What do horses eat?

HotbotBy HotBotUpdated: June 21, 2024

Introduction to Equine Nutrition

Horses, as herbivores, have a diet that primarily consists of plant materials. Understanding what horses eat is crucial not only for their health but also for their performance and longevity. The diet of a horse can be quite varied, encompassing different types of feed, forage, supplements, and even some treats. This guide delves into the multifaceted world of equine nutrition, shedding light on what horses eat and the specific needs that must be met to ensure their well-being.

Forage: The Foundation of a Horse's Diet

Forage, which includes hay and pasture grasses, forms the cornerstone of a horse's diet. Horses are natural grazers, and their digestive systems are designed to process high-fiber plant material.


Hay is dried grass or legumes such as alfalfa, which is fed to horses when fresh pasture is not available. The quality of hay can vary greatly, and it is essential to provide hay that is free from mold, dust, and weeds. Common types of hay include:

- Timothy Hay: High in fiber and low in protein, suitable for most horses.

- Alfalfa Hay: Rich in protein and calcium, ideal for growing, lactating, or working horses.

- Orchard Grass Hay: Palatable and nutritious, often mixed with other types of hay.


Pasture grasses provide a natural and balanced diet for horses. They can graze on various types of grasses and legumes, which offer essential nutrients. However, the quality of pasture can fluctuate with the seasons and weather conditions. Common pasture grasses include:

- Kentucky Bluegrass: Highly palatable and nutritious.

- Fescue: Hardy and durable, but less palatable.

- Clover: Rich in nutrients but should be fed in moderation due to its high sugar content.

Concentrates: Supplemental Energy and Nutrients

While forage should make up the majority of a horse's diet, concentrates can provide additional energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Concentrates are especially important for horses with higher energy needs, such as performance horses, growing foals, or lactating mares.


Grains are a common type of concentrate fed to horses. They are energy-dense and can help meet the caloric needs of active horses. However, grains should be fed in moderation to prevent digestive issues such as colic or laminitis. Common grains include:

- Oats: High in fiber and easy to digest.

- Corn: Energy-dense but low in fiber.

- Barley: Similar to oats but with a higher energy content.

Pelleted and Extruded Feeds

Pelleted and extruded feeds are specially formulated to provide a balanced mix of nutrients. These feeds can be tailored to meet the specific needs of different types of horses. They often include:

- Complete Feeds: Contain both forage and concentrate, designed for horses with dental issues or limited access to hay.

- Performance Feeds: Higher in energy and protein, formulated for athletic horses.

- Senior Feeds: Easier to chew and digest, with added nutrients for older horses.

Supplements: Ensuring Nutritional Balance

Supplements can play a critical role in maintaining a horse's health, especially when their diet may lack certain nutrients. These are often added to the feed to address specific deficiencies.

Vitamins and Minerals

Horses require a range of vitamins and minerals for optimal health. Common supplements include:

- Salt Blocks: Provide essential electrolytes, particularly sodium and chloride.

- Calcium and Phosphorus: Crucial for bone health, often supplemented in young or lactating horses.

- Vitamin E and Selenium: Important antioxidants that support muscle and immune function.

Joint Supplements

For horses with joint issues or those engaged in high-impact activities, joint supplements can provide relief and support. These often contain:

- Glucosamine: Supports cartilage health.

- Chondroitin Sulfate: Enhances joint lubrication.

- MSM (Methylsulfonylmethane): Reduces inflammation and pain.

Treats: Occasional Rewards

While not a staple of the diet, treats can be used for training and bonding with horses. However, they should be given sparingly to avoid imbalances in the diet.

Common Treats

- Carrots: Low in calories and high in vitamin A.

- Apples: Sweet and hydrating but should be fed in moderation due to sugar content.

- Peppermints: Horses love the taste, but these should be an occasional treat.

Water: The Essential Element

Water is a critical component of a horse's diet. An average horse drinks between 5 to 10 gallons of water a day, depending on the weather, activity level, and diet. Ensuring access to clean, fresh water is vital for preventing dehydration and supporting overall health.

Special Dietary Needs

Some horses have unique dietary needs based on their health conditions, age, or workload.

Senior Horses

Older horses may require diets that are easier to chew and digest. Senior feeds often contain higher levels of digestible fibers and added nutrients to support aging bodies.

Metabolic Disorders

Horses with metabolic disorders such as Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) or Cushing's Disease may need specialized diets low in sugars and starches to manage their conditions effectively.

Performance Horses

High-performance horses, such as racehorses, eventers, or dressage horses, often require diets rich in energy and protein to sustain their intense workloads. These diets are carefully balanced to provide optimal nutrition without causing digestive upset.

Rarely Known Details

- Beet Pulp: Often used as a fiber supplement, beet pulp is highly digestible and can help maintain weight in hard keepers.

- Hemp Seed Oil: Emerging as a supplement, hemp seed oil is rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, promoting shiny coats and reducing inflammation.

- Probiotics and Prebiotics: These supplements support gut health and can improve nutrient absorption and immune function.

- Seaweed Supplements: Rich in iodine and other trace minerals, seaweed can support thyroid function and overall health.

In the vast field of equine nutrition, understanding what horses eat involves a balance of forage, concentrates, supplements, and occasional treats, tailored to meet their individual needs. Whether considering the basic requirements or delving into specific supplements and rare dietary additions, the nuances of what horses eat reveal a complex and fascinating topic.

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