Equine Feeding: General Equine Feeding Recommendations

By Jessica Lynn (Updated 1/18/2020)
Good equine nutrition is more than just throwing your horse a flake of hay twice per day or feeding the latest in a long series of concentrated “fad” feeds full of bi-products, chemicals, things you cannot pronounce, and round up laidened soy in many forms, making all sorts of wonderful claims!

It is also more than just giving your horse two flakes of alfalfa a day, because "that is how they have always been fed." It has become more of a science, with hay being tested for all the necessary nutrients, sugars, carbs, starch and more, as part of a nutritional program being designed and put together for the best health of your horse.

There are many factors to consider when feeding horses, with hay being just one of them, the source of their water and what is in it being another (have you ever considered testing your water when you test your hay?). However, depending upon your horse and any health challenges he/she may currently have, hay can be one of the most important factors in maintaining his/her health.

As more and more of our horses are becoming Pre-Cushing’s/Cushing’s (PPID), Insulin Resistant (IR) or metabolically challenged, we must, as horse care takers, become educated and more aware, as well as knowledgeable, of not only the protein content of the hay we feed, but also the sugar content and NSC (non-soluble carbohydrates), copper & zinc, along with other nutrients and minerals, or lack thereof.

One of the most comprehensive sites for information regarding hay, especially for someone with a horse who has laminitis or has foundered, is https://www.safergrass.org/ It is worth the time to go through all the articles on that site and become an educated horse owner when it come to hay.

If you feed pelleted, complete, or concentrated feed - go to Balanced Equine Nutrition at http://www.balancedequinenutrition.com/NSCinFeeds.pdf, there you will be able to determine the NSC value for the bag feed you may be using, as well as grains and even for carrots. It really is an education to see what in the way of sugar is in our horses feed stuffs!

For hay testing https://equi-analytical.com/ is your go to source with instruction on how to take a sample and getting results via email.
Following are a couple general rules of thumb when it comes to feeding hay, for horses who are not health challenged, which everyone seems to agree on for the most part, and are as follows:

The starting point is to feed a minimum of 1.5 to 2 lbs. of hay, per 100 lbs weight of the horse, or 1,000 lb horse = 15 - 20 lb's of hay. This would be for a horse that was in light or no work. However, for horses in training, doing "heavy work", or for high performance and competition horses, hay can be increased by up to 3 lbs. per 100 lbs. of weight to handle their particular needs. Hay also needs to be tested to find out the balance of protein, sugars, and various minerals, what may be lacking, and also what you may need to add to have a complete balanced feed ration for optimal equine health.

So, for a reasonably active horse, used a minimum of 3-4 times per week, on long trail rides or lots of arena work, it would be about 2 to 2.5 lbs of hay per 100lbs, or approximately 20-25 lbs of hay per day for a 1,000 lb horse.

I personally like to follow the "one third rule" which I learned from my vet, years ago. That rule is to feed three different types of hay per day, one-third in weight of each type, not only for variety but to try to meet nutritional requirements as well. Hays grown in different regions also contain different nutrients from the soils in those areas.

For Example, a horse fed 21 lbs. of hay per day would get: 7 lbs. of either forage or Bermuda, with 7 lbs of orchard grass, timothy, or grass mix, some horses can tolerate a small amount of alfalfa, but I do not advocate feeding alfalfa as a "main course", but as a garnishment or "desert" if you will.

What is most important is in finding the balance of the hays to help balance nutrients including the calcium/ phosphorus ratio - too much iron and your horse will not be able to absorb zinc and copper necessary for hoof health. Those hays should be varied and changed on occasion, using timothy, Bermuda, orchard or a mixed grass hay as the "main course" hays, which I prefer. The 21 lbs would be divided into two or three daily feedings. Although my horses are fed a hand full of alfalfa in the morning, they are free fed Bermuda all day, and at the evening feeding they might get an organic grass mix hay or orchard, and their evening bucket would have timothy pellets soaked with their custom vitamin mix added.
I do not personally weigh the hay I feed, I just keep an eye on everyone in my herd from my horses to my mini's that they are maintaining a healthy weight. I know some people weigh and measure everything, and that’s ok, but what I have found is free fed horses will regulate themselves, especially if fed in Hay Pillows.

However, having said that many horses could use a bit of supplementation along the way to meet a minimum of nutrient and vitamin requirements along with a concentrated probiotic/digestive enzyme (especially if you vaccinate and use chemical wormers) like Equine-Zyme so that they are able to absorb and assimilate all they are getting, and for some they may need a little added fat due to metabolic disorders. Many horses do well if they have available pasture and can pick and choose what they need. The most common vitamins and minerals to supplement are Vitamin E and C along with selenium, however, selenium is very toxic, so you should not on your own supplement without advice.

Because a lot of people do not have time to mix and measure, I recommend a balanced vitamin and minerals supplement that is suited to the type of hay you feed. I often recommend High Point by Horse Tech, which we sell on our site, or depending on the horse maybe one with zinc & copper like Arizona Copper Complete - far better than California Trace and with free shipping. We offer a custom blend for horses who may be metabolically challenged and need extra nutrients for hoof health called For Horse and Hoof, we had input from many bare foot trimmers as to what the needs were for their clients on this product, the results have been healthier horses with better hooves!

Many people rely upon commercial concentrated bag feed/grain. The problem with most of the commercial bag feeds is they are loaded with “bi-products” from other industries and GMO soy in many forms from hulls to powder, which seems to be contributing to high ACHT numbers in many horses, we see this weekly in the consultations we do as overall body inflammation in some. Some of the most popular concentrated feeds have upwards of 30-40% sugar in them, no wonder the horses gobble it down! The best site to find out the sugar and starch to these kinds of feeds is Balanced Equine Nutrition. Go to their site and find out what you are really feeding your horse in his grain ration, you may be shocked!
I do not recommend any of the highly marketed concentrated feeds for horses who may be, or are health challenged especially with IR, or Cushing’s in particular, as they most likely cannot process the soy& soy bi-products or may have too much sugar and starch in their diets already. The “special” formula low sugar/low starch “complete feeds” for these horses are advertised to be a great substitute, they may be low sugar/low starch but are not a healthy alternative for sensitive horses should be fed soaked hay pellets or hay cubes to which you would add your own supplements or herbs. Soy FREE is a must if you want to keep your horses healthy!

What I do recommend is organic feeds or whole food type bag feed, when available, including Modesto Milling’s Horse Plus or their Organic Senior Feed which can be found on Amazon.com in 25# bags. Crypto Aero is also an alternative but is not organic, however it is a whole food and is available on Chewys.com – both are Soy free! Modesto Milling was the first mill in California to be certified Organic.

I am also a big fan of using anthelmetic herbs for horses, and many of our blends contain wild crafted and organic herbs that support various systems in the horse's body, also providing extra naturally occurring vitamins and nutrients, some even contain anti-inflammatory compounds. For a list of the herbs in each product you can go to Articles, and scroll to the bottom to Herbal & Supplements Glossary.

My Feeding Protocol at Earth Song Ranch

Below is my rule of thumb for feeding horses, however over the years I have come to understand from my classes in Equine Nutrition, Dr Juliet Getty and Hay Pillow Inc. that free feeding in hay nets/pillows is the healthier and more natural way to feed horses and they do not get fat if they are being free fed once they come to understand that they will always have food. They can eat a little often as they would in nature and is also an ulcer preventative. When you buy several Hay Pillows you can spread them out over a dry lot or pasture and get lots of movement of your horses during the day.

My horses and minis are free fed locally grown Bermuda grass in Hay Pillow hanging bags and ground pillows and are fed other hay for breakfast and dinner including orchard grass from Oregon or Northern California, a small amount of alfalfa (a hand full or two, or I use organic alfalfa pellets by Modesto Milling in place of alfalfa hay), from the high desert and on occasion Timothy. They get a morning bucket of soak hay pellets, Speedi Beet, flax, chia, Equine Zyme Plus, and a custom blend of vitamins and minerals balanced to my hay and my well water.

At lunch time they all get a small amount of either Modesto Milling Horse Plus or their low starch Organic Senior pellets which has Organic oats, organic barley, organic sun-dried alfalfa, organic sunflower seeds, organic peas, organic coconut meal, organic stabilized rice bran, organic flaxseed, monocalcium phosphate, ground limestone, magnesium oxide, salt, Redmond conditioner, diatomaceous earth, zeolite, organic kelp meal, Actigen yeast, organic flavors (garlic, thyme, anise oil, cinnamon, anise, rosemary oil), manganese sulfate, zinc sulfate, natural vitamin E, copper sulfate, sodium selenite, biotin, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin supplement, vitamin A supplement, vitamin D3 supplement. My Arabian gets 2 cups and my mini’s get one cup of this excellent organic feed!

A more natural whole food approach such as Modesto Milling and Crypto Aero, even for metabolically challenged, horses is best. They digest it better, they are able to gain needed nutrients from natural sources and are far healthier for it instead of the chemical loaded bi- product rich commercial bag feeds with artificial vitamins added.

Feeding Recommendations for Light Work:

For Horses who are only used or ridden occasionally, or for the older, more senior horse: feed approximately 15-20 lbs of hay per day using the 1/3rd ea. rule: Bermuda, forage, orchard grass, timothy or orchard grass mix, very little (1-2 lbs,) or no alfalfa.

Soaked hay pellets, one time per day, designed for what your horse is used for, however, you must read the labels, find out the sugar, starch and NSC values, and what else may be in the feed; to this add either Equine-Zyme or more importantly Senior Herbal Support for the older horses - feed it daily, year round, along with 1 cup of Stabilized rice bran, and about 1/3 cup flax seed or flax meal for the Omega (Essential Fatty Acids) to increase stamina.

Senior Herbal Support was designed with the older horse in mind, and contains a yeast culture with probiotics blended with beneficial herbs to support the needs of the older horse, including anti-inflammatory compounds and digestive aids.

For working horses, i.e. cutters, reiner's, roper's, or ranch horses: feed on average 24-28 lbs of hay per day, using the 1/3rd ea rule:

Timothy, forage, and either orchard grass, a rich grass mix, or grass mix with alfalfa. Hay pellets of your choice including an alfalfa blend for performance horses, a stabilized rice bran meal for the fat and calories, maybe 1 cup of rice bran, 1/3 cup flax meal and 1 cup of "Organic Race Horse Oats" (aka re-cleaned oats)soaked in 1-cup of water. It is particularly useful that these horses also receive a joint supplement like our Joint Juice. Add water to the consistency your horse enjoys.

Breeding Mares: A variety of hays should be free fed, especially if the mare is in foal. Mares who tend to gain weight easily should be fed hay by weight, again using the 1/3rd ea. rule, with the emphasis being on the highest quality hay available, and at the rate of approximately 22-24 lbs per day, especially important during the last three months of the pregnancy. I usually supplement the hay with a good vitamin mineral like High Point and one cup of stabalized rice bran, 1 cup of "Organic Race Horse Oats" soaked in 2 cups water, then drained, with soaked hay pellets. I have found this to be a good combination for robust and healthy foals, as well as mares who stay healthy and sound.

Open Mares: For Mares who are not in foal I recommend a variety of hay using the 1/3rd ea. rule or pasture grazing, feeding hay per the horses weight. I also recommend Happy Mare during Spring and Summer, along with some kelp as a supplement. However, once a mare is found to be in foal then I usually switch them to EquineZyme for the duration of the pregnancy. 

Foals & Weanlings: Foals and Weanlings should be free fed hay along with their mothers for optimal growth. They should also be fed a concentrated feed especially designed for them (no soy), along with a small amount of rice bran (1/4 to 1/2 cup), and Equine-Zyme. 

Equine-Zyme was designed to assist the growing foal to assimilate all of the nutrition from its feed as well as to help prevent epithisitis, which is a terrible tragedy that befalls many breeders. Equine-Zyme helps the foal to absorb as well as utilize the calcium and phosphorus from their diet and keep the balance in check and can help prevent scours.

Foundered & Laminitic Horses, or Horses with IR or EPSM:

No molasses, no sweet feeds, no carrots, no treats of any kind and no sweet grain feeds. Your horse may be able to tolerate a small amount of soaked whole oats, but you will need to speak to a nutritionist or vet about this and the amount that you can feed your individual horse. Most of your horses hay should be soaked, especially if you do not have a reliable source of hay that you can have tested and have an analysis performed on. Have your hay tested to find out what amount of sugar and starch may be in the hay. Balance the minerals and vitamins from the testing.

For any concentrated, sweet feeds or pellets there is a site that lists the NSC (starch and sugar) of those feeds. That site is Balanced Equine Nutrition. They have a table of all of the values for most of the major brands, they aslo list carrots, oats, barley, and other feed stuff.

What I personally feed to my own horses, with one who:

  • Mornings: 1 flake of Bermuda grass in hanging Hay Pillows and a hand full of alfalfa with some orchard grass in a trough.
  • Free feed Bermuda all day in hanging Hay Pillows (the Bermuda I had tested is only 7% sugar and 16% protein) and a flake of Orchard in an Hay Pillow ground bag.
  • Evening: large flake of Bermuda grass in hanging Hay Pillow, topped with about 2 -3 pounds of a grass mixed hay or Orchard grass in a ground pillow.

For anyone living in the South West (California, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Oregon, Idaho, et al)

I also recommend some Selenium supplementation with Vitamin E, as a lot of the hay growing areas are deficient in Selenium, and to also look at Copper as well as Zinc as possibly needing supplementation.

However, during the spring and early summer months, I usually substitute Happy Mare for my mini mares, in place of Equine-Zyme, as it has herbs that help to support, balance and calm cycling mares. The Happy Mare blend has been shown to make mares less moody and spooky, and a little more mellow. It also supports their hormonal and endocrine systems naturally with wild crafted herbs that if they were in the wild they would most likely seek them out themselves. We also offer a stronger blend called Happy Mare Plus.

Because of the various soil conditions, especially in the area in which we live, as well as the fact that much of the hay coming from the Imperial Valley area of So. California, is sandy or very dusty, it is recommended that once per month, one time per day, for 3-5 days, you feed your horse(s) one cup of Psyllium (mixed with water, not dry). I have found that it is best to mix Psyllium in rice bran, and soak some hay pellets with some soaked oats and enough water to make it sloppy. As those of us in So. California know there is a problem with sand colic as well as entroliths forming due to the nature of the soils in which the hay is grown. Feeding Psyllium is a preventative measure wherein veterinary research has shown that it helps in preventing both. Psyllium can sometimes be purchased at a local health food store in your area, in our area it is Henry's Market, in the vitamin or bulk department. We sell Psyllium for $4.95 per pound, I consider that to be very cheap insurance. One pound of psyllium should be enough for one horse for one month.

Please Note: Always follow the advice of your veterinarian regarding your horse, especially if it has any health related problems that need specific feeding requirements.