Diet is a huge topic in management of the domestic horse - here we summarise nutritional goals and provide a sample diet suitable for most adult horses for healthy hooves and metabolism.
For information including diet and management relating to metabolic disorders, including PPID/Cushings disease, EMS, IR and laminitis, please visit our blog on this topic
Above: Authors dry lot with hay feeders, wood chip loafing area and run-in barn for 24/7 turnout (off grass) for metabolically challenged horses and ponies.
Diet and management goals for the leisure horse
1. A healthy body condition score (BCS) of around 4 or 5/9 - If your horse is overweight, there is an increased risk of laminitis, metabolic disorders and trauma, pathology and lameness due to excess weight carried. In addition you might experience saddle and rug fit issues, which can impact gait and posture and lead to trauma, pathology and further lameness.
2. Support natural lifestyle - keeping horses in accordance to their nature helps provide optimum health and resilience and this helps the horse grow healthy hooves from the inside, out. Foraging and grazing should take up most of the horses day, facilitates movement and nourishment, and the horse is perfectly suited to travelling several miles a day to select what it needs and browse from the ground and also from bushes and trees. This provides a wide range of nutrition and allows the horse to exhibit its natural behaviour. If we don't allow for natural behaviour and nutritional needs, horses can become stressed and sick. The Equicentral System provides a way to care for horses in domestication which supports a more natural lifestyle and this can be combined with a track system to help facilitate movement in track kept horses.
3. Support healthy digestive health - this relates to point 2 and considers the true nutritional needs of the horses for healthy digestion and immune function. Foraging for plants, barks and leaves and healthy grasses support the microbiome and provide much needed phytochemicals, fibre and other nutritional elements for healthy horses and hooves! The microbiome (or equibiome) relates to the microbes that live in the horses digestive tract and are intrinsically involved in the horses health and well-being. Modern management practices and chemicals in the environment is potentially impacting the microbiome of the horse and modern research indicates there is a link in an unhealthy microbiome and the incidence of pathology, disease and lameness in horses.
4. Feed for the nutritional needs of the individual horse and environment - under or over-feeding can result in nutritional imbalances and malnutrition and feeding the wrong things can result in imbalances and digestive complaints too! Horses need the right balance of minerals, vitamins, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, fibres, microbes, and phytochemicals (plant chemicals) for example, and in various amounts according to their genetic background, age, health status and lifestyle. Most grasses are too high in carbohydrates and most soil and hay samples in the UK are nutritional imbalanced and contain high iron levels. This might contribute to metabolic disorders but the link between high iron in feed and metabolic disorders has yet to be firmly proven in horses. You can test your hay and land to see if your horses diet is adequate, but even this might not provide the very best diet, as all horses are individual and trial and error might be needed to find the best diet for your horse.
Sample diet and feeding practices for most leisure horses
Forage is grass and preserved grass (hay or haylage). Horses thrive on a low calorie, high fibre diet and this can mostly be provided by hay and grazing on old fashioned meadows with a rich, biodiverse range of grasses and herbs. Forage should make up most or nearly all of the horses dietary intake.
In the last 80 years or so, modern agricultural practices have changed most of the grazing and pasture land in the UK to favour the raising of cattle. This isn't necessarily suitable for horses and can lead to obesity and diseases such as laminitis and Insulin Resistance. We recommend testing your horses hay and grazing (see the above link) and addressing imbalances while you improve your grazing to better suit the needs of the horse (see the Equicentral link in point 2 above).
Dry lotting for grass intolerant horses
Some horses seem to be grass intolerant and require a dry lot (grass free, all weather area) and this work well within an Equicentral System and track system. Horses which do not eat fresh grass on a daily or regular basis need to be provided with additional nutrients such as vitamin E, vitamin C and omega oils. (see below for sample bucket feed).
Above: Authors dry lot featuring barn, separate central area for visiting horses, variety of surfaces including wood chip loafing area behind the barn, pea gravel in the barn, road planings and rubber matting walk ways. A track system is accessible at either end and access to a 5 acre paddock in the center.
Feed hay, not haylage
Many horses simply are not suited to thrive on a wrapped hay or haylage diet as it changes the pH of the gut and can lead to disturbances in the microbiome and ability to digest. If you have no choice but to feed haylage, consider feeding a digestive enzyme. Hay should be cut before the seed head dies to avoid ergot ingestion and mycotoxins which might create digestive disturbances. Never feed mouldy or very dusty hay. Hay can be steamed using a dedicated or home made hay steamer. We like and use the HayGain hay steamer.
Soaking hay can reduce dust inhallation and irritation of the airways, reduce iron and other nutritional levels and also reduce water soluble carbohydrate levels. It can also help manage or prevent respiratory conditions, can be useful for weight management and also in managing metabolic disorders. However it might also increase pathogenic bacteria and more studies are needed to fully understand the impact soaking hay has on the nutritional and bacterial levels ingested.
The amount of time hay should be soaked for an individual horse therefore depends on the goal of soaking and batch of hay. The only way to really know if to have tests done on dry hay and soaked hay and compare the results. Temperature of the water and variations in hay in the same harvest will also alter the results. We like to soak hay for between 30 and 60 minutes due to scientific studies which suggest that soaking hay for longer can lead to nutritional imbalances and microbiome disturbances.
How much grass and hay to feed
This depends on the individual horse, grass and hay! As a guide, a healthy horse; free from disease, lameness and with healthy hooves will be a healthy body score. If the opposite is apparent, chances are; the diet is appropriate. Feeding more or less of the different forage types might help but our advice is to get as much information as possible about your horses forage, microbiome and health status (with help from your vet) to help you understand what to feed and in what amounts.
Healthy adult leisure horses (in little to light work) typically need around 2.5% of their own body weight in dry matter of feed. This is relatively easy to calculate when feeding hay but the intake of fresh grass is harder to quantify and control. Grazing muzzles can help slow down intake when out at grass and we like the best friend have a heart grazing muzzle. Healthy horses might be able to self regulate and eat according to their needs, but it is our experience that most horses are not healthy and need their hay intake regulated with the use of slow feeders and hay nets. It is good practice to never let horses or ponies go without forage for more than 2 hours on a regular basis.
Methods of feeding hay
Slow feeders designed to mimic natural feeding behaviour and movement are becoming increasingly popular and can help relieve boredom and hunger, help body balance and posture and manage weight. Hay nets are available in a variety of sizes and with different sized holes. The larger the hole, the quicker the horse can eat but the type and batch of hay can vary and create faster or slower eating times. The goal is to minim natural lifestyle so extending feed times is a good practice and can reduce unwanted behaviour, injuries among the herd and improve digestion. We like to place the nets at different heights to reduce wear and tear on teeth and bodies and we use and recommed Nibbleze as they are kind to teeth and belly size!
Above: example of a healthy hoof - "never do we meet horses with ideal or close to ideal hoof proportions and optimum health who exist only on forage only - a supplementary bucket feed seems to be necessary to promote health in leisure horses of today" - Author Beccy Smith - Equine Podiatrist and Consultant
Example of a bucket feed for most leisure horses
The bucket feed should accompany the forage diet of the individual and is tailored to the horses needs.
Example 1 - Horse in light work with a couple of hours daily grazing and in a dry lot, fed hay the remainder of the time for ideal BCS
Forage base to mix supplements, add palatability, biodiversity and promote microbial health: Thunderbrook Equestrian Healthy Herbal Muesli
Additional forage base if needed to encourage chewing: Thunderbrook Equestrian Healthy Herbal Chaff
To increase omega oils and support gut function: Thunderbrook Equestrian Linseed Plus (If your horse doesn’t tolerate linseed, other omega supplements can be sourced online).
Nutritional balancer (designed to help balance minerals, vitamins, proteins to the average UK forage): Thunderbrook Equestrian Daily Essential Balancer
Sea Salt (often lacking in UK forage/soil): Thunderbrook Equestrian Sea Salt
Probiotic and prebiotic to promote gut/microbiome health: Proferm
To increase diversity for microbial health via herbs: Pure Paddock
Example 2 - Horse kept OFF GRASS
All of the above plus...
Vitamin E, an important antioxidant low in preserved forage: Thunderbrook Equestrian Vitamin E
Vitamin C (also low in preserved forage): Thunderbrook Equestrian Vitamin E
Additional considerations for any horse
Many owners and trainers feel their horse performs better following a herbal tonic every season such as Re-Mount
Reduce worm burdens by use of good pasture management (Equicentral System style!) and routine faecal egg counts, saliva testing and even blood testing for parasites and consider a herbal gut support such as Para-EXzit7
Some horses need additional support for the gut lining, hoof, joints or soft tissues. Browse our range of carefully selected supplements including the incredible gastric support product Relyne GI. You can purchase Relyne GI from us for 10% off forever using voucher code BECS10
Keep horses organically where possible and source hay, bucket feed and supplements from high quality sources. We love Thunderbrook as we know they are designed to be as organic as possible, and some of their feeds are even certified organic! We are also very aware of the impact of agrochemicals and encourage all horse owners to keep horses well away (several miles if possible) from chemical crop spraying. We feel this really impacts gut, hoof and whole horse health and contributes to lameness, pathology and premature death in horses.
For the same reasons, avoid bagged feeds which contain by-product of the agro chemical industry (eg. wheat feed, oat feeds, soya hulls, straw, etc) and this also includes so-called laminitis or high fibre feeds!
If you feel you need additional support, we offer online and in-person consults. We also have a support group on Face Book called Holistic Equine Support Group and anyone can join and ask for free advice here.
If, like our clients, you want to learn a PRO-Active approach to hoof care and wish to prevent lameness in your horse, consider booking us for an Integrative Podiatry Consult, Educational Event, Mentorship, On-line Course or join our new VIP membership where you can learn top tips straight from an expert!
Beccy Smith BSc ADAEP EBW
Diploma in Advanced Applied Equine Podiatrist and Independent Equine Podiatrist, Consultant and Therapist
CEO and Founder of 100% Non-Profit Community Interest Company Holistic Reflections CIC
We take an integrative and holistic approach to whole horse hoof and body health. We appreciate the relationship between body, limb and hoof and seek to address imbalances while positively influencing appropriate static and dynamic hoof balance and biomechanics.
Holistic Reflections CIC – a 100% non-profit organisation promoting wellbeing and resilience in people, horses and the environment - for the benefit of all.