What's for Dinner? Feeding Your Horse to Keep Him Healthy

If you could teach your horse English, there is one word he would learn extra fast, and it would be his favorite--food.
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If you could teach your horse English, there is one word he would learn extra fast, and it would be his favorite--food.
Feeding Hay. Courtesy Horse & Rider

If you could teach your horse English, there is one word he would learn extra fast--"food."

Eating is a horse's favorite activity. He'll pause to doze once in awhile, and from time to time he'll take a break to play. But if he wore a bumper sticker, it would say "I'd rather be eating."

The idea of three square meals a day seems ridiculous to him. He'd rather have about 25 square meals a day. A healthy horse weighing 1,000 pounds eats about 25 pounds of pasture grass a day.

If your horse spends most of his time in a good pasture, you don't have to worry much about feeding him. As long as there's plenty of healthy grass, he's getting his full-day's supply of vitamins and minerals in the form that's most natural and enjoyable to him.

But if his turnout area is mostly dirt or is covered by snow, you have to think about feeding your horse.

What and How Much to Feed

How much you feed your horse depends partly on what kind of hay is common where you live and what you (or your family) can afford. You can feed dense, nutritious, (expensive) alfalfa in smaller quantities than cheaper and less nutritious prairie-grass hay. A horse who gets the right amount of alfalfa doesn't need much more besides plenty of water and salt.

If you have to feed him a cheaper hay, you may want to round out your horse's diet with supplements or grain.

A Few Grains of Wisdom

Grain is always a nice change of pace to a horse, but if he's getting plenty of good grass or hay, he doesn't really need it. The exceptions to this are pregnant mares, mares feeding foals and growing foals. If your mare is pregnant, ask your veterinarian to recommend the right amount and kind of grain or sweet feed for a mother and foal. Both will need extra feed before and after birth.

If you own a pony--especially the round-bodied, cresty kind--he never

needs grain. As much as your pony loves to eat, you're not being kind by feeding him too much. He'll just get fat, which is not good for him. And if his diet is very rich, he can founder, which is even worse. If you want to give him a treat--an apple, carrot or handful of grain once in awhile--that's fine, but keep in mind that

you can't eat candy all day and expect to stay healthy.

Grain is concentrated energy, so horses who work hard more than three hours a day or who are sick and off their feed may need it. (Be certain that your sick horse isn't colicking, though. Grain only makes colic worse.) Another time you might consider adding grain to his diet is in the winter. If it gets very cold where you live, your horse has to use extra energy just to stay warm.

The Fit Horse Versus the Fat Horse

Your goal is to keep your horse at his best working weight. In a natural situation, in a grassy pasture with other horses, he keeps his weight steady by himself. When he's hungry, he'll eat, and when he has energy to burn, he'll run and play with the other horses.

Your best tool to see if your horse is fit or fat is your eye. Look at him. When he takes a breath, you should be able to see the outlines of his ribs. Between breaths, his sides should be smooth. On many healthy horses, you shouldn't see the points of their backs. Some horses, though, are just plain bonier than others and you can see their hip points and backbones even when their weight is perfect.

Here's a good way to find out if your horse is losing or gaining weight on what you're feeding him now:

1. Take a string about seven feet long.

2. Wrap it around the smallest part of his middle--behind the withers and elbow, but in front of his belly. This is his "girth measurement."

3. Mark the points where the string meets. Tie knots over the marks.

4. Use this string to measure your horse's girth every week. Remember always to measure around the same place and with the same tension in the string. (If you leave it slack once and tighten it up the next time, you'll get different measurements.)

5. See how close the knots come to meeting every week for a month or two. There may be as much as a half-inch change from week to week, especially if your horse is growing or shedding a winter coat. If, at the end of a couple months, there's more than an inch between the knots, your horse is gaining weight. If the knots overlap by more than an inch, he's getting thinner. In either case, it's time to change his diet--unless you wanted him to gain or lose weight.

Measuring Up With Math

To find out how much feed your horse should get each day under normal conditions, you can use this chart. Just take the string you wrapped around your horse and measure the space between the knots to get his girth measurement in inches. This will let you find his approximate weight, and figure out how much hay he needs. (Remember, the hay weights in the chart don't apply to grass.)

Hay will be a little different in volume according to what kind it is. In other words, two pounds of alfalfa might be only an inch or so off the bale, whereas two pounds of timothy hay may be a three-inch flake.

If your horse spends most of his time in a stall, he'll get bored without something to munch on, so you might want to feed a little more of a lower-nutrition kind of hay such as timothy or prairie grass.

But nothing replaces the eye test, and while you're looking at the outline of his ribs also look for a healthy, glossy coat and plenty of spirit without nervousness. That's a well-fed horse!

Things to Remember:

- ALWAYS make sure your horse has lots of fresh water. There should be at least two gallons within easy reach at all times.

- Salt is important, too. If he has a salt block in his stall or pasture, he'll lick just as much as he needs.

- The first spring grass is very rich, especially to a horse who has been eating hay all winter. Limit his time outside to a few hours a day for the first couple of weeks. Ponies and horses who have already foundered might need an extra week or two to adjust.

- Grown horses who don't work much and all ponies never need grain. You can do them more harm than good by feeding lots of grain. Make very sure your grain bin has a horse-proof lock on it. If you ever find a horse who's broken into the bin, take him away from the grain and get expert help immediately.

- Pregnant mares, foals and sick horses have special feeding needs. Get your veterinarian to help you plan a special diet for them.

- By first measuring your horse's girth, you can then determine how much he weighs and how much he should eat. Use this handy chart to help you.

IF HIS GIRTH MEASUREMENT IS (IN INCHES) THEN HE WEIGHS ABOUT (IN POUNDS) AND HE SHOULD EAT THIS MUCH HAY PER DAY (IN POUNDS)