strong hooves, a shiny coat, and seems otherwise healthy, there is no reason to do supplemental feeding. Dull coats, shelly or crumbly hoof walls, lack of muscling, edema, a stiff, stilted gait, bleeding from the nose, or very pale mucous membranes may all be signs of nutrition or vitamin deficiency. If you are feeding an adequate amount of hay and still see these signs in your horse, you should first consult with your veterinarian to rule out any possible disease processes that may be at work, and then discuss any need for vitamins and/or mineral supplementation.

* Alfalfa Hay, especially early bloom (first cut), contains more nutrition than needed by most horses. Feeding alfalfa in normal rations may cause weight gain which may increase your horse’s risk for other health problems. It may also cause an overabundance of energy which, especially in horses kept in stalls or small enclosures the majority of the time, may result in behavior problems. Reducing rations often cause horses to chew on fences, stalls, or other objects, and is yet another step away from the horse’s optimum healthy eating style: grazing. Better options are to feed a lower nutritive grass hay, or to feed a mix of grass and alfalfa hay in your horse’s daily ration.

Calcium is required for bone formation, muscular contraction, blood clotting, activation of enzymes, normal heart rhythm, and normal release of hormones. Phosphorus is needed to metabolize fats, calcium, sugars and other carbohydrates, for cell growth and reparation, proper kidney function, and utilization of vitamins. Optimally, your horse’s diet should provide calcium and phosphorus at a 2:1 ratio. Growing horses can tolerate up to a 3:1 ratio without adverse affect, and mature horses can tolerate ratios as high as 5:1. It is not uncommon, however, to find ratios of 6:1 to 8:1 in alfalfa hay. To bring that ratio into balance, you can mix your alfalfa hay with grass hay or feed a mineral mixture designed especially for horses on alfalfa.

Adjusting the amount of feed according to weight and body condition

Staying within the parameters discussed earlier for the amount of daily forage a horse needs to stay healthy—from 1.5% to 3% of the horse’s body weight daily—you should adjust rations according to your horse's weight AND body condition.

Short of having an industrial livestock scale, or the experience needed to "guess that horse's weight," you can use a simple weight tape for estimating your horse's body weight. However, consider body condition when using a weight tape. I once watched someone place one of these tapes around a grossly emaciated horse (body condition score of 1) and declared the horse weighed 1,025 pounds. The tape merely measures the distance around the horse’s heart girth and uses a mathematical formula to give you a weight estimate. The tape’s scale and mathematical formula assumes an average body condition.

If you're not sure how skinny is "too thin" or just what "too fat" looks like, you can thank Texas A&M University for this handy Body Condition Scoring system. The system evaluates fat stores in different areas on your horse’s body. You can apply Body Condition Scoring to your horse and then determine what changes you need to make in your horse’s feeding and work or exercise program.

Equine body condition perfection is highly subjective. For instance, the optimum condition for an endurance horse is generally considered leaner than that for a show-fit halter horse, so this is not an exact science, but equine health professionals use this Body Condition Scoring (BCS) system as a standard guideline.

Rate your horse’s physical condition by visual appraisal and palpation (feel) of the amount of fat covering these six conformation points: neck, withers, along the crease of the back, tailhead, ribs, and behind the shoulder at the girth. Compare what you observe to the descriptions in the Body Condition Scoring shown below to determine a score for your horse.

Scores range from 1 to 9, with 1 being poor and 9 being extremely fat. A rating of 5 is generally considered ideal for most horses. Endurance or other horse athletes may consider ideal to be a leaner score of 4 but not much less. Broodmares should score at least a 5 but no more than 7 as health problems could ensue. Fat horses are more prone to laminitis and overheating in the summer. If you determine your horse to be a 3 or a 7, you will want to make some adjustments, but stay withing the 1.5 to 3% parameters. Do not try to make big or sudden changes in your horse's diet. If you feel you've been feeding 3% and your horse is staying at a BCS of 3, you'll want to consult with your vet. Your horse may need dental care, or may have an undiagnosed medical issue.

The Body Condition Scoring (BCS)

  1. Poor: The horse is very emaciated; the backbone, ribs, tailhead, and hip bones are all very prominent; the bone structures of the withers, neck, and shoulder are easily discerned; no fat can be felt anywhere
  2. Very Thin: The animal is emaciated, but there is a small amount of fat covering over the base of the backbone; the bone structure of the withers, shoulders, and neck is faintly discernible
  3. Thin: Fat buildup about halfway up on the backbone and slight fat cover over the ribs, but the backbone and ribs are still easily seen; tailhead is prominent, but individual spines cannot be identified; the withers, shoulder, and neck are visible.
  4. Moderately Thin: Slight ridge along the back; faint outline of the ribs visible; some fat can be felt around the tailhead; hip joints not seen; withers, neck, and shoulder not obviously thin
  5. Moderate: Back is flat; ribs not seen, but are easily felt; fat around tailhead beginning to feel spongy; withers are rounded; shoulders and neck blend smoothly in the body
  6. Moderately Fleshy: Slight crease down back; some fat cover over the ribs; along the sides of the wither, behind shoulders, and along the side of the neck; fat around tailhead is soft
  7. Fleshy: Crease down back; individual ribs can be felt, but noticeable fat deposited between ribs; fat deposited along withers, behind shoulders, and along neck
  8. Fat: Crease down back; difficult to feel ribs; fat around tailhead very soft; areas along withers and behind shoulders filled with fat; noticeable thickening of the neck; fat deposited along inner thighs
  9. Extremely Fat: Obvious crease down back; patch fat appearing over ribs; bulging fat around the tailhead, along withers, behind shoulders, and along neck; fat along inner thighs might rug together; flank filled with fat

Keep in mind that it might take several months to achieve a one-unit change in body condition rating. Diet and exercise changes should be implemented gradually over a period of 7 to 10 days. Periodic re-evaluations should be made to keep a good balance of diet and exercise considering your horse’s current state of fitness. Do not discount environmental conditions or other changes in your horse’s health (i.e. pregnancy or advanced age).

Letitia Hise is a horse owner and former riding instructor and currently works in digital marketing.


© Copyright 2012 by Letitia Hise, all rights reserved. For permission to reprint, copy, or post, please contact: Letitia Hise at