“We are what we eat” is as true for horses as it is for humans. Making sure a horse or pony is getting the appropriate nourishment is critical to their health and happiness and forms a major part of good horse management. Horses need grass and forage, as these are the foundations of a healthy diet.
What’s the best diet for a horse?
In addition, concentrated feeds, vegetables and fruits can all be nourishing for equines. However, selecting foods that are appropriate for each horse’s needs as an individual is important, because they are all unique. Factors to be considered in making the right choices include age, height, breed and the amount of exercise or work the horse receives. Which types of food are available and, just as importantly, how to choose the right ones? The choice can seem bewildering sometimes.
Forage, concentrates and juicy vegetables
It helps to split the available foods into three basic groups, the first of which is forage. In the wild, horses need to graze for a large part of the day and night in order to get the nutrition and fibre they require. They don’t only eat grass – they also select from a menu of herbs and wild plants that benefit their constitutions, including meadowsweet and dandelions. They will also browse on bushes and trees such as willow and gorse. Domesticated horses also receive forage in the form of hay, straw, haylage and similar products. These are usually preserved grass products that can be fed throughout the winter or when there’s little to no grass available. The benefit of feeding preserved grass such as hay is that the horse-keeper knows exactly how much forage is in the horse’s diet because it can be weighed. Often there’s an overlap between winter and summer when the horse will receive some hay in addition to going out to graze. At the start of summer, the grass is rich in sugar and protein, but not in fibre and this is the time to watch for issues such as laminitis. Keeping the horse on some forage, especially soaked hay, while controlling the grass intake is a reliable way to avoid this.
The second food group, which is more important for working horses, is concentrated feed, which includes various forms of processed cereals. These come in the form of mixes, some of which are molassed and include oils and other additives, and also in “straights”, which are sacks of processed grasses or cereals such as oats or barley. These feeds are often high in protein, a requirement for sports horses and other working animals. There are also pelletised grass products which can be fed as part of the diet or as treats.
Thirdly, there are other foodstuffs which add juiciness and flavour to the diet. Most people quickly learn that horses love root vegetables such as carrots, turnips and beets. These can be an especially useful addition to the winter diet, adding taste and nourishment when there’s less succulent grass around. Hanging a juicy turnip or rutabaga (swede in the UK) up in a horse’s stable makes a good boredom buster, too. However, it should be born in mind that root vegetables are rich in sugar and some experts recommend limiting the amount horses eat each day. Horses also usually like cabbage and other greens, and many enjoy apples, pears and even bananas! Again, caution is the keyword here as fruits are sugar-rich too and best viewed as an occasional treat or reward. The golden rule of feeding is: always feed according to the work that the horse is doing.
Mineral and other dietary supplements can be a valuable addition to a horse’s diet. These can help with various conditions including symptoms of vitamin deficiency. They are also helpful as preventative measures for keeping horses and ponies healthy. Before deciding whether a horse needs supplements, it’s important to check the animal, its pasture and underlying soil. Good pasture that is well-cared for and has a range of grasses and herbs may be providing everything the horse needs. If, however, the pasture is overgrazed or limited, the horse may need supplements.