It’s been said that you can “lead a horse to water, but you can’t force them to drink.” That may be true, but if you lead a horse to grain, there’s a good chance that horse will eat.
If you feed too much grain to a horse, then obesity can develop over time. Overweight horses might appear to be “cute” to some, but the added weight can lead to serious health issues like laminitis.
Knowing how much grain to feed a horse can sometimes be difficult to determine. Some horses get more exercise than others and require more calories. Others may get plenty of exercise, but shun the pasture. And since 75% of the cost that comes with owning a horse can be directly associated to their feed, it is important to get this right.
How to Determine a Balanced Ration for the Horse
All feeds must be free of dust and mold. Overfeeding the horse is wasteful, while underfeeding the horse can lead to nutritional deficiencies. This is why finding a properly balanced ration is essential to the long-term health of the horse. Here are some of the best practices that are worth following when it comes to feeding.
- Most horses can be given as much hay as they will eat.
- For horses that are just starting on grain, it is usually safe to start the horse with a half-pound of grain every day for every 100 pounds of body weight. Since the average horse weighs about 1,100 pounds, this would result in 5.5 pounds of daily grain.
- Add another half-pound of grain to the horse’s feed on every third day until you begin to see a noticeable decline in roughage consumption.
- Feed horses regularly. During the warmer months, horses tend to prefer eating during the cooler hours of the day, so expect earlier and later feeding periods.
- Feed horses their grain before feeding them roughage.
- Expect to feed at least 2-3 times every day.
- Avoid changing the type of rations that are provided or any sudden schedule changes. This can result in the horse going off of its feed.
- Exercise the horse every day as medically advised.
- Regularly inspect the dental health of each horse to ensure there is no discomfort during the eating process.
A healthy horse can easily eat 2.5 pounds of air-dry feeds every day for every 100 pounds of body weight. It is important to remember that this includes hay in addition to the grain that you would put into the bin. By calculating out the total weight for each feeding, you can then avoid over- or under-feeding.
Common Mistakes to Avoid When Feeding Grain to a Horse
Grain should not be the primary component of a horse’s feed. This means there must be a greater amount of attention paid to the foraging process. Hay and pasture grass will support good horse health. Look for hay that smells sweet and fresh for best results. Musty odors are a sign of mold, heavy dust, and nutritional deficits.
Good hay also feels soft to the touch. Poor hay feels course and can scratch the skin. It should also have no foreign materials, few weeds and be mostly leaves instead of being all stems and seedheads. If you have poor hay, the horse will want to eat more grain and that can lead to an unbalanced ration.
Here are the other mistakes you’ll want to avoid when feeding your horse.
- Grains are treated as a feed concentrate. It is common to feed grain twice daily, but the total amount should never be more than 0.5% of the horse’s total weight in any single meal. If the horse still seems hungry, then encourage more hay consumption or turn the horse out for a longer period of time in their pasture.
- Avoid feeding horses by volume. This is especially true for grains, which can vary widely in weight. If you have a full container of corn, it is going to feel heavier than other grains. Even pelleted feeds with mixed grains can have different volumes, so make sure what goes into the trough is based on weight instead of volume.
- Feed the correct grain to the horse. Many grains are bagged and separated for easy classification and purchase for owners. You’ll find foaling grains, adult grains, senior grains, and even activity-based feeds. Each grain is formulated with specific nutrients and minerals that the horse needs. Choose the correct one to make sure you don’t increase the risks of abnormal growth.
The bottom line is this: if the recommended minimum serving of the feed is more than what your horse should receive based on weight, then you’ve got the wrong feed.
How to Avoid Overloading the Nutrients
Many feeds today are infused with specific supplements that a horse needs for good health. Some owners feel like their horse may need specific supplements added to their diet in addition to the hay and grain, but this is usually not needed. Supplements should only be added when grains or feed do not provide the right balance of rations for some reason.
Supplements should also be considered a temporary option.
Mineral and nutrient toxicity is very common in horses that are fed grains and supplements which contain similar ingredients. Common toxicity issues involve Vitamin A and Selenium as they are often found in commercial feeds and commercial vitamin supplements.
Salt is another important component of a balance ration. Horses will consume the salt they need if it is provided to them. Giving the horse a salt block in their pasture is the easiest way to supplement the nutrition that the grains and hay can provide the horse. Placing a salt block in a stall can be dangerous, so it should be avoided, because a bored horse can overeat salt.
As a final step, it is also important for horses to have free-choice fresh water available to them. Withholding water from a horse is not a good idea. Cold water given to a hot horse will not increase the risks of colic, despite frequent advice to the contrary.
Water access reduces the risks of an impaction colic event, especially when dried forage is being used for feed. It may be necessary to provide more than one source of water to the horse so they can maintain a balanced ration.
Knowing how much grain to feed a horse can lower the risks of an adverse health event from occurring. If you are unsure of what grains to feed your horse, then speak with your local veterinarian about coming up with a specific feeding plan. This will allow you to pick out the right grain at the right weight so the horse can have a long and happy life.