Tips for Feeding Horses to Meet Nutritional Needs

How does an owner determine what a horse’s nutritional requirements are and just how much energy and protein they need to be feeding a particular horse? First, we need to assess the horse’s overall body condition and determine if they have adequate fat cover throughout their body. A horse should be in moderate condition, not too thin or too fleshy. Be sure to utilize the Henneke Body Condition Score system to determine the current state of your animal:

From here, we will assume a horse is in moderate body condition, a score of 4-6.

Then, take into consideration the amount of work a horse is in from light to very active, their growth stage, and whether or not they are in a reproductive stage. Look at the chart below to determine the basic needs of various horses:

Class DE (Mcal/day) CP (%)
Maintenance 17 10-12%
Growing 15-19 12-14%
Gestation 17-21 14-16%
Lactation 32 16%
Training 23-27 12-14%


What is DE: Digestible Energy

DE refers to the amount of energy, or calories, a horse receives from a particular feed. Energy is derived from three components in the diet; fat, carbohydrates, and protein. Digestibility is the extent that these components are absorbed by the animal through the digestive process. To calculate total digestible energy you measure the gross energy that goes into a horse minus what comes out (feces) and you are left with the amount of energy that was digested by the horse.

What is CP: Crude Protein

Protein is vital for growth and maintenance of all horses, the amount needed will vary among class of horse. Protein is made up of amino acids, once protein is consumed by the horse it is broken down into amino acids in the small intestine to then be recombined to make needed muscle, hair, and hoof growth. A feed higher in protein does not mean that feed is higher in overall energy, horses actually derive little energy from the breakdown of proteins as compared to fats and carbohydrates. Horses that are growing or in the last trimester of gestation typically need higher protein as they are actively laying down new tissue. Feeding horses more protein than they need means expensive urine as the excess protein is excreted as urea in the urine.

What else might influence the nutritional needs of your horse?

  • Temperament- some horses require more energy due to their demeanor.
  • Age- we discussed the increased needs of a growing horse, older horses might also have increased needs to maintain body condition.
  • Breed- a pony will have lower requirements as compared to a draft horse.

How much to feed?

In order to determine just how much your horse should be eating each day, you will need to use some simple math. Any other method would be a guess, and you could be over or under feeding your horse. More often I find people are overfeeding their animals and can save money by doing these simple calculations. The first piece of the puzzle is determining how much your horse weighs. Without access to a large scale, this may seem difficult. Good news, you can calculate a pretty close weight estimate with just a weight tape or simple tailor tape measure and this equation:

Body weight in pounds = (Heart girth in inches x Heart girth in inches x Length in inches) / 330

*Measure from point of shoulder to point of the rump.

The idea of “forage fed and grain finished” should be the forefront of decision making when evaluating the equine diet. Forage and pasture can provide a significant portion of the nutrition required for most classes of horses, however, under many circumstances some of this forage inevitably must come in the form of hay. If pasture management is prioritized and stocking rates are adequate, horses can consume 1.5-2.0% of their body weight with full time grazing; which satisfies many classes of nutritional requirements (notably digestible energy and crude protein) for various horses such as those at maintenance, in light to moderate exercise, and even early-mid gestation.

If hay is the primary forage, a scale will come in handy to weigh your hay in order to properly meet a particular horse’s forage needs. Each bale of hay will offer flakes that vary in weight, a dense flake of alfalfa is no weight comparison to a flake of coastal bermudagrass hay. If possible, test your hay or ask for a hay analysis from your hay producer in order to properly assess the quality of the hay, this is the only way to know how close you are to meeting your horse’s nutritional requirements from the above table with forage alone.

If you need to rely on grain for added energy or protein in your horse’s diet, be sure you are accurately measuring the amount of grain you are giving your horse. Feed companies base the labels of their feed on the weight fed, meaning, the nutrition claimed on the feed tag is only going to be derived by your horse if you are feeding it at the label rate. Feeding below the label recommendations might mean your horse is not getting the energy, protein, or added vitamins and minerals to meet their needs. We measure grain based on weight NOT volume, “one scoop” means nothing when determining how much to feed. That one scoop of oats will weigh a different amount than one scoop of pellets or one scoop of hay cubes.

There is a simple way to utilize any unit of measure (coffee can, feed scoop, old bucket, etc.) to properly feed grain to your animals. We call it a kitchen scale! First weigh your unit of measure so you can subtract this weight from the object with feed. This will tell you in pounds how much feed one scoop, can, or bucket actually is. From here you can use this to feed your horse according to the feed label.

There are many resources available to help you develop a diet for your horse. Keep in mind, it is always best practice to treat each horse as an individual and know that nutritional needs will vary among your herd.

Forage testing labs:

  • UF/IFAS Forage Lab-
  • Waters Agricultural Lab-





Posted: April 15, 2020

Category: Agriculture, Livestock, UF/IFAS Extension
Tags: Equine Nutrition, Farm, Forage, Horse Hay, Horses

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