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The Principles of Feeding Horses

The Principles of Feeding Horses

What are the Principles of Feeding Horses?

Feeding equines may seem like a simple task, but there are important principles to keep in mind when it comes to horse nutrition. In this blog post, I will discuss the principles of feeding horses, including what hay is, why horses should be fed a forage diet and guidelines for knowing how to feed your horse. While these are generally considered the golden rules of feeding, it is important to note that equine nutrition is not an exact science, that the nutritional requirements of horses vary considerably based on a number of factors, and that these basic principles and rules for feeding should be used as guidelines and not considered laws... As such, please consult an equine nutritionist for further guidance.  

What is the proper way to feed a horse? The 4 Principles of Feeding Horses

  1. Feed forage first

Forage should always be the foundation of a horse's diet. Forage, which includes hay, pasture, and haylage, provides the necessary fiber and bulk to maintain a healthy digestive system- A horse's digestive system is designed to process large amounts of hay or grass, which means that they need to have access to forage at all times. Because this is the foundation of any horse's diet, it is our first and most important principle of feeding horses. Absorption occurs in the hindgut and small intestine. 

  1. Consider the horse's age and activity level

The nutritional needs of a horse can vary depending on their age and activity level. Young horses, for example, require more protein and energy to support their growth and development, while older horses may need special diets to support their aging bodies. Additionally, horses in heavy work or competition may require additional energy and protein to support their increased activity level.

The amount of feed will be determined by the workload of the horse. Thus, both the horse's age activity will determine the exact type of forage, total amount of grain or additional supplements per feeding, and the numbers of carbohydrates and fats to include in his diet. Growing horses typically require more feed than mature horses. Performance horses often require more high quality feed and may need to eat more than 1.5 to 2 percent of its body weight per day as compared to leisure horses who may do well on less. 

  1. Provide access to clean water

Water is essential for a horse's health and well-being. Horses should have access to clean, fresh water available at all times. It is recommended that horses consume a minimum of 0.5 to 1 gallon of water per 100 pounds of body weight per day. Water should be available at all times. 

  1. Feed multiple small meals

Horses are designed to eat small, frequent meals throughout the day. Feeding multiple small meals helps to maintain a healthy digestive tract and can prevent issues such as colic. A good rule of thumb is to feed at least three to four small meals per day, if feeding more than 5 pounds per feeding. Horses have a relatively small stomach and horses are naturally trickle eaters, so take caution in feeding too much dry matter at any given feed time. Oat, rice bran, sugar beet pulp, and commercially available feeds are common grain products. 

Special Considerations

Many horses do not need grain as their workload is low and they are maintaining good body weight without grain feedstuff. In that case, a good ration balancer pellet and access to 20 gallons of water per day should suffice. Ration balancer is a good alternative to grain for many of these types of equines and the mineral content can help make up the difference in nutrients that may be lacking in the horse's forage. Some types of equines, such as a pony or draft horse, typically fall into this category. However, it's nonetheless important to provide access to forage to maintain a healthy hindgut. 

Body condition is also important and should be taken into account: overweight horses should be fed diets with lower starches and sugars while a healthy horse should not have his diet changed drastically. 

Horse's hay and concentrate feed should always be stored in a dry place. A feeder should be cleaned on a regular basis. Not keeping a horse's feed dry and safe can lead to digestive issues and can also lead to respiratory problems.

What is Hay?

Hay is a dried forage that is made from grasses, legumes, or a combination of the two. It is one of the most common forms of forage used in horse diets. Hay can vary in nutritional value depending on the type of plant it is made from, the time of year it was harvested, and how it was processed. Good quality hay provides a good source of protein and is associated with higher body weight. Whether you feed legume or grass hay will likely be determined more by your region than anything else. Legume hay typically has a higher percentage of protein than grass hays. This higher protein content can lead to issues in some types of horses.

Why Horses Should be Fed a Forage Diet

Horses are grazing animals that are designed to eat large amounts of forage throughout the day; a Forage first diet is essential for maintaining a healthy digestive tract and can provide a range of benefits for horses, including:

  1. Maintaining a healthy weight

Feeding a hay of grass based diet can help horses maintain a healthy weight. Forage is lower in calories than many other types of feed, which means that horses can consume larger amounts without gaining weight.

  1. Promoting healthy digestion

Forage is essential for maintaining a healthy GI system. The fiber in hay and grass helps to keep the digestive system moving, which can prevent issues such as colic and other digestive problems.

  1. Supporting dental health

Chewing on forage, such as hay, helps to maintain healthy teeth and gums. Horses that are not provided with enough hay or grass may develop dental problems that can affect their overall health and well-being.

  1. Providing essential nutrients

Forage is also a way to provide essential nutrients, including protein, vitamins, and minerals, that horses need to maintain their health and well-being. The nutritional content of forage can vary depending on the type of plant it is made from and when it was harvested. 

What is the correct way to feed a horse?

Feeding horses is not a simple task- and there are no golden rules- but there are important principles to keep in mind when it comes to horse nutrition. Forage should always be the foundation of a horse's diet, and hay is a common form of forage used in horse diets.  When developing a feeding program, one should start with hay and forage as the base of their diet. It is important to only add grain as necessary, since too much grain can lead to health problems such as laminitis and colic.

Free choice hay is often the best option for horses because it allows them to graze throughout the day, which helps keep their digestive tract functioning properly and providing them with the energy they need for daily activities. It is important to avoid feeding equines too much grain or other concentrated feeds, as this can lead to health problems. Different types of hay are available, which provide varying levels of nutrition and should be chosen carefully.

Free choice hay also encourages natural foraging behavior, mimicking the grazing habits of wild horses. This is important for a horse's mental health and overall wellbeing, as it helps to reduce stress levels. When selecting hay, it is important to choose high quality hay that is free from dust, mold and other contaminants. Fresh hay should be provided regularly throughout the year.

Lastly, it is important to always monitor a horse's diet and adjust it according to their individual needs. With the right care and attention, you can ensure that your horse gets the nutrition they need in order to stay healthy and happy.. Horses have evolved to eat small amounts of food spread out over a long period of time, so providing them with access to hay whenever they need it ensures that their nutritional needs are met. Additionally, free choice hay tends to be more cost-effective than other types of feed because it eliminates waste and reduces labor costs associated with having to measure out meals multiple times a day.

These principles of feeding horses should act as a basic guideline for new horse owners to understanding basic horse care. Remember, feeding management is not an exact science. It's a good idea to connect with your local cooperative extension office (many feed companies also provide free consultations for horses and ponies) to determine exact nutrient requirements of your horse, as these requirements vary greatly- to ensure your horse is happy and healthy. 

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