what do horses eat

What Do Horses Eat?

Written by: Akeem Eletu
Last updated on:

Horses may seem big and strong but these animals require more care than they look like they do. To this end, you must take extra precautions in what you feed them. Horses are herbivorous animals and they get the bulk of their nutrients from the grasses and hays they eat. But the thing is, these animals can eat a lot of other things than just leaves. 

If you, as a horse owner, are worried about the food chart of these equines, then you can relax. In this article, you will know the endless supply of nutrients that horses can obtain from consuming certain foods and the risks associated with the over-consumption of such foods as well.

So read through to learn and understand some healthy feeds for your horse and become a better horse owner or an aspiring one too!

Clover

Horses eat clovers as they graze on pastures. Clovers are great sources of protein and fiber. They are leguminous and come with a lot of medicinal benefits. So, you can consider adding this to your horse’s feeding schedule. 

There are various types of clovers but horses eat three specific ones:

  • Red clovers.
  • White clovers.
  • Alsike clovers.

Each of these types has abundant medicinal and nutritional properties in considerable proportions.

Nutritional Benefits Of Clovers

Clovers are rich in carbohydrates, protein, Vitamin C, fats, iron, and fiber. They are excellent blood cleansers and are perfect for healing skin disorders. Additionally, this plant releases nitrogen into horses when ingested and into the soil for quality grazing. 

Due to their medicinal properties, clovers serve as excellent tonics for ill or unmotivated horses. When horses consume red clovers, in-built toxins get expelled. 

With all these put into consideration, we can say with all confidence that clovers are a must-eat for horses.

Health Implications of Clover Consumption in Horses

Clovers can be toxic to horses if they are contaminated with mold or fungi. This could result in a couple of health issues such as:

  • Photosensitivity
  • Liver damage
  • Bleeding

You can avoid this by keeping your horses under strict supervision when they graze, so they don’t feed on infected clovers.

You might also like: How Much Do Horses Eat?

Hay

Typically, hay is a prized feed for horses. It is rich in protein, minerals, and vitamins, and comes in three different types:

  • Grass hay.
  • Legume hay.
  • Mixed hay.

These subdivisions all have a considerable amount of calcium, phosphorus, protein, copper, ADB, and zinc. So, your horses will still be getting the needed nutrients regardless of what hay you purchase and feed them with.

What Horse Breed Needs Hay?

In general, all horse breeds value hay. Due to its vast nutritional properties, equines like ponies, weanlings, yearlings, as well as adult horses need hay. All horses get most of their body’s calories and nutrients from hay.

Additionally, hay produces energy which helps horses keep warm during winter and builds their muscles and stamina in summer. Therefore, this feed is fit for all seasons and horse breeds.

How Much Hay is Required to Feed a Horse?

According to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, horses consume between 2 – 2.5% of their body weight in dry matter daily. In this case, dry matter consists of 90% hay. So, to know the right proportion, you have to calculate the average quantity of hay needed based on their sizes. Here’s a formula you can work with:

[2% or 2.5% × total horse weight (lbs)] / 90%

On average, mature horses need to eat 18-24 lbs worth of hay daily. Once you use this formula rightly, you will feed your horse with decent amounts of hay.

As a prenote, however, the feeding proportion can be altered when the hay loses value. After it is cut and laid out to dry in the field or kept in storage, hay starts losing its nutrients. Though protein and minerals may be relatively present in it, it will be lacking in vitamins. So beware of how long the hay has lasted before feeding your horses a set proportion.

Alfalfa

Naturally, this medicinal plant is rich in vitamins and minerals. Humans and animals alike feed on alfalfa for basic nutrients like protein and calcium. That said, horses can derive a lot of nutrients from this leguminous plant. This is why you should consider adding it to your horse’s diet.

In her article, Annemarie Dutton mentioned that the low amount of starchy carbohydrates in alfalfa makes it a perfect feed for horses with special health problems. Such horses include those struggling to maintain a healthy weight (that is, horses with low and stagnant weight) and those with muscular problems. In addition, horses with clinical disorders like Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) will gain a lot of health benefits from consuming Alfalfa.

What Kind of Horses Need Alfalfa?

Generally, alfalfa is a body-building feed. Therefore, it is most suitable for young equine breeds like racehorses, foals, broodmares, and growing offspring that barely take sufficient milk.

In addition to that, mature and lactating horses also need an alfalfa diet. These horses have a high nutritional need which can be met when alfalfa is added to their meal.

What are the Implications Of Over-Consuming Alfalfa?

Too much intake of alfalfa can pose a health risk to horses. Some of the problems your horse may develop along the way are:

  • Overweight.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Orthopedic diseases.
  • Gastric indigestion.
  • Putrefaction in the hindgut.

With these in mind, you should be careful with the amount of protein you feed your horses. You can avoid these complications by limiting the alfalfa intake to half of your horse’s regular roughage. That way, you prevent excess energy from building up and turning into decaying fat in your horse.

Grass

Wild horses are known to thrive on a grass diet. In like manner, domestic horses do the same. They need more fiber and less sugar or starch and grasses provide that sufficiently. 

Taking the article written by Annemarie into account, horses feed on two diverse classifications of grasses. These categories include cool season grasses and warm season grasses. 

Cool-season Grasses

These grasses grow actively in spring and fall with a mowing height of 3-4 inches.

  • Timothy Grass
  • Orchard Grass
  • Tall Fescue
  • Kentucky Bluegrass
  • Perennial Ryegrass

They can adapt to changing weather conditions but grow tremendously well when the temperature is between 60 to 75° F.

Warm Season Grasses

Warm-season grasses can be found in tropical regions during summer. They include: 

  • Bermuda grass
  • Bahia grass
  • Crabgrass

These grasses thrive in scorching weather in tropical regions and grow actively in a temperature ranging from 75-90° F. But they turn brown during winter and won’t green up again until spring returns.

Regardless of the weather or season, your horse will always have grass to feed on.

Are Grass Clippings Safe For Horses?

Freshly cut grass is not advisable for horse consumption because horses tend to gobble down these clippings without chewing. Here are a couple of health issues that may arise from the consumption of grass clippings:

  • Colic
  • Laminitis
  • Choking

Do away with grass clippings if you can. Instead, feed your horses hay. It will reap favorable results.

Fruits

Aside from the usual grass and plant feeds, you can treat your horses to some juicy, nutritious fruit choices. Treats are excellent training tools for horses. In that respect, fruits can serve as reward snacks after a hard, long day racing on the fields or treats for horse grooming. 

Horses can eat as many fruits as are available. However, due to metabolic concerns, most owners shy away from giving their horses fruits. In such cases, the simple solution would be to remove seeds, pips, or stones that may cause choking.

If you are thinking of adding fruits to your horse’s feeding schedule, then here are some good ones you can use.

Cucumber

Cucumbers are suitable fruit choices for equines, especially for medicinal purposes. Horses with weight-gain issues and insulin problems can be fed cucumber due to its low level of calories and sugar composition. Cucumbers are great because they are a good source of the following nutrients;

  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin K
  • Potassium
  • Water
  • Antioxidant
  • Fiber

Feed your horse this fruit two to three times every week because it can help keep them hydrated while boosting their immune system.

Carrots

Carrots are great suppliers of Vitamin C for humans but do they provide similar nutrients to horses? Yes, they do. Carrots are rich in many minerals like:

  • Potassium
  • Fiber
  • Vitamin C
  • Protein
  • Carbohydrate
  • Vitamin A

Every part of the carrots is edible to horses including the leaves. Not only do carrots supply a considerable amount of water in horses for hydration, but they also help with muscle building and strengthen eyesight.

Since this fruit is beneficial, too much intake of it could lead to adverse effects such as:

  • Dental issues
  • Hyperkalemic Periodic Paralysis (HYPP)
  • Colic

On this note, horses suffering from dental aches or diseases and insulin problems should not be fed carrots as this may prolong or worsen the issue. 

Feeding your horse more than two big carrots a day can be considered over-consumption. Therefore, minimize your horse’s carrot intake to one or two medium-sized daily or three big sizes weekly.

Strawberry

Strawberries are excellent treats for horses during summertime. They are made of water and many nutrients which help with hydration and a host of other benefits. If you’re doubtful about this fruit because of its seeds, then you will probably have a rethink after learning about its abundant nutrients. Here is a list of them:

  • Calcium
  • Water
  • Fiber
  • Sugar
  • Iron
  • Magnesium
  • Potassium
  • Vitamin B9
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin K

Strawberries are rich and tasty fruits and the seeds are soft and edible, which makes them safe for horses. But horses are not meant to eat too many strawberries because the sugar content can be harmful to their teeth.

In addition, a high intake of strawberries can cause colic and abdominal pain, as well as bloating and digestive issues. To avoid such problems, Annemarie advises that you feed your horses 5 to 10 strawberries per week or go for other berry options like raspberries, blackberries, cherries, blueberries, or red grapes. Each of them has similar health benefits to horses, so they are excellent choices.

Sweet Treats

Other than fruits and vegetables, horses love extra treats. Believe it or not, these animals have a sweet tooth. 

You can give your horse minute amounts of sugar cubes, sunflower seeds, oatmeal, and even pretzels. But don’t feed them cheese, yogurt, or anything that has milk properties. Mature horses are lactose intolerant and can get severe health-related problems from consuming dairy products.

With that said, you can balance your horse’s diet with a few sweets from time to time. But don’t make it a habit so they don’t develop health problems.

Do Horses Eat Meat?

For starters, can horses eat meat? The simple answer is yes. Horses can eat meat. Well, do they eat meat? No, not necessarily. For obvious reasons, horses are herbivores. Their teeth and digestive system are built primarily to accommodate a fiber diet. Anything other than grass, hay, or fruits can be detrimental to their digestive organs.

While horses do eat processed or cooked meat in certain conditions, it is not ideal. In some cases, they can be fed cooked fish. This can be permitted only if your horse is lacking basic minerals and protein. 

Annemarie referred to Tiberian horses that are fed blood and grain as supplements. So, horses can be fed meat when prescribed by the vet or so in dire situations.

Final Thoughts

As a rule of thumb, horses are not supposed to eat an excess of their regular roughage or less of it. Overfeeding and underfeeding have adverse effects on these animals. Similarly, feeding them the wrong thing can cause health implications in the long run and worse-case scenarios can completely ruin your horse’s digestive system.

Therefore, you have to understand the various types of food suitable for horses, their nutritional properties, and the effects of overconsumption. Based on the facts provided in this article, grasses like clover, hay, and alfalfa, as well as fruits such as strawberries, carrots, and cucumber are necessary additions to your horse’s feeding schedule. 

Conversely, meat and non-fiber products are not ideal feeds and should be served in barely perceivable amounts or in dire situations. Use this knowledge hub wisely and see how well you will groom your horses!

Check our guides on these specific foods for Horses:

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