Horse Feeding FAQs

How much do you know about feeding your horse or pony? Here are some answers to frequently asked questions.

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Young Rider Magazine LogoFeeding your pony right is one of the most important ways to keep him healthy. With a little know-how, you can keep an eye on his diet and make sure he’s getting the best nutrition possible. Check out these common questions to test your knowledge and discover some new tips to help you feed your horse even better.

Pony eating hay from a roundbale

Q: If my horse looks skinny, what could be the problem?

A: There can be two reasons a horse is underweight: illness or poor nutrition (or both).

The first step is to have your vet do a checkup that will probably include looking at your horse’s teeth, asking about your deworming schedule, and possibly doing bloodwork or other tests. If the vet doesn’t find any health problems, then it means your horse needs to eat more calories to get to a healthy weight.

The majority of a horse’s diet should be forage (hay or pasture). Forage is high in fiber, which is what the horse’s gut runs on. Fiber passes into the huge large intestine and is broken down by tiny microbes in a process called fermentation. Microbes convert the fiber into calories the horse can use, which differs from how humans digest their food and get energy.

Gray Horse Grazing at Sunset
A thin horse may just need to eat more. Grazing on pasture is a good way to increase calories.

The minimum amount of forage a horse needs is 1.5 percent of his body weight. For a 1,000-pound horse, this would be 15 pounds of hay. Of course, if your horse is too skinny, he will need his hay increased.

Most horses can eat 2.5 percent of their body weight fairly easily if it’s tasty (25 pounds of hay for a 1,000-pound horse).

If you have the option of shopping around to pick out your horse’s hay, look for a grass mix that is soft and leafy (not mature and stemmy), or grass hay mixed with alfalfa. Alfalfa is higher in protein and calories than grass hay but is not available everywhere. Always check that you’re not feeding hay that contains mold, weeds, or lots of dust.

Another simple way to boost calories is by adding vegetable oil (available by the gallon from the feed store) or a powdered fat supplement for horses (these are less messy) on top of your horse’s feed. Read the directions carefully so you use the right amount for weight gain.

Horses can tolerate a fairly high amount of fat in their diet, but only if you start slow and gradually increase the amount while his digestive system adjusts. This applies to any changes in feeding­—start gradually with small amounts of the new feed.

Measuring a horse's weight with a weight tape
A weight tape will give you an approximate idea of your horse’s weight.

Q: How do I figure out how much my horse weighs?

A: Knowing your horse’s approximate weight is very important when deciding how much feed he needs. When people take a wild guess, they’re often off by 200 pounds or more!

Get a simple horse weight tape from your feed store or online and wrap it around your horse’s heart girth, just behind his elbow. Where the two ends meet will be a reading of his approximate weight. This won’t be an exact number that agrees with a scale, but it should be close enough for figuring out how much food he needs.

Q: What does my senior horse need to eat?

A: Sometimes senior horses can stay on the same diet they had when they were younger with no problem, but often they need a little extra help in the “grocery” department to look and feel their best.

If your vet has advised you to change your horse’s diet to more senior-friendly feed, don’t worry. There are lots of options for seniors on the market nowadays!

These feeds are formulated just for the needs of older horses and can be fed in addition to hay, or as 100 percent of the diet if needed. Either way, you’ll have to make sure to feed your horse enough to keep weight on him. Read the bag tag and know how much your horse weighs to figure out how much to feed him.

If your senior horse has poor or missing teeth, he may not be able to chew hay or grain anymore. Soaking senior feed or hay cubes/pellets is a great way to make his forage easier for him to eat. Just be sure to separate him from other horses during meal time so the stronger youngsters don’t drive him away from his food.

Some horses get metabolic conditions with age, such as Cushing’s disease, insulin resistance or equine metabolic disease. These are serious conditions that need to be managed with help from your vet, and may require medication and a special diet.

Senior Morgan Horse
Senior horses may need some extra care in their health and feeding maintenance.

Q: My pony looks really fat. What should I do?

A: Fat ponies may be adorable, but this is actually really bad for their health. Just like in humans, excess body fat can trigger the onset of diseases and put extra stress and strain on his joints. Any of these will keep him from being his healthiest self.

If you can feel spongy fat covering your horse’s rump, neck, shoulder and ribs, it’s time for a diet! But cut back carefully: Keeping a pony starving all day may lead to behavior problems or even colic.

The first step is to pull your pony off of lush pasture grazing. If you have a smaller paddock that is mostly dirt, you can turn him out there and feed him hay. That way he still gets exercise and stimulation without the extra calories.

If you have no other option besides grass pasture, get him a grazing muzzle. He won’t like having his grass restricted, but it is necessary to manage his weight.

If your pony lives in a stall and only eats hay, get a small-hole net (1½-inch holes) to slow him down. This will keep him from devouring his meals too fast and getting bored. Weigh out his hay and make sure he’s not getting more than 2 percent of his body weight per day.

Q: Does my horse need to be fed supplements?

A: It depends! In general, horses getting most of their food from grazing a nice green pasture need the least supplementation. If your horse eats mostly hay, he will benefit from a vitamin/mineral supplement. Either way, your horse should have a salt block at all times. If you feed your horse a commercially made equine grain, it will probably have most of the required vitamins and minerals already added to it.

Depending on your horse, he may benefit from supplements to improve hoof growth, joint arthritis, or digestive health. Talk to your vet to see what he might need!


This article originally appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of Young Rider magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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