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Feeding: Grain/Concentrates and Hay/Fiber

By: Galadriel Billington

11:13PM Nov 8, 2004

A horse's diet should consist mostly of fiber, usually in grass or hay. A horse's body is designed to continually digest; unlike a person's digestive system, the horse's digestive system is constantly producing stomach acid. If he goes for a long period without eating, he may develop digestive problems, or even ulcers.

A stalled horse should have hay available at all times, if possible. A grass hay without much substance can do fine; it shouldn't make the horse gain lots of extra weight or cause other digestive troubles. A horse in turnout will hopefully have grass to eat, or can also be provided with grass hay. Without hay or grass to munch, a horse can become very uncomfortable.

The horse's body is not designed to deal well with heavy concentrates, such as grain. His stomach is, on average, about 3 quarts--that's one regular scoop. He can't digest much more than that at one feeding. If a horse needs more than 3 quarts, it should be spread out over multiple feedings during the day.

Although a horse needs mostly fiber, some horses require some grain, even when they are not worked. (Many do fine with only hay or grass.) A horse who needs grain should be given only as much as he needs; it's very unhealthy for a horse to be overweight. Some horses take excess grain and turn it into energy; an overfed horse may not gain much weight, but may become hyper, anxious, or even aggressive.

I like to feed as little grain as possible to keep the horse healthy. I judge how much they need by watching their weight changes. If they lose weight, I up the feed. If they gain weight, I drop the feed. All changes, of course, are made gradually to keep from shocking the horse's system.

You can judge whether a horse is gaining or losing weight several ways. One is to measure regularly with a weight tape. The weight tape may not be completely accurate, but you can certainly use it to judges changes.

Alternatively, you can gauge by sight and feel. If I can see the horse's ribs clearly from 10 ft away, then the horse is a bit skinny. If I can't feel the ribs when I run my fingers along the ribcage, then the horse is overweight. And if the horse walking towards me looks pregnant, then the horse is DEFINITELY overweight! ;)

Since I do not use the feed manufacturer's suggested guidelines, my horses don't get their full recommended daily dose of vitamins and minerals. To compensate, I make sure to always have a mineral block available. If I'm feeding very small quantities of feed (compared to the recommended guidelines), I will also add a mineral supplement to their meals. There are a number of different supplements; your vet might have the best recommendations for a good supplement in your area.
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2004 Galadriel Billington. All rights reserved.