Horse Food

The daily intake of horse food should consist of oats, bran, and hay. These ingredients provide all the nutritional requirements of the average working horse if fed in the correct amounts and the appropriate ratio. Modern research into animal nutrition has enabled horse food manufacturers to make feeding more efficient, economical, and easy. The horse’s daily ration may include some, but probably not all, of the following types of food.


Oats are the best energy-giving food for horses and are easily digested and palatable. They should be free from dust or dirt, plump, heavy, and without noticeable smell. To extract the most value from oats they should be either bruised, rolled, crushed, or crimped. This breaks the hard shell of the seed, allowing the digestive juices to get at the kernel. If this is not done there is the possibility that the seed will be passed intact through the digestive system and wasted. Oats are a heating food and should be fed with care to high-spirited horses and ponies. Too many oats may make such animals difficult rides.


Bran is what is left when the flour is milled from wheat. It is high in protein and is excellent for adding to the oat ration to provide bulk. Modern milling techniques reduce bran almost to a powder. It is best, however, if it is in a broad, dry flake with some flour. Being very high in phosphorus, bran may cause a problem if it is fed in quantity to young stock: if the phosphorus/calcium ratio is out of balance in the diet of young, growing animals the formation and growth of bone may be impaired.

A bran mash is very useful as a laxative on a horse’s rest day, or when he is on a low-concentrated diet as a result of injury or sickness and is a vital element in sick nursing. To make a bran mash, fill one-third of a plastic bucket with a bra and add boiling water until the bran is ‘crumble’ dry but not wet and sloppy or too dry to eat. Stir well and add 15g (1/2oz) of salt. A handful of oats, a chopped apple, or a little treacle will make the mash more appetizing; 600ml (1 pint) of cooked linseed may be added, or 115g (4oz) of Epsom salts as a laxative. Once the mash has been made, it should be covered with a cloth and left to cool to an edible temperature before it is fed.


Hay is dried grass. If it is made well it enables valuable animal food stocks to be kept during the winter months. It falls broadly into two types: meadow hay, which is cut from a natural pasture on which the grass has been allowed to go to seed; and seed hay, which is grown from a specially planted mixture of grasses with some clover.

Meadow hay is cheaper than seed hay, softer, and less nutritious. It is excellent for ponies and horses that are not subjected to the rigors of hunting or competition riding. Seed hay is more expensive, harder, and more nutritious, being rich in protein and fiber. It is more suitable for horses, competition horses, and hunters. Whichever variety is used it should be clean and free from dust or mold; brownish green in color; sweet smelling; a good mixture of grasses, free from weeds or thistles; made when the seed has formed but before the seed has dropped; about 44 bales to the ton.

Hay that is very tangled in the bale indicates that it has been turned several times. This may mean that it was made in wet weather and that most of the seed has been shaken out. It is best if the individual stalks are lying straight and regularly.

Hay should not be fed to horses until it is at least six months sold. Seed hay is much better if it is stored until it is a year old and meadow hay until it is eighteen months old. It can be fed in a variety of ways:

  • 1. On the stable floor. This is the most natural way for the horse to feed but there is the possibility that it will be trodden into the bedding and wasted.
  • 2. In a hay rack. This is a good, economical, and time-saving method. If the rack is too high the seeds may drop into the horse’s eyes. In a hay net. This is an accurate and economical way of feeding hay, as it can easily be weighed and washed. Filling hay nets is time-consuming and an empty hay net left hanging in a stable can be dangerous; it must be hung sufficiently high to ensure that the horse cannot catch his foot in it when the hay has been neatened.

Horses that suffer from problems with their wind benefit from having their hay soaked in water for twelve hours before it is fed. This washes out the dust and spores found in hay which are the main causes of emphysematous conditions in the horse. Most horses prefer their hay to be dampened a little before it is fed. To provide bulk in the feed ‘chaff’ or ‘chop’ is sometimes added. This is hay, or sometimes oat straw, that has been chopped into pieces an inch or two in length. It is good for horses that bolt their food as it tends to slow them down. Only good-quality hay should be made into chaff; it is a mistake to dispose of poor-quality hay in this way.

Hay can be fed in measured amounts at set times in the day or, if finances permit, a full hay net can be left in the stable all the time, so that the horse has hay available as and when he needs it. If hay is fed at regular times, it is usually given in two or three lots per day. This will depend on individual stables and routines. The usual practice is to feed a small hay net in the morning after work, whilst the horse is being groomed; another after lunch when most well-run stables are quiet and resting; and the last, and largest, at about 9 pm to last through the night.

Good hay is not only very nutritious but has a very good therapeutic value, as pulling at a hay net keeps horses content and helps to relieve boredom. Horses fed on a diet that excludes shay often develop stable vices which are difficult to cure. These include crib biting, bedding eating, wind sucking, and eating droppings or stable clothing, all of which are very undesirable. As an alternative to hay, several vacuum-packed, wilted grass feeds are available. They are sold under various brand names and are designed to replace hay in the horses’ diet.

These products have also been fed successfully to other livestock. Only the best quality long grass is used, cut when at its best and in full seed but before the seed has fallen. The grass is allowed to wilt, not killed as it would be when made into hay and baled. The bales are then chemically treated to prevent heating from taking place, compressed to half their size, and packed into strong plastic bags.

In this controlled environment the irritant spores normally founding hay are unable to form. The result is a succulent, nutritious, sweet-smelling food that horses eat enthusiastically, sometimes after a short introductory period. It is a little more expensive than hay and once a plastic bag has been opened its contents must be used within a few days; the shelf life of an opened bag is short.

Horse cubes and mixes

A variety of compounded horse feeds is available. These feeds are produced as cubes or mixes. The cubes range from ‘horse and pony cubes through ‘stud cubes right up to highly nutritious horse cubes’. Horse cubes are easy to feed and ensure aba lanced diet of high-quality food. Each type of cube is the product of careful research into the nutritional requirements of the horse in particular circumstances. The well-compounded cube consists of a balance of protein, fat, carbohydrate, vitamin, and trace elements.

Whilst it is extravagant to add horse cubes to conventional feed, there is a possibility that a diet of horse cubes alone will become monotonous. To give some variety it helps to add something succulent to each feed root vegetables, apples or fresh green food will make the diet more appetizing without upsetting the nutritional balance.

The mixes contain cereals, oats, barley, maize, etc with unappetizing additives such as molasses.

Both horse cubes and mixes, though a very convenient means of feeding, will prove more expensive than conventional feed. Like all items of forage, they should be stored in vermin-proof containers. The shelf life is limited, particularly where bags of cubes are piled on top of one another. It is sensible therefore motto buys a greater quantity than is required at any one time. Recommended feed scales for horses of various sizes are printed on each pack, based on the type of work on which the horses are employed.

Dried sugar beet

This is obtainable in pulp form or cubes. It is almost entirely cellulose and sugar and is good for putting flesh on thin horses or keeping flesh on horses in slow work. It is not suitable for horses to sin hard, fast work. Sugar beet pulp or cubes must never be fed dry as this may cause the horse to choke and once in the stomach will absorb all the available liquid and swell up considerably. Upbeat must be soaked thoroughly before it is fed until it has absorbed at least twice its volume of water, which takes about twelve hours. A reasonable amount is 450g (11b) in each feed, up to a total of 1.3kg (31b) in any one day. Once it has been soaked it must be used, as it will ferment and deteriorate rapidly.

Flaked maize

This is high in energy value but is fattening and heating. It should only be fed in small amounts, less than 20 percent of the total concentrate ration of horses in hard work.


This is the seed of the flax plant. It is very nutritious and rich in protein and oil.

To improve the condition and to give gloss to the coat linseed can be fed as either ‘jelly’ or ‘tea’. The seed is never fed in a soaked borehole as it is thought to be poisonous to horses in the raw state. It is sufficient to feed it twice a week. About 225g (8oz) of uncooked seed is sufficient for a horse of about 15.2 hands high.

The measured amount of seed should be soaked in water for twelve hours. After this time, more water is added and brought to a boil. It should then be allowed to cool and the resultant jelly added to the feed. To make linseed tea, the same procedure is followed but more water is used. The water in which the linseed is boiled is highly nutritious and can be fed with bran as a linseed mash.


Crushed, rolled or flaked barley can be fed as a substitute for oats. The food value is similar to that of oats but it does not have the same energy-giving or heating effect.

Boiled barley is fed warm with bran. It is fattening and useful for tempting shy feeders to eat. It is particularly useful after aha rd day’s hunting or competing and as part of the diet of a stale or overworked horse, it can be fed to give variety and to provide energy without overheating. It should be brought to a boil and simmered for four to six hours until the grains split. Barley burns easily, so it must be carefully watched during its preparation.


Dried beans when split are nutritious but very heating. They provide variety in the stabled horse’s diet and are usefully fed to horses and ponies that are wintering out. Two handfuls twice a day, mixed with other feed, would be an acceptable ration.

How the horse eats is often an indication of his swell being. The healthy horse will look forward to his food and will be ready and waiting for it at set times each day. He will eat it with relish, but without bolting it.

Sometimes the horse will drop food from his mouth whilst masticating it. This is known as ‘quid cling’ and may be due to malformation of the teeth or some injury to the mouth. In these circumstances, veterinary advice should be sought.

As the horse masticates his food the teeth of the upper and lower jaws grind together in a circular motion, causing the edges of the molar teeth to become very sharp. About twice yearly it is necessary to rasp away the sharp edges as they may discourage the horse from masticating his food sufficiently. This is a simple task that can be done by a veterinary surgeon or an experienced layman.

When the horse who normally eats up well suddenly goes off his food there is a reason that must be identified and rectified. It may be that he is sickening for some illness, a cold, or a similar infection, or he may be suffering from colic. The food may be musty. A change in circumstances in the yard can also be the cause: perhaps he has been moved to another loose box, or the horse next to him is bullying him at feed times.

Uneaten food should not be left in the manger for too long. If the horse is not going to eat it, it must be removed and the manger cleaned out ready for the next feed. It may not be serious if the horse leaves one feed only but, as with any change in his normal behavior, to be ‘off his feed’ is almost certainly a sign that something is wrong.

‘Shy feeders’ are not uncommon. They are horses that are reluctant to eat. Many factors may cause this situation, including bad grooms and poor preparation of the food. A skilled groom will be able to tempt the shy feeder to eat by varying the diet, offering frequent small feeds, ensuring that the horse is not disturbed whilst eating, et cetera. Careful, considerate feeding and the use of the imagination are often the best ways to solve this problem.

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