Owning a horse for the first time can be a daunting experience. No doubt you’ll have plenty of questions about how to look after your new pet, including how to maintain their shelter, bedding and crucially, how to feed them.
A good diet is fundamentally important to the happiness and well being of your horse. Just like humans, they need the right balance of protein, vitamins, minerals and fibre to function properly and remain healthy. A horse’s digestive system is no less complex than that of humans.
The discipline of feeding horses can be a complicated one and there are many useful books available on the subject. However, basic feeding can be quite simple. Broadly speaking, horse feeds can be broken down into two categories – forage and cereals.
Forage is bulky, high fibre, low starch feeds such as hay, grass and chaff. It’s an extremely important part of your horse’s diet as it not only helps maintain the digestive system but it keeps them occupied too. Your horse will spend approximately 75% of their time eating/chewing and indeed horses have a psychological need to chew. Without forage to satisfy this natural behaviour drive, your horse could start causing damage to their stable or shelter. Forage is also important for saliva production and the fermentation of forage in the large intestine produces heat needed for maintaining the correct body temperature.
You should allow your horse constant access to forage – whether it’s grass or hay – but try to monitor how much they eat as too much can lead to weight problems. Because horses have relatively small stomachs in proportion to their size, they should eat little and often. If your horse spends a large amount of time stabled, you can leave a basket/net of hay for them to gnaw on throughout the day if access to grass is limited. However, if you can, try to turn your horse out daily as grass is a highly succulent form of forage – containing up to 90% water. Carrots, apples and sugar beet are other popular snacks to provide succulent forms of forage.
Cereals are starch rich, high energy grains like oats, maize and barley. They are typically produced by feed companies as a concentrated food mix to supplement forage. Whilst they can be a decent form of nutrients, they should really only be given to horses who carry out significant daily activity or for animals who need to gain weight. Cereals feeds can be significantly more expensive than the staple forms of forage, so check with your vet whether it is strictly necessary for your animal to receive regular cereal feeds.
Even if you have been advised to feed your horse cereal, it is crucial you do not feed them too much. Cereal feeds tend to be extremely starchy and when digested in the large intestine, the fermentation produces a lot of acid. If too much acid is produced it can have serious consequences and cause health problems like stomach ulcers. If you have been advised to feed cereal to your horse, there are a number of steps you can take to ensure proper digestion – these include feeding them a healthy dose of forage before intake (to slow down the passage of food) and diluting the concentrate with chaff.
Just like humans, water is absolutely essential to the physiology of a horse and you should always make fresh, clean water available to your horse. If your horse cannot get access to regular water they will soon stop eating. It is optimal for horses to drink little and often, particularly during and straight after eating (less important if they are eating high water concentrate forage like grass). Make sure your horse’s water bucket is cleaned out and replaced daily – keeping it secure so your animal cannot kick it over easily.
If there are elements about feeding your horse that you are still unsure about, it is advisable to consult your vet. For more tips about feeding and general equine maintenance check out this useful blog on the subject – http://www.horsefeedblog.com