A Simple, Logical, Inexpensive Way to Feed your Horse?

Hi form feeding gut diagram

Horses have evolved to eat a natural diet, not only is it cost effective but also far healthier for your horse? 

The most important part of feeding your horse is to maintain health and wellbeing and be in complete control. Therefore, feeding a pre-mix feed or a commercial pellet is not recommended as these types of feeds do not take into consideration the biochemical individuality of each horse. It also does not take into consideration the type of horse, temperament, workload, environmental effects etc. Fast Food for horses is not the ideal, you are unable to alter the bag of feed, you cannot increase or decrease the contents, and there is no guarantee that every dipper of feed will be the same. 

Horses have unique digestive systems that are designed to process good-quality forages. In order to feed our horses properly to meet their maintenance, work, growth and reproduction requirements, we must understand the equine digestive tract and horse feeds.

As you can see, a horse’s stomach makes up only a small portion of the entire digestive tract. This small stomach is designed to continuously process small amounts of forage and feed. When horses are fed large meals, many digestive disorders–such as colic, founder, ulcers, and tying-up–can result.


Different Forms of Roughage, Different Advantages 


Good pasture is the ideal roughage for many horses. Horses on pasture move around and eat small amounts of grass continuously, the way nature intended for proper functioning of the digestive tract. However, pasture is not always available and doesn’t supply enough nutrients for some horses. Pasture can be used to meet some or all of a horse’s roughage needs. This would apply to horses in little or no work. 


Grass Hay

Good-quality grass hay is the single feed with the best balance of protein, energy, and fibre for horses. Choose grass hays that are bright green in colour,free of dust and mould, and cut in early stages of development. Allow horses between 1.5 and 3% of body weight of good-quality grass hay per day. 


Legume Hay

Lucerne and clover are examples of legumes. They contain more protein, energy, calcium and vitamin A than grasses. The inclusion of some legumes (20-50%) in rations for growing and working horses and broodmares takes advantage of these additional nutrients. Legume hays should be clean and bright coloured and cut at early to mid-bloom stage.



Fibre Pellets 

Can be an option, but it is rare to find a feed that does not contain by-products.


Problems associated with modern compound feeds 

Many of the standards for equine feeding stuffs have been extrapolated from the agricultural industry, where the most important considerations are to convert the food into meat or milk as cheaply as possible. 

This approach is basically flawed. Not only are the principles inappropriate because of the physiological differences between the species, but there are concerns about the long-term safety for horses of some of the products used. 

Many concentrate feeds contain too many by-products such as sugars and other inappropriate raw materials. Most include a vitamin and mineral pre-mix pellet which may contain a high level of synthetic products. Other artificial additives such as flavourings are also used. It is difficult for the horse owner to identify unsuitable products in ordinary feeding stuffs and supplements. This is because raw materials are not always declared in a way which makes their nature clear without specialist knowledge. 


So now what?

The best way to feed the horse is to feed the roughage he needs such as hay and Lucerne (alfalfa), with the concentrate ration for more energy consisting of grains such as oats and barley. Whilst some owners will balk at the idea of feeding straight grain because they feel it is heating, it’s effect on the horse is much more predictable if fed as part of a Natural Feeding regime. 

Cold pressed flax seed oil or even cold pressed Chia seed oil may also be used for more energy and these have the added advantage of being very easily digested and contain little or no protein. They also have a great balance of omega 3 to 6 essential fatty acids. Flax being the better of the two, with a ratio of 4:1. The other key factor to add to the diet is a daily formula to provide the nutritional support your horse needs that he or she is not receiving through a standard natural diet. 

Problems associated with modern pastures. 

The horse is a browsing animal and must receive a variety of roughage as part of his diet in order to maintain good health. Because of the use of chemicals and fertilisers in modern farming methods pastures are sadly deficient in several major and minor minerals and other required nutrients. 


The horse pre-dates man as an inhabitant of the earth by about 50 million years. As the horse evolved to eat tougher materials such as grass and herbage containing siliceous fibres, his dentition changed. The teeth have developed very efficient grinding surfaces, and they continue to grow throughout life. For reasons which are not clear, the horse gradually began to move from forest areas out into the open plains. The physiological adaptations to this environment produced important changes: 

  • The digestive system was developed to derive optimum nutrition and health from a variety of high fibre, low energy plains grasses and herbage.
  • In common with other herbivores of the open plains, the horse became a`trickle’ feeder, large infrequent meals being inconsistent with a fast flight response from predators.

The diet of the modern horse is often unsuited to these important physiological needs. As we have seen, the horse can no longer access different species of grasses, and he is probably fed only two or three times a day. In addition, when the domesticated horse requires more energy for work it must be provided in the form of cereal grains or other concentrate feeds, to which his digestive system has not fully adapted so experience and care is necessary to use these. 

The mouth 

The digestive process starts in the mouth. As the food passes through the system it is broken down into a form which can be absorbed and utilised by the body. 

The horse’s sensitive lips with their attendant whiskers are very well adapted to locate, assess, and handle the feed he wishes to eat. The sensitivity, mobility, and power of the lips is extraordinary.

The front teeth, together with the lips and tongue, are used to get hold of the food and bring it into the mouth for grinding by the molars, or back teeth. The horse’s powerful teeth are a reflection of the coarse grasses he has evolved to eat, which require considerable mastication in order to break down the tough siliceous fibres. 

The constant process of grinding such food had the effect of wearing the teeth down. For this reason the horse has developed open-rooted teeth which continue to grow throughout his life. That the modern horse has to have his teeth regularly rasped is a reflection of the fact that modern food stuffs do not perform this function correctly. Proper maintenance of the teeth is vital to proper digestion. 



Hay is dried grass and a good source of roughage. Although hay forms a staple part of the diet of most horses, the quality is often not adequately considered.

The quality of hay depends on five factors: 

  1. The grasses.
  2. The soil where it has been grown.
  3. The time at which the grass has been cut.
  4. The hay-making process itself.
  5. The conditions of storage.


There are several types of hay available.

Good hay, as well as good grazing, is crucial in providing the range of grasses which provide essential nutrients.

Lucerne (alfalfa) is being used increasingly as a horse feed. As a legume, it has a higher nutritional value than most grasses. It has also shown significant benefits for Gut health. 




Oats are the traditional grain food for horses, and they can be used as the total concentrate part of the feed and are perfectly fine to be given to the most sensitive horses. Horses with good teeth can cope with them whole and feeding whole oats is far more beneficial. 


Barley is known as the fattening feed, as it contains a higher starch and protein level than oats. It should be fed crimped or rolled and can be supplied as the total concentrate ration of the feed. Barley is sometimes extruded into `nuggets’, which process can destroy natural nutrients. It can also be micronised, which can have the same effect. 

Oaten and Lucerne chaff 

Chaffs made from hays can be used to provide bulk for the diet and also to stop the horse bolting the food, but most chaffs are not of the highest quality and can be very dusty. 


How much to feed?

How much to feed a horse must be calculated according to the weight of the animal and the amount of work being performed. Horses vary in the quantity and type of feed required and the ability to observe is the best guide when adjusting for individual animals. 

Generally, a horse will eat about 2.5 per cent of its body weight per day, calculated on a dry matter basis. This is a rule of thumb some horses need much more, others do well on less.

Having calculated the total amount of feed required per day the next step is to decide on the ratio between the roughage and the concentrate. This will depend on the amount of work being performed 


Around 60 per cent of the body tissue of the horse is water. A good proportion of this is provided as drinking water, the quality of which is often not given due consideration. 

The local water supply will vary according to the time of year. As well as being hard or soft, natural water supplies can be contaminated from many sources, such as farm chemicals, sewage, or industrial waste. 

Tap water is a different matter, but it will still vary in chemical make-up depending on the time of year and the area of the country it comes from. A constant supply of clean fresh water must always be available for the horse. Automatic drinkers are very useful and save a lot of time and effort, but, as with buckets, they must be kept clean and free from contamination, but most importantly you do not know exactly how much water your horse is consuming, which is important. 


Unsuitable raw materials 


Molasses is a sticky, thick black liquid which is a by-product of the sugar-refining industry. Together with other types of by-products from the same source, such as syrup, it is used in mostcompound feeds. Ideally sugars should not be added because they can cause digestive and other problems. Some feeds contain up to 10 per cent of molasses. 

Fish and animal by-products 

The use of animal and fish by-products in horse feeds is not compatible with the horse. It is fundamentally wrong to give an herbivore these products. The horse is simply not designed to eat ordigest such foods. 

Sugar beet 

Sugar beet is normally supplied as dried pellets or shreds, which must be soaked before use. Soaking any type of feed does not encourage normal digestion.

Other by-products

There are around 100 different by-products of the food manufacturing industry available for use in horse feeds. These should be assessed carefully when considering their use as part of Natural Feeding. 

Artificial or laboratory produced ingredients 

Undesirable additives such as artificial vitamins, colourings, flavourings and other processing aids are commonly added to many horse feeds. Many of these have been linked to physical problems in the horse such as digestive upsets, ulcers and a compromised immune status. 

Most, however, are by-products, some commonly used, but whose name may be misleading.

Here are some examples: 

By-product of flour manufacture obtained from screened husked wheat or spelt. It consists principally of fragments of the outer skins and particles of grain from which the greater part of endosperm has been removed. 

By-product of flour manufacture obtained from screened husked grains of wheat or spelt. It consists principally of fragments of the outer skins and of particles of grain from which less of the endosperm has been removed than in wheat bran. 

By-product of oatmeal milling consisting of hulls, floury material, mealy matter and screen dust, all finely ground. 

By-product of the second polishing of husked rice. It consists principally of particles of endosperm, of the aleuronic layer and of the germ. Dried by-product of the manufacture of maize starch. It consists principally of gluten obtained during the separation of the starch. 

Product derived from the residues of the manufacture of tallow and other fats of animal origin. 

These types of by-products are used in the unregulated feed industry in many different types of pre-mix feeds and pellets 

Feeding by-products of any description to horses is not recommended; they are herbivores and should be fed accordingly. It is very easy to see when a horse is very healthy 

Want some help?

If you want to cut through all the confusion about feeding your horse, please contact us 01183 247471 or email hello@hiform.equine.co.uk 

At Hi Form UK all guidance is provided and checked by our qualified team of nutritionists, clinical nutritionists and medical herbalists at Hi Form Australia. 

Antoinette Foster Dip. Nut. Equine Nutritional Therapist and Medical Herbalist, Product Formulator, Advanced Diploma Nutritional Therapy and Genetics. Copyright Hi Form 2020

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