What do horses eat? — A guide to feeding your horse

What do Horses Eat?

What Do Horses Eat?

While there is a huge range of horse feeds available on the market, the bulk of your horse’s diet should always come from forage. The remainder of the ration can then be made up with specialist horse feeds and concentrated mixes, salt, minerals and herbal supplements, and the occasional treat. On an individual basis, what a horse needs to eat will depend on a number of factors, including age, workload, condition and any other specific medial or health issues. Here we are going to talk through all of the different horse feed groups you need to know about.

 

Grains

Grains are a traditional feed that provide supplementary nutrition for working horses and ponies. The most well-known of these are oats, which are used to add energy to the working horse’s diet. Fifty years ago, before the introduction of compound feeds, oats were the staple diet for all working horses. Oats were readily available, cheap and most importantly, best suited to the horse’s digestive system, making them the obvious choice for owners.

As oats have the highest fibre in relation to energy content of all the grains, they are the safest grain to feed. Because of this, oats are still widely available as a straight horse feed, although their popularity is much reduced due to the wide range of pre-mixed feeds available on the market.

Other straight feeds and grains are also available to buy, including barley, wheat bran and soya. However, it is worth noting that  straight grains are not nutritionally balanced, and some feeds, such as bran, can cause deficiencies in some key nutrients. Therefore care should be taken when feeding straights and it is advisable to feed a broad specrum supplement or feed balancer alongside these feeds. Bran, when regularly fed at larger quanities should also be supplemented by Limestone Flour to balance the calcium to phosphorous ratio. All of these are available to buy here at Millbry Hill.



Concentrated feeds

Nowadays, most owners will feed thier horses a pre-mixed concentrate or pellet horse feed. These are convenient for the owner, as they provide a balanced diet with energy levels tailored to the needs of the individual horse. There are concentrated feeds designed for every horse, from mares and foals to retired horses, and leisure horses in light work, through to racehorses and high level performance horses. Provided these are fed to the manufacturers’ recommended feeding rates, these feeds will provide a full balance of vitamins and minerals, tailored to your horse’s age and workload.

 

Chaffs and fibre feeds

Most owners also choose to feed chaff to thier horses, along with concentrated mixes and feeds. Made from finely chopped straw, and usually with a sweet-tasting coating, these add extra fibre to the diet, helping to reduce the risk of digestive upsets and issues, such as stomach ulcers. They also prolong feeding time, preventing horses from bolting their feed.

For horses in light work or rest, who do not require the extra energy provided by concentrated feeds, there are now also a wide range of fibre feeds available. These can be fed as a complete feed, as they are supplemented with vitamins and minerals to provide a balanced diet when fed to recommended levels alongside adequate levels of forage.

 

Salt and minerals

A horse or pony that relies mainly on pasture for their nutrition may be lacking in certain vitamins and minerals. The most basic of these is salt, which is vital for regulating hydration. The most common way of providing this is with salt blocka or mineral licks. The horse then has free access to this, so they can regulate their own needs. For horses and ponies in hard work, who are travelling longer distances, or even in extreme heat, it may also be necessary to provide electrolytes, which are available in supplement form, to help replace body salts after heavy sweating, maintaining healthy levels of hydration.

In addition to salt, horses and ponies that are on a forage only diet, or are not being fed compound feeds to the manufacturer’s recommended levels, may also require supplementary vitamins and minerals. There are two main ways of providing these; either through a broad spectrum vitamin and mineral supplement, or a feed balancer.

 

Feed balancers

A common misconception among horse owners is that a feed balancer will add condition. While there are conditioning balancers available on the market, a typical balancer will not contribute a significant number of calories to the horse's diet. The purpose of a balancer is to provide the essential nutrients required to “balance” the diet in a horse that isn't receiving a full ration of complete feed or  is fed a forage only diet.

Balancers are usually in small pelleted form, but some are also available as a textured mix. Whilst the price per bag of a balancer may seem expensive compared to compound feeds, the low feeding rate can make these an economical option. Here at Millbry Hill, we offer a wide range of horse feed balancers that you can choose from, depending on your horse’s individual needs.

 
Treats

Many owners like to feed treats, either as a reward during training, or as a boredom breaker for the stabled horse. There are a wide range of specialist horse treats available to buy, and we stock an extensive range here at Millbry Hill. Horses also enjoy a range of fruits and vegetables, which can be fed as a healthy treat – although it is worth remembering that these are high in natural sugars, so should not be fed in large quantities.

 

What vegetables can horses eat?

When asking what vegetables can horses eat, the first thing that comes to mind is carrots. However there are a wide range of vegetables that are enjoyed by horses, and are safe for them to eat. Just be careful if providing these chopped, that the pieces are not big enough to cause a choke hazard. Vegetables that can horses eat include:

  • Beetroot
  • Carrot
  • Celery
  • Corn
  • Cucumber
  • Parsnip
  • Peas (ideally soaked if uncooked)
  • Pumpkin
  • Squash
  • Swede
  • Sweet potato
  • Turnip

 

What fruits can horses eat?

Apples, of course, are the go-to treat for many horse owners. However there are a wide range of fruits horses can eat - just remember to remove the stones from pitted fruits. Fruits that are safe for horses to eat include:

  • Apples
  • Apricots (pitted)
  • Bananas
  • Blackberries
  • Cherries (pited)
  • Coconut
  • Grapes
  • Mango (stone removed)
  • Pears
  • Pineapple
  • Raspberries
  • Strawberries
  • Watermelon

 

What foods can horses not eat?

Horses have delicate digestive systems and can be prone to gastrointestrinal problems and colic. As a rule, it is best to only feed specific horse feeds and treats in addition to forage. This can be supplemented by a small quantity of "safe" fruits and vegetables, such as apples and carrots, if desired. Avoid feeding fruits, vegetables and other feeds high in sugars in large quantities, and 'human' foods, such as bread and bakery products, meat and dairy should also be avoided. There are a number of common plants that are also poison to horses too, so care should be taken to remove these from the horse's paddock.

Horses Shouldn't Eat Ragwort Horses Shouldn't Eat Foxgloves Horses Shouldn't Eat Buttercups Horses Shouldn't Eat Deadly Nightshade
Ragwort
Characterised by it's bright yellow flowers, ragwort may look pretty, but it can be deadly to horses. Toxins build up in the horse's system and eating just 1-5 kg over it's lifetime can cause liver failure or death.
Foxglove
A much loved plant of the British countryside and woodlands, the Foxglove is particularly poisonous to horses. Consuming as little as 100g could prove fatal in just a few hours.
Buttercups
Although horses would need to eat a large quantity to prove fatal, Buttercups are poisonous when fresh, so should be controlled in horse paddocks. However, they are harmless if dried in hay.
Deadly Nightshade
As the name suggests, Deadly Nightshade (also known as Belladonna), is a highly toxic plant and consuming even small quantities of the foliage or berries can cause death in both humans and animals.
Horses Shouldn't Eat Tomato
Horses Shouldn't Eat Hemlock
Horses Shouldn't Eat Horsetails
Horses Shouldn't Eat Chocolate

Tomato
Atropine, found in the  leaves of the tomato plant can cause colic. The tomato plant also decreases saliva production, increases heart rate and can cause constipation.

Poison Hemlock
Not to be confused with Cow Parsley and other umbels, which are readily sort after by horses and ponies, Poison Hemlock can be identified by the red/purple spots to the stalk.
Horsetails
While generally not readily eaten by horses, Horsetail remains toxic if dried in hay, where it becomes much more palatable.
Chocolate
Chocolate contains theobromine which can cause colic, and in extreme cases, seizures and internal bleeding.
Horses Shouldn't Eat Yew Horses Shouldn't Eat Privet Horses Shouldn't Eat Sycamore Horses Shouldn't Eat Caffeine
Yew
All of the fresh plant, including the leaves, twigs and berries, are toxic to horses, and the lethal dose can be as little as 500g.
Privet
Privet, and particularly box privet, can be fatal if eaten, even in small quantities. This plant is popular in gardens, so be aware of neighbouring hedges.
Scyamore
The seeds and saplings can cause the commonly fatal disease, atypical myopathy. If sycamore trees are present in the horse’s pasture, fence off the trees and remove seed pods and saplings.
Caffeine
Caffeine can cause an irregular heart rhythm. When competing, it can also result in a failed drugs test in horses.
Horses Shouldn't Eat Lawn Clippings Horses Shouldn't Eat Bracken Horses Shouldn't Eat Avacardo Horses Shouldn't Eat Potato
Grass Cuttings
Lawn clippings can cause colic, due to the horse gorging on large quantities of fermenting grass. They can also contain poisonous plants or traces of fuel from petrol lawnmowers.
Bracken
Bracken is only harmful if eaten in large quantities over a period of time. However horses can develop a taste for it so it is best to avoid it in pastures.
Avocado
All of the avocado plant, including the skin, flesh and stone of the fruit is poisonous to horses. The stone would also be a choke risk.
Potatoes
Green or rotten potatoes can cause toxicosis in horses. If eaten whole, they can cause choke, so should not be fed.
Horses Shouldn't Eat Rhododendron Horses Shouldn't Eat Cabbage Horses Shouldn't Eat Rhubarb Horses Shouldn't Eat Acorns
Rhododendron
Highly toxic to horses, Rhododendron can cause death by failure of the respiratory system, even when consumed in very small quantities.
Cabbage, Broccoli & Cauliflower
Cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower can all cause severe gas if eaten in large amounts, resulting in symptoms of colic.
Rhubarb
The leaves of the rhubarb plant are poisonous to horses, causing kidney failure and damage to the digestive and urinary systems.
Acorns
Acorns can cause poisoning and severe colic if eaten in large quantities. As horses can sometimes get a taste for acorns and search them out while grazing, it is best to fence off any oak trees in the paddock.

 

The basic diet for a horse will remain constant throughout its adult life; that is a requirement for forage (at a rate of 1% - 2.5% of the horse’s body weight per day) and a broad spectrum of vitamins and minerals. However, workload and health issues can affect a horse’s diet.

For example, performance horses, or those in medium to hard work, will have a higher energy requirement, and therefore will require additional concentrated feed. Broodmares and breeding stock will have higher nutritional requirements, which can be provided by specialist feeds such as stud mixes, or specific feed supplements. Also elderly horses may have trouble with their teeth, so will require feeds that are easier to chew, and in some cases, may need some of their forage requirement met by hay replacers.

 
When considering the horse’s diet and what horses eat, this is best taken on an individual basis. While the basic rule of feeding a high fibre diet (typically fed through forage), supplemented by essential vitamins and minerals is true of all horses, the horse’s specific requirements will determine what foods they should eat. At Millbry Hill we stock a wide range of horse feeds, haylage, supplements and feed balancers, so you can tailor your horse’s feeding regime to his exact needs. For individual guidance on what to feed your horse, our trained store staff will be happy to advise.