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What Do Horses Eat: Learn Horse Diets and Guidelines

Horses are magnificent creatures, and their diet plays a crucial role in maintaining their health and well-being. As herbivores, horses primarily consume plant-based foods, with the natural diet consisting of pasture grass and tender plants. Ensuring that a horse receives the proper nourishment is essential for them to thrive, whether they are kept as companions, working animals, or competition horses.

In order to provide the best possible diet for a horse, it is important to understand their nutritional requirements and factors that influence their dietary needs. A horse’s diet should consist of roughage, such as grass or hay, supplemented by additional feed when necessary, depending on the workload, age, and overall health of the animal. Offering a balanced diet will help ward off potential feeding problems and promote overall well-being.

Key Takeaways

  • Horses are herbivores, primarily consuming pasture grass and tender plants.
  • A balanced diet is essential to a horse’s health, taking into account their workload, age, and overall condition.
  • Understanding a horse’s nutritional requirements helps prevent feeding problems and promotes well-being.

What are Horses

Horses are large, majestic mammals belonging to the Equus family, which consists of around 400 different breeds. They are herbivores, meaning they consume plant-based foods, making their diet an essential part of their overall health and well-being.

As grazers, horses primarily feed on grass and hay. Their diets may also include grains and concentrates depending on their work regime and availability of feed. It’s crucial to maintain a balanced diet for horses, as it directly impacts their digestive system and ensures a healthy and happy life.

In addition to their main meals, horses can enjoy fruits and vegetables as occasional treats. Providing such treats may reinforce training and strengthen the bond between horses and their owners. It’s important to note, however, that not all fruits and vegetables are suitable; some may even have adverse effects on their health.

Horses typically consume about 2-2.5% of their body weight in grass or hay daily. For instance, an average adult horse weighing 450kg would consume around 11kg of food each day. If concentrates like grain are included in their diets, roughage should still make up at least 50% of their daily food intake by weight.

In conclusion, understanding the dietary needs of horses is essential for their well-being. Providing a properly balanced diet that includes grass, hay, and occasional treats ensures their health, as well as facilitating bonding and training between horses and their handlers.

Fundamental Facts about Horses’ Diet

Horses are natural grazers, with their diet primarily consisting of grass and hay. This high-fiber food keeps their digestive system healthy and functioning well. In the wild, horses eat little and often instead of consuming larger meals at one time. The natural diet of horses and ponies is largely grass, which has a very high fiber content.

In addition to grass, hay or haylage provides horses with essential nutrients and energy. Salt, concentrates, fruits, or vegetables can enhance their diet as well, depending on the required work regime and available feed. For working horses, their diet mainly consists of grass during the day and hay and grains during the evening when they come into their stable.

Horses also need essential nutrients to maintain their overall health. These nutrients can be classified into six main categories:

  • Water: The most critical nutrient, as horses cannot survive long without it. Horses should always have access to a clean supply of water.
  • Fats: Necessary for energy production, hormone function, and overall health.
  • Carbohydrates: Provide energy for the horse, derived mainly from grass and hay.
  • Protein: Vital for muscle and tissue growth and repair.
  • Vitamins: Essential for a variety of functions, including metabolism, blood clotting, and bone health.
  • Minerals: Important for maintaining the balance of bodily functions, such as electrolyte balance and bone development.

A horse’s diet may also include snacks and treats, such as fruit, vegetables, and salt and mineral licks. Some horses eat commercially prepared pelleted feed, made of mostly plant matter and enriched with vitamins, minerals, extra protein, and sometimes added sugars. However, it’s important to remember that the majority of a horse’s diet should consist of grass, hay, and grains.

Types of Foods Horses Eat

Horses require a balanced diet to maintain their health and well-being. Their primary source of nutrition comes from forage, but they may also consume grains, fruits, and vegetables. This section outlines different types of food horses commonly eat.


Grains can be fed to horses for additional energy and nutrition. Common grains fed to horses include oats, corn, and barley. These grains can be fed whole, crushed, or in a processed form. It is essential to monitor the horse’s grain intake and adjust it based on their workload and nutritional requirements.


Hay is a crucial part of a horse’s diet, especially during winter months when fresh grass is not readily available. It can be made from various grasses or legumes, such as alfalfa, timothy, or orchardgrass. Horses should consume at least 1.5-2% of their body weight daily as hay or other forage to promote digestive health.

Fresh Grass

Fresh grass is a natural and essential part of a horse’s diet. It provides them with the necessary nutrients and is an excellent source of forage. Horses should have access to grazing as much as possible. However, the quality of the grass may vary throughout the year, so it is crucial to monitor and adjust their access to grass, considering their work regime and available feed.

Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables can be fed to horses as treats or to enhance their diets. Apples, carrots, and other fruits or vegetables are often fed in moderation to provide variety and additional nutrients. It is essential to introduce any new produce slowly into the horse’s diet and avoid feeding them anything that could be harmful.

Nutritional Requirements of Horses

Horses require a balanced diet to maintain their health and well-being. Their nutritional needs include water, fats, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Understanding the importance of each nutrient and supplying it in adequate quantities is crucial for their overall health.

Water is the most essential nutrient for horses and a consistent supply of clean water should always be available. Dehydration in horses can lead to serious health issues and even death. Their water intake varies depending on factors such as temperature, activity level, and body size.

In addition to water, horses need energy to fuel their bodily functions and maintain muscle mass. Energy in a horse’s diet comes from carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Horses primarily consume forages such as pasture grasses, legumes, and hays as their main source of carbohydrates. These forages are broken down through fermentation in the cecum and large colon, providing the necessary energy for their daily activities.

Protein is essential for growth, tissue repair, and maintenance of muscles. High-quality protein sources include alfalfa, soybean meal, and other legume-based feeds. It’s important to balance protein intake with the horse’s energy needs and life stage.

Minerals and vitamins are equally important for horses, as they help regulate various body functions and are crucial for overall health. Some key minerals include calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and zinc. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble vitamins that are required in smaller amounts, whereas B and C vitamins are water-soluble and need to be supplied consistently.

Feeding practices should be tailored according to each horse’s nutritional requirements and individual circumstances. Factors such as age, weight, workload, and reproductive status play a critical role in determining the appropriate diet. Regular assessments and adjustments can help ensure that horses are receiving the right nutrients in the right quantities.

Factors Influencing Horse Diets

When considering a suitable diet for a horse, several factors play a crucial role in determining its specific nutritional needs. Let’s explore these factors and their impact on feeding choices.

Horse Age

As horses grow and age, their nutritional requirements change. Foals and young horses require a diet rich in protein and energy to support their growth and development. Senior horses, on the other hand, often experience a decline in digestive efficiency and may require an easily digestible diet with higher levels of fiber and adequate vitamins and minerals to maintain optimal health.

Horse Size

The size of a horse directly influences the amount and type of feed required. Larger horses typically have larger appetites and need more calories to support their energy needs. The nutritional requirements of smaller breeds, such as ponies, are different from those of larger breeds, and their diet should be adjusted accordingly since they are more susceptible to obesity if fed too much.

Horse Breed

Certain breeds, like draft horses and thoroughbreds, may have unique nutritional requirements. Draft horses generally have a slower metabolism and need less energy per kilogram of body weight than lighter breeds. Thoroughbreds, being bred for athleticism, often require a diet higher in energy to cater to their high-performance activities.

Activity Level

A horse’s activity level greatly affects its nutritional requirements. Horses involved in intense work or competitions need more energy, protein, and overall nutrition to maintain their performance, body condition, and health. Conversely, horses with a sedentary lifestyle or light work schedules need fewer calories to maintain a healthy weight and should consume a diet lower in energy but balanced in other essential nutrients.

Health Status

Health issues or special conditions can dictate a horse’s dietary needs. For example, a horse with a history of laminitis may need a diet low in non-structural carbohydrates, while a horse suffering from gastric ulcers might require additional fiber sources or supplements to manage the condition. It’s crucial to consult a veterinarian or equine nutritionist to design a suitable diet that addresses the specific health concerns of each horse.

Dealing with Feeding Problems

Feeding problems can arise due to various reasons, such as illness, preference, or physical conditions. In these situations, it is essential to understand the horse’s dietary needs and provide the right nutrition.

When a horse refuses to eat, it could be because they are simply picky or have specific preferences for the tastes, textures, and smells of their food. In such cases, try offering different types of hay, forage, or feed to find the one that the horse enjoys the most.

If the horse is sick, nutrition becomes a crucial part of their management and treatment. Stress from surgery, severe orthopedic problems or infection can increase the horse’s caloric needs due to an increase in catabolism. In such cases, consult with a veterinarian to determine the best diet that provides the required nutrients and energy.

In addition to considering the horse’s preferences and health, it is crucial to make sure they have access to good pasture, as this contains most of the nutrition a horse needs to be healthy. Pasture grass and tender plants provide essential nutrients, as well as silica, which is important for dental health.

Remember that there are common horse-feeding mistakes to avoid, such as overfeeding or providing an imbalanced diet. Monitoring the horse’s behavior and the available food sources can help ensure that they receive proper nutrition to maintain their health. Consult with a veterinarian or an equine nutritionist if uncertainty arises.


Horses, being natural grazers, primarily consume grass and other vegetation to meet their nutritional needs. They also consume hay, oats, and other grains as part of their diet and can enjoy occasional treats like carrots or apples.

A well-balanced diet for a horse typically consists of forage, such as hay or grazing in pastures, and concentrates like oats, barley, or corn. The specific types and amounts of food required by a horse depend on factors such as its age, workload, and health status.

It is crucial for horse owners and caretakers to ensure a proper diet for their equine friends, as good nutrition contributes to their overall well-being, happiness, and health. By understanding the dietary needs of horses and providing the appropriate food sources, one can help promote the long-term health and vitality of these magnificent animals.

Frequently Asked Questions

What human food can horses eat?

Horses can eat some human foods like fruits and vegetables as occasional treats. Apples, carrots, and bananas are popular choices for horses. However, it is important to remember that the primary diet of a horse should consist of grass and hay. When offering human food to horses, ensure that it is safe and in moderation.

What treats do horses enjoy?

Horses enjoy simple treats such as apples, carrots, and sugar cubes. Some horses may also enjoy peppermints or special horse treats available at feed stores. Make sure to feed these treats in moderation and avoid overfeeding.

Do horses need grain in their diet?

Grains can be a part of a horse’s diet, but they should be fed sparingly. Most horses can get the necessary nutrients from hay or pasture. Grain supplementation is usually required for hard-working horses, athletes, or horses with specific dietary requirements. Always consult your veterinarian or equine nutritionist for appropriate feeding recommendations.

What vegetables can horses eat?

Horses can eat a variety of vegetables, including carrots, celery, pumpkin, and squash. However, their diet should be mainly grass and hay, with vegetables fed as occasional treats. Ensure that the vegetables are clean and free of pesticide residues.

What should you avoid feeding horses?

There are certain foods that are harmful to horses and should be avoided. This includes chocolate, coffee, avocados, onions, cabbage, tomatoes, and potatoes. Additionally, avoid feeding your horse large amounts of any single type of treat or supplement, as this can cause an imbalance in their diet.

What is the best thing to feed a horse?

The best thing to feed a horse is a diet that is high in fiber and low in sugar, primarily consisting of grass and hay. This ensures that the horse receives adequate nutrition and maintains a healthy digestive system. Supplement the diet with vitamins and minerals as needed, based on the horse’s individual needs and recommendations from your veterinarian or equine nutritionist.

Last Updated on August 25, 2023 by Nate Dewsbury

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