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Feeding Your Horse: A Comprehensive Guide

Are you confused about your horse’s diet? How much and what should you feed your horse? Look no further we are here to help.

Horses are herbivores and at least half of their diet should generally consist of pasture grass or hay. They are also fed commercial concentrated pelleted feed and fruits and vegetables to enhance their diets and need lots of fiber to keep their long and sensitive digestive tract working properly.

Feeding your horse the correct feed and making sure they get in all the necessary nutrients to stay healthy is a vital part of horse management. Here we explain what you should feed your horse, containing a list of everything your adult horse should eat to remain healthy.

What to feed your horse

Providing a properly balanced diet to your horse is one of the essential parts of horse ownership.  Horses naturally graze all day and should eat little and often throughout the day. Horses need five types of nutrients. Each nutrient plays a vital role in the horse’s body and is required to keep your horse healthy.

  • Energy nutrients like carbohydrates and fats,
  • Proteins
  • Vitamins
  • Minerals
  • Water

Here listed is the food you need to provide to your horse;


Horses need grass. It is a horse’s natural food and suitable for its digestive system. Be careful your horse doesn’t overeat lush grass in spring, as this can cause painful laminitis.

Hay or Alfalfa

Hay keeps your horse full and his digestive system working, particularly in the winter months when pasture isn’t available. Hay is a good source of fiber.

Fruit or vegetables

Fruit and vegetables add moisture to your horse’s feed. A few carrots cut lengthways is always a preferred snack.  Some fruits and vegetables should be avoided, and we will list them below.


When your horse is getting older or is young, nursing, pregnant, or competing, you may feed concentrated food, grains like oats, barley, corn, or pelleted feed. These grins will give your horse energy.


Salt is necessary, and you should offer your horse a mineral salt block lick or loose salt in a container in a pasture.


Your horse always needs access to fresh, clean water at least twice a day. If your horse doesn’t have access to water, it could lead to colic. In almost all cases it’s safe for horses to drink rainwater as well. Also make sure your horse’s water doesn’t freeze in winter temperatures.

How much should you feed your horse?

An average-sized adult horse should eat around 1.5–3 percent of his body weight. The quantity depends on the horse’s level of activity and the quality of the food.

At least half of your horse’s diet should consist of pasture grass or hay. If your horse is worked or ridden, your horse needs more food to compensate for the energy spent while working.

The daily intake of an adult horse doing light work should be around 1.8% of his body weight each day. It is recommended that at least 65% of this amount should be forage. During the winter months, a 500 kg horse needs around 3kg of hard feed and 7kg of hay per day.

What time do you feed horses?

Your horse’s digestive system is designed for small quantities of food to pass through during the day continuously. This means that the horse is a constant grazer.  Horses are not designed to eat large amounts of food at one single feeding. 

Horses should be fed often and little, all day. If your horse is kept in a stable, your horse needs two to three feedings per day.  Never leave your horse for longer than eight hours without food.  Horses prefer routine, so try to feed your horse at the same time every day.  Ensure that your horse’s feeding troughs are clean, or your horse might refuse to drink or eat.

Good feeding management requires feedings to be spaced throughout the day. A couple of small feedings are better than one large feeding. Your horse should be fed a minimum of twice a day.  Providing feed three or four times a day is always better.

You should feed your horse according to his work schedule. Horses who are ridden in the morning should be fed, feed one-third concentrate, and a portion of hay in the morning.  You may then provide a more significant amount of hay with the grain at the middle of the day feeding.  If you are not exercising your horse in the evening, the nighttime feeding of concentrate and hay can be offered simultaneously.

What not to feed your horse

There are many foods that horses should not be fed. Here are a few listed below.

  • Caffeine:  Tea, Coffee, and Cola contain the stimulant caffeine (trimethyl xanthine), which can cause an irregular heart rhythm for your horse.
  • Chocolate:  Chocolate is also toxic to dogs and cats. The theobromine found in chocolate causes severe colic, seizures, metabolic derangements, and internal bleeding in horses.
  • Bread and cakes:  High in sugar, and these could cause a blockage in your horse’s digestive tract.
  • Onions and Garlic:  These vegetables are members of the allium family, which also includes scallions, leeks, chives, and shallots that contains the chemical N-propyl disulfide, which destroys red blood cells and can result in anemia.  Garlic is a popular equine supplement; giving in moderation is the key.
  • Moldy or dusty hay:  Moldy and dusty hay can damage your horse’s lungs.
  • Tomatoes:  Tomatoes are a member of the toxic Solanaceae plant family, which include deadly nightshade. Leafy green portions of the tomato plants contain atropine, which might cause colic by slowing down gut function in horses. Hyoscyamine found in tomatoes decreases saliva production and intestinal motility. Hyoscyamine increases heart rate and causes constipation and hemorrhagic diarrhea.  Like chili peppers and eggplant, other vegetable family members should also not be given to horses.
  • Fruit seeds and pits:  Some fruits like apples and apricots have pits or seeds which contain cyanide compounds. When these seeds or pits are consumed are toxic in large quantities. Large pits can cause a horse to choke, so remove them before offering your horse fruit like nectarines or peaches.
  • Dog and Cat food:  You might think a dry dog or cat food is harmless as it contains grain products, and horses might find it tempting, but dog food contains meat by-products that are unsuitable for equine consumption.
  • Potatoes:  The primary danger with potatoes is when the potato is green or rotten, the chemical composition can cause toxicosis in all animals, including horses. If a potato is eaten whole, it can become lodged in the windpipe of your horse and result in a choke. This warning applies to any large, round, firm vegetables or fruits, even apples, which should always be cut into smaller pieces before offering to your horse.
  • House plants:  Some house plants are toxic to horses and can cause diarrhea, renal failure, colic, liver damage, and even death, depending on the plant species. While you would not purposely feed rhododendrons or daffodil bulbs to your horses, you should be careful your horse does not have access to live or discarded plants.
  • Garden waste: There are many risks from garden clippings, including plants, weeds, and toxins from garden sprays that can be poisonous to your horse. You might think giving your horse the freshly cut grass is a good idea. You can’t be sure if contaminated garden waste is in there, and your horse might eat the grass more quickly than when he is naturally grazing in the pasture. Gulping the grass could result in colic.
  • Goat feed: Since horses and goats get along very well and often graze together, you might be tempted to give your horse goat feed. However, horses cannot eat goat feed. Most cattle feed, including many goat feeds, included an ingredient called monensin sodium (common trade name Rumensin) that causes cardiac failure in horses. Horses that may survive are irreducibly damaged. Any feed given to horses must be monesin-free.
  • Horse feed mixed with medicine: Mixing medicine in your horse feed might be ok from the perspective of not being dangerous for your horse to consume, but there is another problem. Mixing medicine like dewormer, for example, into your horse’s feed can be risky because your horse might not get the full dose. The wormer can get stuck on the side of the feeder, and your horse might not eat all of the feed that has the dewormer on it.

What is poisonous to horses?

Many plants are poisonous to horses when eaten in excess, but some toxic plants are hazardous to horses and should be avoided at all costs.

Horses most likely consume toxic plants when they have nothing else to eat.  Or a combination of poor grazing and when a heavy infestation of these plants goes undetected in hay or haylage.

Plants that are poisonous to horses are not particularly rare. You just need to stroll through any pasture, and you will find among the grasses any number of different plants. Broad-leafed weeds, small vines, some wildflowers you will recognize, others you won’t remember. 

The chances are good that at least some of those plants are toxic to horses. Many poisonous plants grow in North America, and many are found extremely common.

Here are the top 5 poisonous plants you need to know about to avoid an untimely end for your horse.

Bracken fern (Pteridum aquilinum)

  • Also known as brake fern oreagle fern
  • ID:  This plant is a perennial fern with triangular leaves that can grow two to three feet high. This plant grows in woodlands and moist open areas.
  • Range:  Can be found from coast to coast, except in the Mediterranean and desert climates of Southern California.
  • The danger:  The Bracken fern plant contains thiaminase, which inhibits thiamin absorption (vitamin B1). Thiamin is essential to nerve function, and deficiencies will lead to neurological impairment.  The toxicity of individual leaves is relatively low.  This toxic plant is unique as some horses seem to develop a taste for Bracken fern and will look for it even when other grass is available.
  • Signs:  Toxicity signs are related to neural dysfunctions resulting from vitamin B1 deficiency and can include depression, blindness, and incoordination.
  • What to do:  Giving large doses of thiamin over a week or two can help the recovery of your horse when consumption is discovered before the neurological signs are severe in your horse.

Hemlock (Conium maculatum)

  • Also known as poison hemlock, spotted hemlock
  • ID:  This plant is a multi-stemmed perennial weed with toothed, fernlike leaves with clusters of small white flowers. The stems of hemlock have purple spots and are most evident near the base of the plant.
  • Range:  Throughout North America, Hemlock grows wild along roadsides and other open uncultivated areas.
  • The danger:  Hemlock seeds, leaves, stems contain many potent neurotoxins that affect both the central and peripheral nervous systems in horses.  Only four or five-pound of Hemlocks is a lethal dose for your horse. Most animals will avoid this plant.
  • Signs:  Signs can appear within an hour or two since consumption, starting with symptoms of tremors, nervousness, and incoordination, progressing to depression and diminished heart and respiratory rates, as well as colic. Death results from respiratory failure.
  • What to do:  Unfortunately, there is no treatment, but when smaller doses were consumed, horses may recover with supportive care.

Tansy ragwort (Senecio spp.)

  • Also known as:  Tansy ragwort or groundsel
  • ID:  This is another multi-stemmed weed with alternating leaves with clusters of small daisy-like yellow flowers.
  • Range:  Around 70 species of Senecio grow throughout the United States in many different habitats. Most are found commonly in pastures and along roadsides.
  • The danger:  The toxicity levels vary among different members of this species, but all contain some concentration of pyrrolizidine alkaloids that inhibits cell division, especially in the horse’s liver.  Damage to the horse’s liver is cumulative and irreversible, and most horses succumb to chronic exposure over time, after consuming 50 and 150 pounds, in total.
  • Signs:  Most often, there is no evidence of consumption until signs of liver failure start to appear like photosensitization, diminished appetite, weight loss, progressing to depression, jaundice and incoordination.
  • What to do:  Unfortunately, there is no treatment for advanced stages of liver disease due to this toxin.

Johnsongrass/Sudan grass (Sorghum spp.)

  • ID:  Sudan and Johnsongrass grass are coarse-stemmed grasses with broad, veined leaves that grow to six feet in height.  Both these kinds of grass produce large seed heads that are multi-branched.
  • Range:  Johnsongrass is a wild grass found in southern climates, where it grows along roadways and uncultivated open areas.  Sudan grass is a close relative, and its hybrids are cultivated throughout the United States as a forage crop.
  • The danger:  The stems and leaves of Sudan and Johnsongrass grass contain a cyanide compound.  When this toxin is metabolized, it inhibits the horse’s body’s ability to absorb oxygen, in effect suffocating the horse; young shoots of Johnsongrass contain the highest concentration of the toxin. Horses cannot metabolize the cyanide compound as efficiently as ruminant animals do.  Circumstances that injure the plant-like wilting, trampling, or frost can chemically liberate the cyanide within the leaves, making them dangerous to all animal species.  Cultivated hybrids of Sudan grass generally contain less cyanide, if at all.  Both species of grass can accumulate toxic levels of nitrates if they are overfertilized.  The cyanide concentration drops to safe levels when the grasses are cured for hay, but nitrates, when present, do not.
  • Signs: The signs are consistent with cyanide poisoning. The first indication will be rapid breathing, which progresses to tremors, frequent defecation, urination, gasping, and convulsions.
  • What to do:  Immediate supportive drug therapy can offset the effects of less severe cyanide poisoning.

Locoweed (Astragalus spp. or Oxytropis spp.)

  • Also known as Crazy weed
  • ID:  This poisonous plant has leafy perennials with short stems and compound leaves that grow in tuft-like forms from a single taproot. Locoweed flowers are purple or white. The species may be covered with silvery hairs. 
  • Areas: Locoweed species are spotted, blue, wooly, purple, Lambert’s, two-grooved milk vetch, white-point, and they all grow in varied terrains throughout the Southwest and West, mainly in dry, sandy soil.
  • The danger:  All locoweed plants are toxic and contain swainsonine, an alkaloid that stops producing an enzyme necessary for saccharide metabolism. The resulting sugar buildup disrupts the function of brain cells.
  • Signs:  Strange behavioral signs are usually first observed, and evidence noticed when horses bob their heads, adopt exaggerated, high-stepping gaits, or stagger and fall.
  • What to do:  Unfortunately, there is no treatment for advanced locoism, and the effects are irreversible.  Horses with less severe poisoning might recover when access to the weed is removed.

Should you add water to a horse’s feed?

Wild horses in nature’s primary source of food are fresh grass.  Grazing on grass from natural pastures differs from dry hay in its water content we feed our horses.

Why do we need to soak horse feeds that are high in fiber?  High fiber feeds pectin content is high.  Upon contact with water, pectin expands considerably, creating a risk of choking and impaction colic. 

When the fiber in a feed is lower quality and less abundant, soaking your horse’s feed is unnecessary.  The lower content of pectin will not rapidly expand upon contact with water.  Many factors increase the risk of choking, including a voracious appetite, meal size, and your horse’s hydration level.

Soaking your horse’s feed allows replicating fresh grass, your horse’s most natural food source.  The same as grass, these super fibers like beet pulp and soybean hulls contain high levels of pectin, hemicellulose and cellulose, and very little lignin. These factors make these foods highly digestible.

Your horse’s digestive system is better designed to assimilate wet food than dry food. In the large intestine, at a location known as the pelvic flexure, the intestine curves and decreases in diameter; if your horse lacks water, this will create the perfect scenario for impaction colic or a blockage.

There are many advantages to soaking your horse’s feed. Here are a few:

  • When soaking your horse’s feed, you are promoting the minimum required water consumption. You probably noticed your horse drinks less water during fall and winter.  The cooler climate and water’s cooler temperature deter your horse from drinking water regularly.  When water is added to a horse’s feed, it will inevitably be consumed.  As the temperature drop, adding water to your horse’s feed will benefit a horse who drinks very little.  Cooler weather is also an excellent time to serve your horses a lovely warm meal when hot water is available.
  • Serving older horses a meal that is soft in consistency helps with dental issues. On an important note, aging horses typically experience more difficulty digesting fiber than younger horses. They will benefit from the soaked feed and the presence of highly digestible fiber.
  • Adding water to your horse’s feed prevents choking and impaction colic, posing threats when your horse eats any type of dry food.  You essentially eliminate any risk of choking and impaction colic when soaking your horse’s feed.
  • By soaking your horse’s feed, you can subtly incorporate other ingredients into your horse’s ration.  Your horse will find it harder to sort through his food if it is served in the form of a soaked mash.  Soaking your horse’s feed provides the perfect opportunity to add salt, yeast, phenylbutazone, and any other product to your horse’s food.  Your horse won’t be the wiser.

How do you properly soak your horse’s feed and make a mash?

It is straightforward you add two to three parts water for each part of the mash and then wait until it expands ultimately.  The time it takes to soak will depend on cube size, fiber content, and water temperature.  Larger cubes will take longer to expand while using hot water will significantly speed soaking time.  Add the amount of water needed to create your horse’s desired texture.

Soaking your horse’s feed will obviously mean extra work for you. You need to ensure access to water and take additional time to wait for the feed to expand. It is also necessary to clean the feeding troughs more frequently.  The good news from all this extra work is that all of your efforts will directly translate into benefits for your horse.

When not to feed your horse

It is not recommended to feed your horse immediately before or after exercise.  You should wait at least an hour or more after your horse finished his meal before riding your horse.

If you are going to do strenuous work, it should be closer to three hours.  When your horse has a full digestive system, it gives your horse’s lungs less space to work and makes exercise harder on your horse.

Also, during periods of exertion, blood flow is diverted away from the digestive organs, so your horse’s gut movement slows, and colic may be a real threat.  When feeding your horse after work, let your horse cool down completely.  Your horse’s breathing rate should be back to normal, and his skin should not feel hot or sweaty before you attempt to feed him.

Stick to a routine

All horses thrive on routine and should be kept on a consistent feeding schedule, with meals arriving at the same time each day.  For horses prone to colic, a sudden change in routine can be more than an irritation and could be enough to trigger a colic episode.

Measure feed accurately and feed consistently

At first, start by measuring your horse’s feed by weight.  You can use a kitchen scale.  Once you figured out how much your horse’s typical ration weighs, measure that exact portion at feeding time using a coffee can, scoop, or whatever suits your needs.

The average 500 kg horse who relies on hay for all their forage generally eats 7 kg of hay per day.  The amount of hay in a flake varies greatly, depending on the size of the flake.  If you don’t know how much your bales of hay weigh, use a bathroom scale to check, then feed that portion of a bale to your horse.

What is the best grain to feed your horse?

The concentrated portion of horse feed contains higher energy and is lower in fiber than roughages.  Many kinds of grains are fed to horses. These grains are Barley, Corn, Wheat, Milo (Grain Sorghum), Molasses (Dried or Liquid), Beet Pulp, Soybeans, or Soybean Meal.

These days grain makes up a significant portion of a horse’s diet. The most common grains fed to horses are oats, corn, and barley.

The concentrated feed contains grains that are higher in energy and lower in fiber than roughages.

Oats are the most preferred and safest grain to feed to horses. The reason oats are a safe feed is the fiber content which is about thirteen percent.  Oats have more bulk per nutrient content. Horses have to eat more to satisfy their nutrient requirements. Feeding bulk makes it more difficult for the horse to overeat and get founder or colic.

The oat kernels should be heavy, plump, and clean and have a bright color and a low ratio of husks to kernels. Whole oats are easily digested by the horse. 


When you are feeding your horse grain, give the grain in multiple smaller meals rather than one large meal.  Most horses are fed grain twice a day.  Grass and hay should make up 65 % of the ration your horse receives in a day. 

Instead, consider an additional lunchtime feeding if you have to give a larger quantity of grain to your horse.  Small, frequent meals are more natural for your horse and allow your horse to better digest his food and prevent impaction and colic.


Other articles in this series:

Horse Living Environments: A Comprehensive Guide
How To Groom Your Horse: The Ultimate Guide
Horse Diseases and Ailments: A Beginners Guide
Horse Veterinary Care: The Complete Guide