How to Feed your Horse for a Healthy Gut

From caloric intake to grain feeds versus forage, many myths and misconceptions exist when it comes to the best ways to feed your horse for optimum health. The phrase “hungry as a horse” is no joke, and a horse’s tendency to waffle down anything you serve up doesn’t help the problem. The fact is, your horse’s digestive system is unique, delicate, and vastly different from your own. Many equine health problems can be traced back to what they eat. Read on to learn 5 feeding myths, best practices, and how your horse’s digestive system works.

Myth # 1. If your horse is hungry, feed it.

FALSE. Horse owners love to feed their horses. But overfeeding can have disastrous consequences. An average non-breeding pleasure horse should consume 1.5-2% of its body weight per day. For example, a 1,000-lb. horse in light work should consume no more than 15-20 lbs. of food per day. This includes all forage (grazing and hays), supplemental feeds, and treats. Counting treats like apples, bananas, and carrots as part of your horse’s caloric intake is important. Over feeding of these sweets can also cause horses to develop insulin resistance over time, and other associated health problems mentioned in our previous blog.

  These two rescued horses happily- and safely- eating small, frequent meal of grass hay

These two rescued horses happily- and safely- eating small, frequent meal of grass hay

Myth # 2. Feed your horse like you eat, breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

FALSE. Wouldn’t that be convenient! If only your horse would fit into your feeding schedule of large, infrequently spaced meals. Unfortunately, horses are made for quite the opposite. A grazing herbivore, the horse’s digestive system is designed for light, almost continuous grazing throughout the day on fiber-rich grasses. While most horses are no longer “wild” their digestive system certainly is. Ideally, a horse should have some form of roughage to nibble on the vast majority of the time.  

Biologically attuned for grazing, the horse’s system naturally secretes digestive acids around the clock. Meanwhile, it’s stomach is only partially coated with protective mucus. With long periods between meals, acids can build up, causing painful ulcers in the unprotected upper stomach lining. Any stabled horse that gets fed infrequently is at a high risk for stomach ulcers. One solution to this problem is slow feeding hay nets and similar slow feeding devices. These nets can simulate grazing by allowing the horse to consume a set amount of forage slowly, over a longer period.

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Myth #3 Rich grain feeds are better than forage (grass and hay).

FALSE. The average stabled horse does not need grain feeds. A diet based solely on forage plus a vitamin supplement will meet their nutritional needs. Hard-working horses, breeding stock, and performance athletes usually do need extra caloric supplementation. However, it’s important to note that grain feeds should always be used as a supplement to forage, not a substitute. For a hardworking horse, total daily grain intake should not exceed 0.5% of the horse’s body weight. The maximum amount of grain a horse’s gut can handle at one time is 4 lbs.

Why? Consider your horse’s gastrointestinal system. It consists of two main parts, the foregut and the hindgut. The foregut includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, liver, pancreas and small intestine. The hindgut includes the large intestine, which is home to millions of symbiotic microbes. These friendly little critters are the reason horses are called “hindgut fermenters”. Through fermentation, they break down fiber-rich grass (cellulose) into fatty acids which provide energy and muscle development.

Grain feeds are more acidic than grasses, containing higher levels of proteins and sugars. They are also easier for your horse to hoover down at lightning speed, and require significantly less chewing than forage. Less chewing means less saliva, an essential component for food breakdown. Lack of saliva and rapidly consumed acidic feed does not make the microbes in the hindgut happy. The microbes like a balanced pH of 7, and a lowered pH can result in microbe die off. This creates a serious cyclical condition called Hindgut Dysbiosis.

One partial exception to note here is senior horses with aging teeth. These horses may not be able to chew grasses and therefore must rely primarily on a feed or pellet. Alternatives include formulated diets with a combination of grain, vitamins, and fermentable fibers. Fermentable fibers in pellet form, like beet pellets, can be soaked in water for eating ease. Oats, a high fiber grain, are preferable to corn. Senior feeds are nutritionally complete, and are created to provide roughage to older animals in a form that they can easily eat and digest.

Myth #4 All hays are created equal

FALSE. As an example, consider alfalfa and hay. Alfalfa, which is technically a legume, is much more nutrient dense. It contains a higher level of protein and calcium than hay. For this reason, alfalfa is good for working horses but too rich for idle horses. Most people over-estimate how much their horses work. Light riding a few days a week, or having a weekend roping horse does not mean it’s a “working horse”. Examples of working horses would be those in hard training 4-5 days per week where the horse sweats prodigiously. Eventing horses, working ranch horses, and some racehorses often fall into this category. Alfalfa does produce a nice sleek coat, but this is often a sign of excess nutrition and typically comes with a thick layer of fat over the ribs.

Geographic location also affects hay. Southern drought-tolerant grasses like Bermuda and Brome have less sugar content than sweeter cool season grasses like Timothy or Orchard. Hay is often subject to 3-4 cuttings per season, which impacts quality. In general, the earlier the cutting, the more palatable the hay, because it has a high sugar content. More mature cuttings have higher concentrations of lignin, a structural component of the plant stem, which is more difficult to digest. These mature grasses are preferable for easy keeper horses that are prone to equine metabolic issues.

Beware of cereal grain hays, a by-product of the grain industry. A cheap alternative, they are often fertilized with nitrogen, which can negatively impact horse’s blood oxygen levels. Grasses designed for cattle consumption and increased milk/meat production do not convert well for horses either.

Myth #5 If it’s green, it’s game.

FALSE. Your horse can starve in a “green pasture” full of unpalatable grass. Overly mature grass, weedy pastures, or pastures contaminated with manure or urine are not suitable for forage. As a rule, allow 1-2 acres of pasture per horse. Anything less will become trampled and overgrazed. Horses are picky eaters and will overgraze new growth and the choice bits they like the best, causing their least favorite grasses and weeds to proliferate. Keep an eye on your pasture, your horse will thank you.

Did this blog whet your appetite? Enroll in our online horse nutrition course to learn more. The Equi-Librium Institute was founded by April Johnston of Equine Equilibrium and Veterinarian Kellyanne Claybaugh of Aramat Equine Services to help horses by educating their people.