“Healthy animals need a healthy diet to maintain health. Sick, injured or ill animals need a healthy diet to optimise healing capability. Performance animals need a healthy diet for optimum performance and stamina. Young animals need a healthy diet for optimum growth and development. Older animals need a healthy diet to preserve their faculties and energy levels. Each species, whether furry, hairy, scaly or  feathered, needs a healthy, fresh species-suitable diet for optimum health.

In our opinion, manufactured diets and feeds are neither a natural option nor a healthy one, in most cases (see below). They serve a commercial purpose extremely well, however, which is not likely to be the top priority for an animal carer who is bent on optimising an animal’s health and longevity.” Chris Day – Alternative Veterinary Medicine Centre.


Your Horses nutrition is literally the cornerstone of maintaining a healthy horse physically and mentally over the long term. If things aren’t right at this “grass-roots” level then you will likely over time see problems developing in other areas too.

One of the areas that is often a good indication of how your horse is doing nutritionally is his skin and hooves. The skin is the largest organ in the body, yes thats right its an organ!!Part of its role is to excrete and rid the system of any toxins. If the skin, coat and hooves aren’t healthy its a good indication that the nutrition available may not be exactly right.

Its a huge topic and sadly its a minefield of information from sources, namely feed manufactures who likely have a degree of ulterior-motive, in that they want to make sales and for you to buy their products…


So where do you start

First you need to have an understanding of the horses origins and how his digestive system has developed and the foods he is optimized to eat. Not suggesting that it is possible to return them to their “natural state” and in fact the moment we confine them in any way (yes even in a 30 plus acre paddock they are still confined) or indeed have any aspirations to ride/work or use them then we will need to deviate to ensure we are meeting the requirements of the lifestyle they are living and the environment they are confined to.

The ancestors of our modern horses were animals of the vast open plains. This environment consisted of huge amounts of varied and essentially low quality high fibre forage (compared to modern “improved” pasture which most of us find ourselves reliant on). They would be required to travel large distances daily to meet their water and nutritional needs and they would be grazing little and often almost continually up to 16-20 hours per day. Their intestinal system has therefore developed to operate in this way to process large amounts of high fibre low quality forage on an almost continual basis. Whilst also at the same time their bodies being in almost continual movement and motion.

Horses are completely dependent upon fibrous forage to maintain a healthy digestive system and metabolism. Their dentition is specialized to grind this fibrous food and their very large hind gut is essentially a massive fermentation vat that utilises bacteria to digest the fibre aren’t ruminants like cattle and other livestock so the way they digest food is also different. They are officially classified as non-ruminant herbivores actually sitting between a true non-ruminant and a ruminant.

There’s two big considerations that we need to take out of this, one is the fact the foundation of our horses diets should be forage and this should be available at all times. The second is that our horses systems were also designed to be in almost constant motion not confined or relatively immobile for extended periods of time, this is something I will talk about more in another section of my holistic management ideas. But it will have a baring on how you are able to feed your horse. Movement and exercise are important factors in your horses health and well-being and they cannot be separated from diet and health. For example if you are dealing with weight issues, remember to consider increased exercise & movement if tackling this not just restricting and reducing feed availability further.



Now you know to base your diet on forage you need to know how to access your horses requirements. To do this there are several factors to take into consideration:

  1. Weight: You must as accurately as possible work out your horses current weight. This is probably most easily done with a weigh tape as you will need to check and monitor this regularly. I have a blog post giving more information if you have never done this before. Sadly in the UK there are a huge number of over weight horses, which is in essence hugely unhealthy (the same as it is for people), it will put additional strain on the horses organs and skeletal system, it is therefore your duty as his care-giver to try and ensure that they remain at a healthy weight and do not become obese.
  2. Condition: This really goes hand in hand with the weight measurement. You need to critically observe your horse and assess his condition (again a blog post gives further details is you have not done this before). Is he overweight, under weight or just right? This will obviously affect slightly how you work out what you feed your horse. If he is overweight you will need to be feeding the lower range of the maintenance recommendations (ideally working with your vet to healthily diet him, which should be a gradually and slow process as to severely restricting food to a horse for any amount of time can have serious long term consequences, gastric ulcers, etc. If he is underweight then you will perhaps need to feed a little more. I tend to see some variation in my horses weight throughout the year all within the healthy range for his size and breed, but I would expect my horses to be at the bottom end of the range by the end of winter (I’m not talking underweight & malnourished, just trim and “fit”) and that likely in summer they will be towards the top end of their healthy range (again this is not to say they are at all overweight or obese). By allowing this fluctuation it means that each year any fat soluble toxins that may be stored in fat deposits can be shed annually before they build up again, which may well help to keep a horse healthier over the long term.
  3. Type: You’ve probably all heard the term “good-doer”. Well this is really what I am referring to here, some horses are just better at surviving on less, generally your good doers would encompass most ponies and also warmbloods they are likely to be at the lower end of the feed requirements. Some breeds are far more likely to require a slightly larger ration thoroughbreds for example on the whole seem to take a bit more feeding and likely to be on the upper end of the feeding requirements. But each horse is an individual so these are guidelines only and you will need to monitor and assess your horse as such.
  4. Work Load: As owners we often chronically over exaggerate the amount of work we think our horses are doing and therefore the amount of food we think they require. This is probably one of the major reasons that so many horses are over weight and over fed in the UK. So what is a demanding or high work load? Work load can be roughly split into 4 categories: Very heavy work: consisting of racehorses or similar energy requirements; Heavy Work: 3 day eventers, endurance horses completing 70-100mile rides; moderate work: Horses competing regularly at Grade A showjumper level, Medium level dressage, novice/intermediate eventer; Light Work is everything below this, any form of more recreational riding and also at the lower levels and beginnings of training programs.  It has far more to do with the intensity of the workload not the regularity or the length. I could ride my horse 6 days a week for an hour a day out hacking or light schooling mostly walking with stretches of trot and canter and this still not require more then a maintenance feeding ration. You need to constantly assess the weight and condition and adjust feed accordingly, as you begin to increase your workload if he’s starting to loose some weight or condition increase the ration a little, if he’s starting to put on weight or condition decrease it.


Maintenance Ration: 

Suitable as a foundation for feeding most horses and ponies, unless they are breeding stock, young, old, in heavy work or suffering from disease, which would all require a more tailored individual approach.

You will be looking to feed between 2 -2.5% of your horses body weight daily. So for a 500Kg horse this would be a range of 10Kg-12.5Kg daily. This amount is to include everything they eat: grass, hay and any additional bucket feed.

For most horses in light to moderate work they may well be perfectly happy and healthy for 100% of this to come from forage and an appropriate vitamin and mineral balancer. This is where you should begin. Only if your horse cannot maintain condition would you start to reduce the forage & replace with additional feed-stuffs (or alternate forage that is higher energy). The amount of forage should never drop below 70% of the total requirement but ideally you want it as close to 100% as possible.


Long fibre or Forage: 

This should be the foundation of your horses diet and for many horses it will be more then enough to provide for their requirements.

There are 2 main types of forage:

Fresh Forage: In the form of grasses, herbage and anything else horses may forage from the paddocks and hedgerows. The more varied the species available in terms of grass varieties, herbage and even certain trees the more likely you are to reach a point where the diet is rich enough to fulfill the full nutritional needs of the horse in terms of vitamin and mineral availability. Medieval pasture used to consist of over 27 varieties of grass, flower and herbs, sadly modern pasture lays are lucky to have over 7. A variety will also use the soil more effectively with deeper rooting species able to access and release minerals from the deeper soil strata.

Conserved Forage: in the form of hay or haylage or dried chops. Some people also utilise some straw varieties as well, although I would be concerned about this mainly in relation to the huge amount of chemicals that are used in modern farming & how much of this residual is left on the straw that is then consumed. Conserved forage as with the fresh forage is obviously better if it is a rich mixture and variety of species and even herbage. The same of course is true of hay and selecting hay that is “organic” and hasn’t been exposed to sprays and nitrogen fertilizer is obviously the ideal, even better if it is proper meadow hay full of a variety of grasses and herbage.


Mineral Balancing or a “Forage Balancer” 

The only thing I would initially add to the diet is a quality balanced vitamin and mineral supplement to cover any shortfall that is likely to result from the forage you have available.

There are several ways of approaching this depending on your situation probably the ideal is to test your soil/grass and conserved forage to find out exactly what you have available to your horse. Once you have these results you can work with someone to balance your horses dietary needs more precisely.

I consult with Roger Hatch at Trinity consultants for my supplementation this has the added advantage of him offering a bespoke tailored service and he is also exceptionally useful should you have any “disease” or problem you may be trying to overcome with your horse be it behavioral or physical. Imbalances in the diet can & do often play a huge role in both causing & “curing” both but are unfortunately often overlooked by “modern medicine”.

If you do choose a more off the shelf option be aware that one product can not balance the diet for every horse in the country despite their claims. Mineral availability will vary from place to place and even from field to field and even from year to year so be aware of this and be prepared to be a detective and work a bit of trial and error to see what works.

Mineral balancing is a huge subject to try and cover here, if you are interested to learn more I will post and share additional resources and articles in the blog on the website, by clicking the picture at the bottom of the page you will link through to them. Suffice to say that imbalances will have far reaching effects on your horse from condition of coat and hooves to limitations in performance abilities, behavioral problems too the extreme of ultimately “disease” and weakened immune systems. So it is an important subject to be taken seriously and considered thoroughly when managing your horse and his health holistically.


If that’s Not enough: 

First you might like to consider a move to a higher energy forage this would be the ideal. Dried grass products or alfalfa such as those produced by Simple systems are a great place to start and often more then enough to make up any shortfall.

If that really isn’t enough other options in order of preference would be to add the following to the ration.

Oil: cold-pressed not solvent extracted. this is absorbed in the small intestine so doesn’t negatively affect the fermentation in the hind gut. A little can go a long way and you are still able to feed plenty of forage so that the horse is able to maintain the ability to eat for 16-20 hours a day.

Non-molassed Sugar Beet Pulp: High fibre content with a good digestibility, less risk of disturbances to the hind gut then with cereals.

Beyond this you are into feeding more prepared mixes or straight grains which need to be added carefully and over time and should really be a last resort. Do your research if you are feeding any of these know what the ingredients are and be aware of any additional nasties that may have been added as a cheap filler. Also be aware that prepared mixes/cubes often have added vitamins and minerals which will then mean you need to re-visit what balancer you are using so as not to over supply.


Last Thoughts:

The horses gut is a living organism in its own right and changes need to be made gradually to allow this environment to react and adapt. It can take as long as 10 days for the gut to fully adapt to any diet changes so they should be done gradually and time should also be allowed to assess whether significant progress has been made before further changes are instigated.


Educating yourself is the key there’s a few online courses that might be of interest, I have no affiliation to either other then I have personally found them interesting.

The university of Edinburgh runs a very basic free online course through Coursera on an annual basis.

For a more in depth study of nutrition and mineral balancing look at Dr Kellon’s NRC Plus online course.


To read more on Nutrition click on the picture below to view articles and blog posts not his website.


Nutrition Articles and Blog Posts