Horse Nutrition Basics on a Budget Back »

Dr. Bob Coleman, Equine Specialist, University of Kentucky Extension.

2017 Animal Care Wednesday Webinars
Husbandry Practices in the Spotlight

During the June 7th Animal Care Wednesday Webinar, basic equine nutrition on a budget was the topic. Dr. Bob Coleman, Equine Extension Specialist with University of Kentucky, discussed the various considerations horse owners should evaluate when making feed decisions since feed costs are the major portion of the annual cost of a horse.

Nutrition, where do I start?

“From the stand point of the horse owner, it can be really hard to provide what horses need; however, sometimes what we can afford to do may actually get in the way and sometimes we can be a little more judicious in how we spend our money,” said Dr. Bob Coleman. To determine the best diet for a horse, there are three things to consider: 1) the horse, 2) feeds available, and 3) management or feeding method. Coleman elaborated on each of these considerations.

The Horse

Horses are designed to graze and eat forages. Thus, all horse diets should have forage as the largest percent of the daily ration, but it is important that the selected forage matches the horse’s actual nutrient requirements. Growing horses, pregnant/lactating mares or breeding stallions, and highly active performance horses have the greatest nutrient requirements. The average adult horse being lightly ridden less than three times per week would be considered at maintenance level and has the lowest nutrient requirements (assuming it is in good health).

When choosing the type feed, consider the horse’s actual nutrient requirements. A 1000-lb horse at maintenance needs 15 Mcal/day digestible energy (DE) and 1.2 lbs crude protein (CP); whereas a 1200-lb horse at maintenance needs 18 Mcal/day DE and 1.5 lbs CP (Freeman, based on NRC’s Recommendations for Nutrient Requirements of Horses-2007).

Feeds Available

The types of feedstuffs available may vary depending on geographic region. Regardless of what options you have, the decision to purchase each feedstuff should still be made based on each horse’s nutrient requirements for its workload or life stage. Remember, not every horse needs the highest quality forage, concentrates, or supplements to meet its nutrient requirements and stay healthy. Once nutrient requirements are determined, go shopping for the best deals. The important considerations to evaluate available feedstuffs for your horse include:

  • Pasture quality:
    Does a horse have access to pasture during the grazing season? Managing pastures to ensure good production of grass species will greatly reduce the need to feed supplemental hay or concentrates; this means cost savings! Evaluate your pasture size, plant species diversity, and precipitation to get an idea of how long your grazing season may be and how many horses should be allowed to graze it for the period. If you are unfamiliar with the techniques used in managing pastures for optimized forage production, contact an SDSU Extension range/natural resource management specialist or a local grassland conservation organization (e.g. Natural Resource Conservation Services (NRCS) or South Dakota Grassland Coalition)
  • Analyze feeds.
    Owners need to know the nutrient content of the different types of forages when making hay purchasing decisions. Ideally owners should have a feed analysis done either prior to purchase or before feeding hay. This saves money by being more precise in the amount of hay to feed because the CP level can be calculated accurately to meet the individual horse’s daily requirements. Feed analysis reports can also provide acid detergent fiber (ADF) and neutral detergent fiber (NDF) values, which are used to estimate available DE in the forage. The DE is the amount of energy of the gross energy (amount fed) absorbed in the digestive tract. The three most common horse hays are grass hay, legume (alfalfa) hay, or mixed hay. The average protein level and DE value of these hays vary: grass hay is 9% CP, 0.83 Mcal/lb; mixed hay is 13.9%, 0.94 Mcal/lb; and legume hay is 18.7% CP, 1.03 Mcal/lb (adapted from NRC, 1989).
  • Maturity impacts nutrient quality of forages.
    Don’t rely on phrases like “first or second cutting” or “mixed hay” to tell you the actual nutrients available to your horse. If you purchase hay in bulk, it is valuable to do a forage analysis to know how many pounds each horse should eat.
  • Palatability impacts forage intake.
    Palatability of forages is correlated to maturity. Highly palatable forages are younger in maturity and have more leaves compared to stems. Horses will consume more pounds of highly palatable forages, which may mean they are overconsuming the required nutrients. Highly palatable forages are better suited for limit-feeding or to provide adequate nutrients to older horses that have difficulty keeping condition (or rehabilitating thin horses).
  • Concentrate Options:
    Concentrate feeds include cereal grains (corn, oats, barley) and mixtures or pellets of these. Other options may include beet pulp or cottonseed. Concentrates typically should make up no more than 1-2 pounds of a horse’s daily ration, if it is even needed. Processing of grains (steaming, cracking, rolling) can be done to make starch more digestible, but many times is not needed. Processing also adds additional cost to concentrate feeds.
  • Supplements:
    Not every horse needs additional supplements to meet its nutrient requirements. All horses benefit from having free-choice salt, but additional mineral needs vary depending on the other feedstuffs. The first step to saving money is to objectively decide if there is a measurable benefit from feeding each supplement.

Management of Feeding

How hay and concentrates are fed impacts both a horse’s condition and your pocketbook. When multiple horses are fed hay, the decision to group or individually feed them directly impacts the amount of wasted feed and potentially the individual intake or competition occurring. Coleman referenced two Minnesota studies that found hay wastage not using a feeder compared to using round bale or square bale feeders could be up to 57% or 13% of the hay offered, respectively (Grev et al., 2014; Martinson et al., 2012). To minimize wastage and be economical while meeting horse nutritional requirements, owners should ask themselves several questions regarding feeding management:

  • Will the horse(s) have free choice (ad libitum) hay or controlled feeding (measured amounts)?
  • If I feed ad libitum to a group of horses, how will I monitor each animal’s condition?
  • If a horse has special nutritional needs, do I need to limit access to certain forages or pasture?
  • Should I feed concentrates or supplements – what is the direct benefit/purpose to each horse?
  • If I provide concentrate feeds, how do I MEASURE the REQUIRED amount per horse?
  • How am I purchasing my hay and concentrates: by the bale, by the ton, by the bag?

The answers to each of these questions directly impacts whether you are meet or exceed your horse’s requirements and the cost to do so. Every owner should calculate the total nutrients their horse is fed and their current feed cost per pound of feed being offered. Dr. Coleman wrapped-up the discussion by answering questions regarding evaluating body condition scores, forage sampling and analysis, calculating horse diets, and introducing a new upcoming feed cost comparison tool.

Animal Care Wednesday Webinars

To listen to this and past webinars, visit the animal care resource website. For more information about upcoming Animal Care Wednesday Webinars, please contact Heidi Carroll.

The next Animal Care Wednesday Webinar is July 5, 2017 @ 11:00am (CST). To join webinars, log in to the Zoom Meeting a few minutes prior to the start of the webinar.

For questions regarding equine nutrition, please contact Bob Coleman. Additional horse-related information can be found in the iGrow Horse community.


  • Grev, AM, EC Glunk, MR Hathaway, WF Lazarus, KL Martinson. 2014. The effect of small square-bale feeder design on hay waste and economics during outdoor feeding of adult horses. J Equine Vet Sci. 34:1269-1273.
  • Freeman, DW. nd. Nutrient needs of horses. ANSI-3997; Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service.
  • Martinson, K, J Wilson, K Cleary, W Lazarus, W Thomas, M Hathaway. 2012. Round-bale feeder design affects hay waste and economics during horse feeding. J Anim Sci. 90:1047-1055.
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