Natural Horse Nutrition
Outlined on this page are the basics the basics that must be followed, if you aim to keep and ride sound barefoot horses.
This page is by no means complete, but the important basics are here.
Horse Nutrition – this is a vast subject and can be immensely challenging and confusing when you start studying it in detail.
There are so many different feeds on the market, all highly recommended as well as many different views as to what is right and wrong. So it is very easy to feel confused.
To try and simplify horse nutrition:-
- Horses are foraging animals and need to be continually on the move,
- They need to eat small amounts of poorer quality grazing throughout the day,
- This then keeps their blood sugar levels balanced.
Horses fed on sweet highly sugared cereal feeds in the form of two/three meals per day and grazed on rich cultivated pastures are unable to fully digest these types of carbohydrates found in these foods.
So these carbohydrates then pass undigested into the hindgut, where they undergo fermentation to lactic acid.
Without going into great detail here, suffice is to say, that this is disastrous for a horses health and can lead to:-
- Sub-clinical signs of laminitis, e.g stretched white line
- Full blown laminitis,
- Can create havoc with the health of a horse which shows up very cleary in their hooves resulting in poor hoof structure and eventually lameness.
The daily feed for horses should come from mixed dried grass hay and/or medieval grazing pasture, this should form the main bulk of their diet. A constant supply of hay helps stabilize a horse’s digestive system and blood sugar levels.
You need to find a good local source and decide whether you are going to collect it or get it delivered.
Quantity of Hay
The average quantity of hay per horse should be about 9kg for a 500kg horse.
How to Find Out the Weight of a Horse for Feeding Quantities
If you are unsure of the weight of your horse buy a weight tape from your local tack shop.
You then find the weight of the horse by wrapping the tape around their heart girth which is directly behind their elbow, you can then read off their weight on the tape.
The tape should be held snugly and you should read it at the end of their expiration.
Tape accuracy is dependent on the user, the breed of horse and age. They are useless on miniature horses and foals. They are also inaccurate on high withered horses. However, on the average horse, they estimate the weight of a horse more accurately than most owners!
If you are able to plan ahead and buy different types of hay from different locations this is can be a benefit. Buy non legume (i.e.no clover or alfalfa) hay. Look for Timothy, oat, orchard, brome.
There is now research and suggestions coming from the natural horsecare world that we should, when buying hay, be given a sugar and mineral analysis of the hay, as without this we have no way of knowing the value or quality of the hay we are buying.
Sugar levels and mineral levels in hay can be extremely variable. Up to now all we have done is to smell, look at and consider the cost the cost of hay.
None of this will give us any indication of the sugar levels let alone the mineral levels.
If we were farmers we would have to be much more selective when feeding cattle.
If you do all the suggestions on this site and you are still not happy with how your horses are going and how there hooves are looking, you can get your hay tested to check out the mineral content and the sugar levels.
(Getting sugar levels tested in hay is much cheaper than getting a mineral analysis.) Once you have done this you are then in a position to balance their feed with what may or may not be missing in their hay.
For more information on this go to
Our Experience of Testing Minerals in Hay.
For suggestions on how to feed hay easily in your fields and paddocks go to the page Horse Hay.
With horse nutrition this can be quite a challenging topic.
There are many natural hoof care specialists who now recommend no grass at all, due to the detrimental effect, lush green pastures can have on the horse’s hooves and subsequently their health.
Above is a typical lush green grass field which in the past we would have strip grazed but now we manage our grazing very differently. See Barefoot Grazing. for more information.
Without making horse nutrition too complicated or over facing anyone, you need to know that:-
- Grass can be far too rich for horses
- Stressed grass is the worst of all but often looks the least rich
- Grass can create a build up of sugar in their system which can lead to amongst other things stretched white line in their hooves, sub -clinical laminitis.
- Green fields are founder/laminitis traps for all types of horses.
One needs to monitor horses hooves, see Hoof Signs and watch out for any adverse signs, as well checking the horses do not become overweight and cresty.
Look at the practical recommendations on the page Barefoot Grazing. The track solutions outlined here which are based on Jaime Jackson’s book, Paddock Paradise.
The ideas and solutions on horse nutrition here will help you manage your paddocks and your horse’s grazing and horse nutrition as well as giving you your land back.
Other intermediate solutions to help you with managing your grazing are either:-
- Strip graze
- Use a muzzle which will reduce the amount they are able to graze, not pretty but they work,
- Reduce the amount of hours they have access to grass – tricky, I know.
What we have also found helpful:-
- Having hay available for them at all times and a good mineral block in a grass field.
This has been extremely helpful in the past, they would then graze on the hay and much less on the grass.
It may take time to set up a grazing system that will work for you throughout the year. But if you know the ideal you can then start working towards improving your horse nutrition. No one can wave a magic wand and of course, there will be costs that need to be considered – but the long term benefits of doing this will always be there.
You may have to alter what you do in the summer from what you are able to do in the winter. See Barefoot Grazing and what worked for us.
Founder, Prevention and Cure is an easy and very worthwhile read. Although you may not have a founder horse the basic horsecare and horse nutrition outlined in this book is essential reading.
Jaime Jackson goes into enough depth without being too overwhelming and offers practical solutions on horse nutrition.
With the basics of horse nutrition understood, gradually ideas will form and you will find ways to balance and reduce the amount of grass they have.
The above is how we fed our horses for quite sometime.
i.e.. a diet composed mainly of hay and very little grazing.
However with further study and research I then came across more information on the type of plants that horses grazed on. This research and information that I studied showed me how we could create medieval style pastures within our paddocks, so greatly improving our type of grazing and eliminating the high sugar grasses and problems that come with that, laminitis being the obvious problem.
To find out more please go to our horse grazing page.
You can look at the following suggestions if your horses need more energy, need to increase weight or are in hard work. Before feeding, make a note as to how they are looking and how well they are going, before just “assuming” they need additional hard feed.
Oats have a 90% starch digestibility compared to around 30-35% starch digestibility of other grains such as barley and corn.
So for these grains to be broken down they require much more acid than oats. One of the points that is highlighted by natural hoof care vets in Germany is that if there is too much acid present, in the small intestine then the enzyme processes don’t function properly.
This then leads to undigested starch entering the large intestine which is not ideal and creates further health problems.
When oats are fed, they are easily broken down in the small intestine and the enzyme processes are not disrupted.
Whole Oats are recommended by barefoot specialists as being the best cereal to give to horses because of their:-
- high percentage of husks
- easily digested
- 7% oil content
- need chewing, so beneficial for their teeth
- highly liked and palatable to the horse
- beneficial to the mucous membranes of the stomach and small intestine
The reason whole oats are recommended (as opposed to crushed/rolled), is because the fat in the oat kernel stays in tack. Once the kernel is crushed or split the oil oxidizes and the properties of the oats are greatly reduced.
Another reason people don’t feed whole oats is because often owners will see what looks like whole oats in their horses droppings and assume that the horse can’t digest the outer shell and that the oats have just gone straight through them.
But if you inspect their droppings a little closer, you’ll see that nothing is left of the inside of the oat and only the hulls are passing through.
If you are able to get hold of organic oats, all the better.
The basic need for the maintenance of a 500 kg horse is 1 kg of oats per day.
Two small feeds are better than one single feed.
A last Benefit of Whole Oats
Whole oats are one of the cheapest feeds on the market.
Unmolassed Sugar Beet
Unmolassed sugar beet can be a very valuable horse nutrition feed and an excellent source of energy. It is easily digestible and adds condition to a horse.
It needs to be soaked, however there is now unmolassed sugar beet on the market which can be soaked very quickly. Because the sugar beet holds a lot of water it contributes to keeping a horse well hydrated. You can mix it with oats.
It is safe to feed.
Variety of Branches
A further item to add to your horse nutrition is a variety of branches from e.g. hedgerows if possible. Birch and willow are two that are always recommended by natural hoof care specialists…………
A brief note on water. Access to water is obviously essential.
Ideally you want a water trough in a field on a mains supply.
If you live in a muddy area, to reduce the mud
around the trough, scrap off the topsoil in the summer months
and put down some scalpings or stones.
This will stop the area
becoming too boggy as well as providing a harder surface
for their hooves.
Or of course, utilize an existing spring if you
have one available.
It took us quite a while to modify and change how we fed our horses and to fully understand horse nutrition as outlined above. Some of the changes were easy, but it was still difficult to let go of some items. One can easily be brainwashed with all the many feeds that are on the market and how they can all assist the horse.
We learnt the hard way with our horse nutrition. By not following the horse nutrition as outlined above and thinking it may not be the “right thing to do,” (after all so much of this is, the opposite to what one is lead to believe is correct.)
So we continued to have stretched white lines and horses which were not fully sound.
If we had just been working in a school we may have been fine, in other words you can get away with it to a degree. But once you go on stony tracks the hooves will not hold up and they will become sore unless booted.
When we changed and really followed the above, then the results showed in their feet. It was as simple as that. Gradually the white lines closed up and the soles regained their concavity.
So be vigilant with your horse nutrition and do the changes here that are recommended, if you wish to have:-
- high performance barefoot horses.
If you decide to take risks, it can be months before the feet come right again.
Once you have established the basics of horse nutrition and have learnt how to monitor their hooves according to what they are eating, see the Hoof Signs page for more detail on this, along with how they look, this type of natural feeding, horse nutrition becomes relatively easy to maintain and:-
- the horses overall health will benefit tremendously.