The food which we feed to horses needs to meet seven fundamental requirements. Five of these are:
- Energy. It needs to provide sufficient energy (calories) to meet the requirements of the horse. If the weather becomes colder or the horse is used more actively, the amount of food will need to be increased accordingly. Likewise, as winter turns into summer or if the horse is less active, the amount of food should be decreased.
- Minerals and Vitamins. Aside from energy, horse feed needs to provide a variety of essential minerals and vitamins, in the required quantities.
- Bulk and High Fiber. The equine digestive system has evolved to process grass, which is high in fiber and bulk. Food which is concentrated (e.g. grain) may provide the required energy and minerals, but lacks the bulk which the digestive system needs, which greatly increases the risk of ulcers and other diseases. Studies on horses which a diet high in grain or other concentrated foods show that 50% to 90% of these horses have ulcers.
- Digestability. Food which is poorly digested provides limited food value and can cause serious illnesses (e.g. impaction colic). This is a particular problem for the older horse, where dental wear reduces his ability to chew food and aging has reduced his ability to digest certain foods. See ‘Feeding Senior Horses’ below for details. In addition, horses may eat unsuitable items (e.g. straw) which do provide food value but due to difficulty in digestion can also result in problems.
- Safety. Almost any food, given in an incorrect quantity or fashion, can result in health issues. A list of the common mistakes to avoid is provided below.
To understand the other two fundamental requirements, it helps to first understand the normal eating patterns of horses. Horses have evolved as foragers, which means that they eat for a little while in one place, then move on in search of better food (e.g. more tender or nutritious) and eat somewhere else. One often sees this behaviour when the horse is in a large pasture, where they frequently move from place to place. The reason for this behaviour is that they evolved in a landscape where the quality of food was variable (as opposed to the largely uniform grassland which we create in our pastures) so they needed to spend most of their time moving and eating, up to 18 hours per day. This has resulted in two dietary requirements: russian store
- Continuous Feeding. Although a horse does not eat constantly (e.g. it spends part of its time moving about and other activities), it needs to eat frequently. It needs a minimum of 2-3 meals per day to keep its digestive system healthy, but more frequent eating is preferable. Many small meals are better than a few large meals. This is one of the reasons that horses which graze on pasture during the day are generally healthier than horses which have their food (e.g. hay or grain) given to them once or twice a day.
- Stimulation. A horse’s main stimulation and occupation comes from looking for food and eating (typical forager activity). Restricting it to short and infrequent feedings will result in a bored and unhappy horse, which is likely to develop stress related behaviours such as cribbing or repetitive movements.
Grass and Hay
Grass is the most natural food for horses, as it is what they have evolved to eat. In general, horses will tend to be healthier on a diet which consists mainly of grass than on any other type of food.
Hay is the second most natural food, being rather close to the dried grass which they might find after a hot and dry summer, or dried winter grass. It is less nutritious than fresh grass but good quality hay is a useful alternative when there is not enough fresh grass.
There are a large number of poisonous weeds which can be found in some pastures. Depending on the type of plant eaten and the quantity, the result can be anything from minor to fatal. Some plants can also cause damage the skin or hooves if the horse rolls or walks on them. Consequently, before putting your horse into a pasture, a knowledgeable person should check the pasture for poisonous weeds. As some weeks are visible mainly in spring and others mainly in summer, a thorough walk through the pasture at least twice a year to check for suspicious plants is advisable.