Basic Equine Nutrition


How to Select the Proper Feed for your Horse

Horses have six main dietary requirements for sound nutrition: water; energy (sources from carbohydrates and fat); protein, vitamins (fat-soluble and water-soluble); major and minor minerals and forage. Of all the basic dietary requirements, water is the single most important. A horse can survive 25 days without feed but only five days without water.

While all horses require the same basic nutrients, like humans, horses have different nutritional requirements throughout their lives. They also have different nutritional requirements depending on their lifestyles. A racehorse will have different requirements than mares and foals, for example.

A horse's beauty and performance depends on good health, and good health begins with nutritionally superior feed. Agway offers the following tips when choosing a horse feed:

Forage Analysis and Body Condition Scoring

Most horses are unable to maintain body weight on an all-forage diet because the energy density is too low. Choosing the right feed means conducting a nutritional analysis of your forage, including a soil test, as well as body conditioning scoring.


Water is required for all body functions - digestion, waste elimination, and body temperature regulation. Requirements depend on size, metabolic status, activity, environment and diet. Normal maintenance needs are 1gallon/100 lbs. body weight/day. Performance or lactating horses need 15 - 40 gallons/day.


Not all feeds are created equal. Less expensive brands typically have a higher feed rate. Ingredients change in least cost formulas, and can hide "low calorie" roughage. Look for a feed with a fixed formula to ensure consistency - ingredients are fixed and listed on the package and do not include "low calorie" roughage products or fillers. Fixed formulas reduce the chance of digestive upset, as well as a horse being "thrown off feed." The feed tag will tell you the purpose for which the feed was manufactured, the ingredients used in the feed and directions for use.

Make sure the feed you choose is tested at each stage of the manufacturing process for the nutritional content of all ingredients, and that all finished feeds are analyzed to ensure quality ingredients are consistent in formulation and rank high in quality standards.

While you want to ensure the proper balance between water, forage and feed, there are several nutrients, vitamins and minerals that are essential to good health that should be included in any feed you purchase:

  • Higher Fat - to deliver more calories per pound of feed, better weight gain, shinier coat and improved muscle performance
  • Yeast Culture - to increase fiber digestion and improve intestinal health
  • Organic Minerals - more readily absorbed and metabolized than inorganic minerals
  • Vitamin E and Selenium - critical for optimum function of the reproductive, muscular, circulatory, nervous, and immune systems. Research shows organic selenium is metabolized and retained at a higher level and more safely in the body
  • Lysine - critical for growth, muscle and tissue development
  • Biotin - for improved hoof quality

Feeding Guidelines

If you decide to change your feed, make all feed changes (hay and grain) gradually, over a seven-day period. Here are additional feeding guidelines:

  • Feed good quality hay (maximum 38% ADF on DM basis, free of weeds, mold and dust) or other forage at minimum 1% BW daily. For “complete” feeds, feed min.
    -.5% body weight daily in forage. Follow grain feeding directions for body weight, class, activity, and forage type.
  • Feed at regular intervals, two to three times daily, no more than 0.5% of body weight per feeding (5 lbs. for 1,000 lb. horse).
  • Prevent rapid consumption of large amounts of grain - slow down eating rate.
  • Feed by weight and not by volume - know the weight of hay and grain feed (The old coffee can may not hold the pounds you think. Weigh the contents for an accurate feeding).
  • Don’t increase grain more than 1 lb. per day.
  • Store feed in a cool, dry area off the ground, protected from insects and rodents (Rotate the bags and feed the product purchased first).
  • Follow sound parasite control, vaccination and dentistry programs.
  • Use high-fat feed or fat supplement for hard keepers.
  • Provide free-choice access to mineral supplement.
  • Provide daily exercise or turnout, prevent 24 hour stall confinement.
  • For easy keepers or overweight horses, use a concentrated supplement.


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