What do horses eat: a guide to equine nutrition

Sunday 5th October, 2014

You are what you eat, as the saying goes, and this is equally as applicable for horses as it is for humans. Whether you have a gymkhana gem or a dressage champion, your horse’s nutritional intake will have a dramatic effect on both his peak condition and his overall performance. If you don’t know your concentrates from your cod liver oils then check out our go to guide below to help keep your horse on top form.

What do horses eat?

In order to understand the basics of nutrition we need to know what horses need to eat. Now this can vary massively due to breed and workload, but the fundamental components of any horse or pony’s diet should include a mixture of proteins, carbohydrates, fats and oils, vitamins and minerals from good quality grazing and concentrates.

Protein is the primary food source for both wild and domestic equines is grass, which provides the vital plant protein building blocks with which to grow and repair the musculo-skeletal system. Protein is found in all living cells and are specifically needed in skin, hair, muscles, connective tissues and hooves.

Carbohydrates provide the energy for all basic body functions, and these are supplied in the form of grains and cereals as glucose, starch or fibre. These are typically fed in concentrate mix which provides a digestible high calorie content per handful when compared to roughage alone.

Fats and Oils offer another valuable source of energy, however fats and oils such as linseed, vegetable and fish oils provide our horses with fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K and essential fatty acids. These are required for the optimum function of the brain and nervous system, immune system, cardiovascular system, gastrointestinal tract, kidneys and muscles as well as glossy coats and manes.

Vitamins are specialist compounds that are needed by the body in order to function and minerals are the micro building components needed for both body structure and function. Both work in tandem and should be added to the diet in the form of supplements.

Understanding the equine digestive tract

Equine stomachs are actually incredibly small in comparison to the animals overall size, yet they are perfectly designed to accommodate and process small amounts of food almost 24 hours a day. Domestic horses benefit from regular access to good quality pasture or high grade roughage such as alfalfa or hay.

Concentrates, oils and vitamin and mineral supplements can be fed daily according to the individual horse’s needs, i.e. an older equine would benefit from low energy feed topped with glucosamine supplements and cod liver oils to aid with joint mobility, whereas an international show jumper at the height of the season will require greater amounts of high energy grains and fats found in concentrates to achieve optimum performance in the ring.

Equine bodies are made up of 65-75% water so good hydration is essential in order to perform almost all basic cellular functions. In addition to constant access to fresh drinking water, many horse owners will add extra water in to the daily hard feed in the form of molasses to reduce dust and increase palatability.

It can be all too easy to overfeed a horse, especially one that is not in regular work due to age or injury, so be sure to follow the feed manufacturer guidelines according to your horses breed, size and workload carefully when planning your horse’s nutritional wellbeing for the future.

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