Common Feeding Programs for Horses

Horses October 27, 2014 Print Friendly and PDF

Craig Wood, University of Kentucky

Class of Horse Determines Nutrient Requirements

Horse Head

The National Research Council (1989) has published a guide to feeding horses entitled "Nutrient Requirements of Horses." These requirements are based on several factors, including: 

  • class of the horse
  • body weight
  • body condition
  • stage of production
  • age
  • activity level
  • growth.

Diet selection for each class or activity level of the horse will depend on the nutrient requirements for that particular class of horse and which ingredients are selected to meet those requirements. Horses should be fed to meet their energy requirements first and then their feed balanced for all other nutrients.

Maximizing the Use of Forages

Maximizing the use of forages, whether it be hay or pasture, in the rations of horses is a must! The forages should provide a basis for all equine rations, and any requirements that are not met by the forages should be supplemented in the form of concentrates. As a general rule, horses should be fed at least 1 percent of their body weight (on a dry matter basis) of good quality roughage or be given access to pasture for sufficient time to consume 1 percent (on a dry matter basis) of their body weight. Horses fed ad libitum hay or pasture voluntarily consume 2 to 2.5 percent of their body weight in dry matter in a 24-hour period. This consumption, however, can be influenced by a number of factors, including quality of hay or fiber content of the hay or pasture. For example, if your horse is out on pasture in the Midwest during the middle of July, it is not going to consume as much as when it was out on pasture in March or April. This is simply because the pasture is much more lush and palatable during early growth in the spring and more fibrous and unpalatable later in the season (late summer). This difference must be taken into consideration when choosing appropriate forages for the horse.

Feeding Management Guidelines

Feeding horses is still an art that is acquired from experience. A knowledge of nutrient requirements and an understanding of the composition and use of common feeds serve as the basic information. The individuality of horses and their behavior makes it difficult to feed, maintain the proper body condition, and obtain maximum performance. A certain amount of skill, sound judgment, and experience is required for feeding horses correctly.

Horses may be fed as individuals or in groups. The ration should be formulated to meet the nutrient requirements for the appropriate physiological state and should be fed accordingly.

Feed Horses According to Body Weight.

The total ration of a horse should be fed as a percentage of its body weight. How much forage and grain should a 790-lb (360 kg) yearling horse receive? Using the table below, a yearling horse would need between 8 to 12 lbs (3.6 to 5.4 kg) of forage and 8 to 16 lbs (3.6 to 7.2 kg) of grain for a total of 14 to 24 lbs (6.5 to 11 kg ) for the total ration. Use the table as a guideline for the amount of forage and concentrate to feed the class of horse you desire.

Physiological State
Forage - %
Concentrate - %
Total - %
1.5 - 2.0
0 - 0.5
1.5 - 2.0
Late gestation
1.0 - 1.5
0.5 - 1.0
1.5 - 2.0
1.0 - 2.0
0.5 - 1.0
2.0 - 3.0
Working horses
(L, M, I)
0.8 - 2.0
0.5 - 2.0
1.5 - 3.0
0.5 - 1.0
1.5 - 3.0
2.0 - 3.0
1.0 - 1.5
1.0 - 2.0
1.8 - 3.0
L = light work; M = moderate work; I = Intensive work

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.