As is the case in many livestock industries, there is a well-known debate in horse rearing between “pasture vs commercial feed”. Admittedly, horses (like cows, pigs, goats, and other domesticated animals) have survived on grazing and drinking water in the wild for centuries. However, the average lifespan of horses living in the wild is much shorter than that of domesticated horses that we expect to have. In addition, certain animals (the elderly, hardworking, injured, etc.) require high levels of protein (and/or vitamins), which can only be found in commercial feed. In any case, horses need access to fresh water and hay 24 hours a day.
A horse can consume more than 1% of its body weight in hay per day. If you have young, healthy horses and your fields produce a sufficient variety of grasses year-round, you can establish your horses’ nutritional supply based on fresh pasture and hay, avoiding spending hundreds of dollars on commercial feed. For the term pasture, we have defined a wide variety of plant species: grasses, clovers, alfalfa (purple clover), hibiscus, legumes, cruciferous plants, etc. Timothy grass, alfalfa, and Egyptian clover (fresh or as hay) are good nutritional foundations for horses. Sorghum is toxic to horses and must be avoided. Future horse owners should do their research to find out which plants are toxic to horses in their area.
The rules mentioned above are general and apply to most healthy horses. However, no two horses are the same, and their physical abilities and needs vary. For example, older horses often have dental issues and/or mobility problems. Therefore, they may not be able to spend 15 hours a day foraging/eating. Therefore, we must always ensure a supply of different types of commercial feed. Bran, beet pulp, mixed grains (pellets, flakes, corn), oats, barley, chopped hay, and vitamins can all be used to supplement horses’ nutrition. Grains are mainly used during the phase where we expect the horse to gain weight. Although small amounts of grain can work well, we must be cautious because too much grain can be life-threatening. Mature, healthy, and robust horses can consume more hay and grass, while older, injured, and high-intensity working horses require more protein and vitamins.
If our horses need to perform heavy work or are already elderly, we can provide commercial mixed feed that is high in protein. Farmers typically provide bran products for older animals with dental problems. The protein content of barley straw is low (about 5%) and the fiber content is high.
After the first cutting, Egyptian clover and other related plants are an excellent source of fiber as food for animals.
Oat hay is suitable as maintenance for mature horses and as feed for pregnant mares in early stages. According to Bob Coleman, horse owners should test the nitrate level in oat hay to ensure its safety. The nitrate level in the total equine diet should not exceed 0.5%.
Generally, compared to their enormous size, horses have small stomachs. Therefore, it is best for horses to have small, frequent amounts of food at a moderate pace. This way, they can enjoy small and frequent meals at their own pace instead of 2-3 large meals per day. However, please remember not to allow horses to eat before or after high-intensity exercise (such as riding) as it may cause colic.
Finally, horse owners should regularly provide salt blocks in the horse’s stall. This way, horses can freely lick the salt block to meet their sodium and chloride requirements. However, please note that many salt blocks are mineralized and contain other minerals. Many horses can get sufficient minerals from commercial feed or vitamin supplements. Therefore, you can discuss your horse’s diet with a licensed veterinarian to decide whether to provide mineralized salt blocks.
First-time horse owners should consult local experts, veterinarians, and/or agronomists to develop a reasonable annual feed plan and learn about common poisonous plants and shrubs in the area. In many cases, the plant community and weather conditions of the area are important parameters for developing the final feeding pattern. Veterinarians and horse owners should also regularly check the horse’s physical condition and dental health. Under the supervision of a licensed veterinarian, farm owners can incorporate some vitamins into certain feeding plans.
Feeding horses every day is a very complex issue, especially when you are keeping more than 3-4 horses of different ages, backgrounds, and needs, some of which may also have dental problems. If you rely solely on memory and feed based on gut feeling without keeping records, it’s easy to become confused about the daily feeding plan for each horse. Therefore, we suggest placing a chalkboard in the room where you prepare and mix the feed for each horse. Create a table on the chalkboard with the names of all your horses and columns for the quantity of each.
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