Just like us, horses need a balanced and regulated diet to stay healthy and happy. As owners, we need to take an active role in not only building, but maintaining, a balanced and nutritious diet for our horses – whether they are yearlings or top competition mounts.
The nature of modern horse keeping often contradicts the natural behaviours of a horse – to live and eat continually – so you will need to monitor and supplement your horses feed to keep him healthy and happy. Health conditions like colic, and many negative stable behaviours can develop from a lack of proper nutrition and sheet boredom due to lack of forage.
While it is true that many horses can survive on a forage only diet, most horses will require their diet to be supplemented with more energy rich concentrates. This is especially true for performance horses or horses under a heavy workload.
A properly balanced equine diet generally consists of 5 parts: water, carbohydrates, fats, protein, and vitamins and minerals. These will provide the tools necessary for your horse to maintain weight, health, and the proper fitness and strength necessary for riding and training.
Forage provides the foundation to any and all equine diets, and is essential to good health and basic survival. Quality forage provides your horse with energy, protein, fats, and vitamins and minerals. Forage, provided via pasture or supplied roughage (hay) stimulates your horse’s natural grazing behaviour, stimulates the gut, which can help keep colic at bay. Different types of forage will have different amounts of protein, digestible energy, and vitamins/minerals, so being away of the nutritional content of your hay can help you build the rest of his diet to supplement any potential gaps.
Salt is another key foundational, and essential, part of any equine diet. It helps to increase water consumption, and is also a key part of ensuring proper nerve and muscle functioning. Forage, feed, and concentrates do not generally provide the required amount of salt a horse needs, so supplementing feed with salt or providing a salt block to your horse will make up for this gap.
While it may seem obvious that water is an essential part of any equine diet, water is also a commonly overlooked nutrient for horses. There are many ways in which horses loose water – through urine, feces, breathing, sweat, etc. – and all of this lost liquid needs to be replenished to avoid dehydration. Horses need to have access to fresh clean water at all times.
The most common concentrate feed to horses is grain, and it serves as the predominate source of calories, and is primarily starch based (carbohydrates). Horses that have difficulty holding weight, or horses who undertake a high level of exercise (ex. competition horses) will likely need a diet supplemented by grain to maintain a healthy weight. Horses that maintain a good body condition on a forage only diet, when supplemented with concentrates, will often end up gaining significant weight.
Beet pulp is also another commonly feed concentrate.
Vitamins and Minerals
Horses on a hay only diet, depending on the quality of the hay, may require additional vitamin and mineral supplements to maintain optimal health. Similarly, even with a well-balanced diet, some active horses may require additional supplements to ensure their needs are met. There are a wide variety of reputable supplements on the market to help meet any vitamin or mineral gaps in your horse’s diet.