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Feeding Horses Hay and Grain Before Riding & Why You Should Feed Your Horse Before Rides

Feeding Horses Hay and Grain Before Riding & Why You Should Feed Your Horse Before Rides

Feeding Horses Hay and Grain Before Riding

Feeding your horse properly before riding is a crucial aspect of equine care. Doing so not only ensures their energy levels are optimal but also aids in maintaining their digestive health. This article provides tips for feeding your horse and explores the science behind it.

The Importance of Forage: Feed Your Horse Hay Before Riding

Feeding horses prior to exercise, particularly with forage such as hay, is essential. A horse’s stomach is designed to process food continuously, given their natural grazing habits. An empty stomach can cause discomfort due to the build-up of stomach acid, potentially leading to ulcers.

Providing your horse with hay before a ride acts as a buffer against this acid, reducing the risk of splashing around in the lower part of the stomach during exercise. Hay, particularly alfalfa hay with its high calcium content, can help neutralize this stomach acid.

Equine nutritionists often recommend feeding hay in small amounts before exercise. This practice not only helps maintain a healthy digestive system but also provides a source of slow-release energy, ideal for long durations of exercise. It's important to ensure that your horse isn’t going for a strenuous ride on an empty stomach.

Timing and Quantity of Grain Meals

While hay offers a slow and steady release of energy, grain meals provide a more immediate source of glucose, necessary for more intense bouts of exercise. However, the timing of feeding a grain meal is crucial. Research has shown that a grain meal fed two hours prior to exercise can lead to a more rapid return to normal glucose levels after exercise.

The amount of grain to feed a horse before exercise depends largely on the intensity and duration of the workout. For intense exercise of longer duration, like a barrel racing event or a long trail ride, a larger meal may be needed. Conversely, if the planned exercise is mild or of short duration, feeding a small amount of grain should suffice.

However, feeding a grain meal also has some drawbacks. High grain meals can lead to a surge in glucose and insulin levels, which could be detrimental if the horse fatigues during the exercise. Thus, grain meals should be tailored to the horse's individual needs and exercise regimen, taking into consideration advice from an equine nutritionist or veterinarian.

Understanding the Risks of Riding a Horse on an Empty Stomach

One of the significant risks associated with this practice is the development of gastric ulcers, a prevalent condition in the equine world. The anatomy and physiology of a horse's stomach contribute to why riding on an empty stomach can be problematic.

Horses have evolved as continuous grazers, meaning they are biologically designed to consume small amounts of forage throughout the day, not just during specific meal times. Their stomachs produce acid constantly, regardless of whether or not there is food to digest. The lower part of the stomach, which is responsible for digesting food, has a protective lining against this acid. However, the upper part does not have such a lining.

When a horse is fed regularly, the food content, especially fibrous materials like hay, acts as a buffer for the stomach acid. In addition, the act of chewing produces saliva, a natural antacid. But in the absence of food, the acid can build up and splash around, especially when the horse is exercised. This can lead to acid exposure in the unprotected upper region, causing irritation and potentially resulting in painful gastric ulcers over time.

Furthermore, stress from exercise can redirect blood flow away from the stomach, weakening the stomach lining's defenses and exacerbating the risk of ulcer formation. Therefore, maintaining a consistent feeding schedule and ensuring that your horse is not exercising on an empty stomach is critical to preventing ulcers and promoting overall gastrointestinal health.

Feeding After Exercise and Riding Considerations

After a bout of exercise, it’s important to allow your horse to cool down and return to a resting state. Avoid feeding your horse large meals immediately after riding. Offering small amounts of forage can help buffer stomach acid and provide continuous feed for the horse. The precise timing of feeding grain meals post-exercise is less established and may vary based on individual horses and their exercise intensity.


Feeding horses before exercise is a balancing act that requires understanding your horse's nutritional needs, the demands of the planned exercise, and the intricacies of equine digestive health. The golden rules are to ensure your horse is never exercising on an empty stomach, to allow sufficient time for digestion before a ride, and to balance the intake of forage and grain based on the horse’s activity levels.

Proper nutrition management ensures that your horse is ready to ride, with energy levels optimized and digestive health maintained. Always consult with an equine nutritionist or veterinarian to tailor a feeding plan best suited to your horse's needs.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Always offer your horse hay before riding to ensure the stomach is not empty, reducing the risk of gastric ulcers.

  2. Grain meals should be timed correctly and given in appropriate amounts based on the intensity and duration of exercise.

  3. Allow your horse to cool down before feeding substantial meals

FAQs on Feeding Horses Before Exercise

Do these rules apply to all equines? 

Yes, donkeys, mules, and ponies have the same requirements. 

Should I wait to ride after my horse has eaten grain? 

No, assuming the horse is only eating a couple of pounds of grain during one feeding. 

Should I feed a horse alfalfa hay? 

It depends. Research shows that alfalfa is one of the best ulcer preventions. For ulcer-prone horses, alfalfa hay may be a good choice. 

Can horses be fed before exercise? 

Yes absolutely, and it's probably better for them if they do eat prior to riding. Read the blog to find out why and how. 

I want to learn more about feeding horses. Help? 

You've come to the right place. We have loads of blogs, a YT channel, a TikTok account, and if this isn't enough, we also offer (free!) nutritional consultations. 


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