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Guidelines for Feeding Horses
All diets must contain adequate amounts of forage that can be provided in the form of pasture or hay. Grazing horses or horses fed free choice quality hay will consume about 1.5-2.5% of their body weight per day (based on dry matter consumption).
Minimum Hay Intake
For most adult horses, feed a minimum of 1.4 – 1.5% of body weight per day of hay. Long-stem forage or pasture is recommended to minimize digestive challenges. Forage provides dietary fiber that is essential for promoting gut health.
Long Stem vs Processed Forages
Long-stem hay (bale hay) should be at least 50% of the total forage consumed per day. Processed hay (pellets or cubes) should not exceed more than 50% of the total forage consumed/day. Long-stem fiber promotes the gut to contract with more vigor thus promoting gut integrity and long-stem hay requires more water intake by the horse than processed hay. An increase in water intake promotes gut integrity.
Processed Forages & Consumption Influences
Usually there is less feeding loss when feeding processed hays compared to baled hay. Forage pellets and cubes are usually fed in tubs and troughs that minimize loss as compared to hay flakes fed in racks or on the ground. You may feed less total forages if processed hays are a portion of the daily ration however, horses consume less water with processed hay.
Alfalfa Hay Feeding Limits
Alfalfa hay (bale, cube, or pellet) should not exceed more than 50% of the total forage consumed per day. Alfalfa is high in protein and calcium however, if fed as the only forage source will adversely influence the relationship of these nutrients to energy. An important consideration is that a 100% alfalfa forage diet usually provides significantly less fiber than traditional grass forage diets such as timothy, Bermudagrass, and orchard grass hays. Depending on the region and cutting, alfalfa can provide up to 25% less dietary crude fiber when compared to typical grass hay.
Cereal Grain Hay Feeding Limits
Cereal grain hays (bale, cube or pellet) including oat hay, barley hay, 3-way hay, etc. should not exceed more than 50% of the total forage consumed per day. The seed heads of cereal grain hays provide an unknown relative to nonstructural carbohydrate intake. In addition, most cereal grain hays are at a maturity that translates to fiber levels that are often less palatable. Subsequently, horses will “pick-through” the hay selecting the grain-heads and consuming less of the fiber portion of the forage.
Diet Changes & Adjustments
What Constitutes a Diet Change?
A “change-over” or change in the daily diet represents any increase, decrease, addition, or replacement of the feed. A change may influence the relationship of the amount of forage and the amount of concentrates being fed. The concentrate-to-roughage ratios can be modified to accommodate individual situations and is one of several methods to influence “energy levels and quality” of the diet. Recommendations may be considered conservative but the goal is provide an adequate acclimation by the microflora that reside in the gut.
Diet Adjustments for Hay
Changes in types of hay such as legume to grass, grass to legume, or grass to grass will determine the rate of change. For example, changing legume hay to alfalfa or grass hay the recommendation is 1/2 – 1.0 lb change-over per day. When changing from one type of grass hay to another the recommendation is 3/4 – 1.5 lb change-over per day.
Diet Adjustments for Concentrates
For changes in concentrates such as grains, grain base mixes, commodities (oats, corn, barley, wheat bran, etc.), or balanced feed mixes, the recommendation is approximately 1/4 lb change-over per day. Some circumstances may require changes on an every other day basis.
Should be provided freely and not be limited prior to performance. Any water source MUST be checked daily. Ideal water temperature is 50° – 65° F. Horses will consume less water if the water temperature is too cold or too hot. Horses that consume less water are more likely to be candidates for digestive disturbances.
Feeding individual feedstuffs or commodities, such as oats, corn, wheat bran, etc. is generally not a balanced approach in feeding horses. Horse owners should consider feeding commercially available balance formulas to complement the forage portion of the diet if needed to meet energy and nutrient demands. Balanced formulas from reputable companies are developed by trained personnel that understand nutrient content of feedstuffs and nutrient requirements of horses.
Adult horses that are inactive, that is not pregnant, not producing milk or not engaged in routine daily exercise, are considered as maintenance fed horses. These horses may be maintained on dry forages or pasture. Depending on region and availability of quality forage sources, small amounts of a balanced formula or vitamin/mineral supplement may be needed to complement the forage portion of the diet.
If a horse bolts his food and consumes his pellet, grain or texture mixes very rapidly, consider placing large “bolder-like” rocks as obstacles in the feed tub to force him to navigate around the obstacles to eat. Feed tubs designed to reduce bolting are commercially available. If the horse is located in a coral, establish several feeding stations to force time during feeding while walking from one feeding station to another.
Estimated Feed Consumption by Horses (% body weight)
Air-dry or as-fed (about 90% DM)