Horses are non-ruminant herbivores of a type known as a "hind-gut fermentor." This means that horses have only one stomach, as do humans. However, unlike humans, they also have to digest plant fiber (largely cellulose) that comes from grass and hay. Therefore, unlike ruminants, who digest fiber in plant matter by use of a multichambered stomach, horses use microbial fermentation in a part of the digestive system known as the cecum (or caecum) to break down the cellulose.
In practical terms, horses prefer to eat small amounts of food steadily throughout the day, as they do in nature when grazing on pasture. Although this is not always possible with modern stabling practices and human schedules that favor feeding horses twice a day, it is important to remember the underlying biology of the animal when determining what to feed, how often, and in what quantities.
The digestive system of the horse is somewhat delicate. Horses are unable to regurgitate food, except from the esophagus. Thus, if they overeat or eat something poisonous, vomiting is not an option. They also have a long, complex large intestine and a balance of beneficial microbes in their cecum that can be upset by rapid changes in feed. Because of these factors, they are very susceptible to colic, which is a leading cause of death in horses. Therefore, horses require clean, high-quality feed, provided at regular intervals, and may become ill if subjected to abrupt changes in their diets.
Horses are also sensitive to molds and toxins. For this reason, they must never be fed contaminated fermentable materials such as lawn clippings. Fermented silage or "haylage" is fed to horses in some places; however, contamination or failure of the fermentation process that allows any mold or spoilage may be toxic.
The esophagus carries food to the stomach. The esophagus enters the stomach at an acute angle, creating a one-way valve, with a powerful sphincter mechanism at the gastroesophageal junction, which is why horses cannot vomit. The esophagus is also the area of the digestive tract where horses may suffer from choke. (see Illnesses related to improper feeding below)
The small intestine is long and holds to . This is the major digestive organ where 50 to 70 percent of all nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream. Bile from the liver acts here, combined with enzymes from the pancreas and small intestine itself. Equids do not have a gall bladder, so bile flows constantly, an adaptation to a slow but steady supply of food, and another reason for providing fodder to horses in several small feedings.
The large colon, small colon, and rectum make up the remainder of the large intestine. The large colon is long and holds up to of semi-liquid matter. Its main purpose is to absorb carbohydrates which were broken down from cellulose in the cecum. Due to its many twists and turns, it is a common place for a type of horse colic called an impaction. The small colon is also long, holds about , is the area where the majority of water is absorbed, and where fecal balls are formed. The rectum is about one foot long, and acts as a holding chamber for waste, which is then expelled from the body via the anus.
An average horse drinks to of water per day, more in hot weather, when eating dry forage such as hay, or when consuming high levels of salt, potassium, and magnesium. Horses drink less water in cool weather or when on lush pasture, which has a relatively higher water content. When under hard work, or if a mare is lactating, water requirements may be as much as four times greater than normal. Though they need a great deal of water, horses spend very little time drinking; usually 1-8 minutes a day, spread out in 2-8 episodes.
Water plays an important part in digestion. The forages and grains horses eat are mixed with saliva in the mouth to make a moist bolus that can be easily swallowed. Therefore, horses produce up to or 85 lb. of saliva per day.
Carbohydrates, the main energy source in most rations, are usually fed in the form of hay, grass and grain. Soluble carbohydrates such as starches and sugars are readily broken down to glucose in the small intestine and absorbed. Insoluble carbohydrates, such as fiber (cellulose), are not digested by the horse's own enzymes, but are fermented by microbes in the cecum and large colon to break down and release their energy sources, volatile fatty acids.
Soluble carbohydrates are found in nearly every feed source; corn has the highest amount, then barley and oats. Forages normally have only 6 to 8% soluble carbohydrate, but under certain conditions can have up to 30%. Sudden ingestion of large amounts of starch or high sugar feeds can cause at the least an indigestion colic, and at the worst potentially fatal colitis or laminitis. Protein is used in all parts of the body, especially muscle, blood, hormones, hooves, and hair cells. The main building blocks of protein are amino acids. Alfalfa and other legumes in hay are good sources of protein that can be easily added to the diet. Most adult horses only require 8 to 10% protein in their diet; however, higher protein is important for lactating mares and young growing foals.
Horses that are not subjected to hard work or extreme conditions usually have more than adequate amounts of vitamins in their diet if they are receiving fresh, green, leafy forages. Sometimes a vitamin supplement is needed when feeding low-quality hay, if a horse is under stress (illness, traveling, showing, racing, and so on), or not eating well. Grain has a different balance of nutrients than forage, and so requires specialized supplementation to prevent an imbalance of vitamins and minerals.
Minerals are required for maintenance and function of the skeleton, nerves and muscles. These include calcium, phosphorus, sodium, potassium, and chloride, and are commonly found in most good-quality feeds. Horses also need trace minerals such as magnesium, selenium, copper, zinc and iodine. Normally, if adult animals at maintenance levels are consuming fresh hay or are on pasture, they will receive adequate amounts of minerals in their diet, with the exception of sodium chloride (salt), which needs to be provided, preferably free choice. Some pastures are deficient in certain trace minerals, including selenium, zinc and copper, and in such situations, health problems,including deficiency diseases, may occur if horses' trace mineral intake is not properly supplemented.
Calcium and phosphorus are needed in a specific ratio of between 1:1 and 2:1. Adult horses can tolerate up to a 5:1 ratio, foals no more than 3:1. A total ration with a higher ratio of phosphorus than calcium is to be avoided. Over time, imbalance will ultimately lead to a number of possible bone-related problems such as osteoporosis.
Foals and young growing horses through their first three to four years have special nutritional needs and require feeds that are balanced with a proper calcium:phosphorus ratio and other trace minerals. A number of skeletal problems may occur in young animals with an unbalanced diet. Hard work increases the need for minerals; sweating depletes sodium, potassium, and chloride from the horse’s system. Therefore, supplementation with electrolytes may be required for horses in intense training, especially in hot weather.
Equids can consume approximately 2% to 2.5% of their body weight in dry feed each day. Therefore, a . adult horse could eat up to 25 pounds of food. Foals less than six months of age eat 2 to 4% of their weight each day.
Solid feeds are placed into three categories: forages (such as hay and grass), concentrates (including grain or pelleted rations), and supplements (such as prepared vitamin or mineral pellets). Equine nutritionists recommend that 50% or more of the animal's diet by weight should be forages. If a horse is working hard and requires more energy, the use of grain is increased and the percentage of forage decreased so that the horse obtains the energy content it needs for the work it is performing. However, forage amount should never go below 1% of the horse's body weight per day.
Legumes such as clover or alfalfa are usually higher in protein, calcium, and energy than grasses. However, they require warm weather and good soil to produce the best nutrients. Legume hays are generally higher in protein than the grass hays. They are also higher in minerals, particularly calcium, but have an incorrect ratio of calcium to phosphorus. Because they are high in protein, they are very desirable for growing horses or those subjected to very hard work, but the calcium:phosphorus ratio must be balanced by other feeds to prevent bone abnormalities.
Hay is a dried mixture of grasses and legumes. It is cut in the field and then dried and baled for storage. Hay is most nutritious when it is cut early on, before the seed heads are fully mature and before the stems of the plants become tough and thick. Hay that is very green can be a good indicator of the amount of nutrients in the hay; however, color is not the sole indicator of quality - smell and texture are also important. Hay can be analyzed by many laboratories and that is the most reliable way to tell the nutritional values it contains.
Hay, particularly alfalfa, is sometimes compressed into pellets or cubes. Processed hay can be of more consistent quality and is more convenient to ship and to store. It is also easily obtained in areas that may be suffering localized hay shortages. However, these more concentrated forms can be overfed and horses are somewhat more prone to choke on them. On the other hand, hay pellets and cubes can be soaked until they break apart into a pulp or thick slurry, and in this state are a very useful source of food for horses with tooth problems such as dental disease, tooth loss due to age, or structural anomalies.
Haylage, also known as Round bale silage is a term for grass sealed in airtight plastic bags, a form of forage that is frequently fed in the United Kingdom and continental Europe, but is not often seen in the United States. Because haylage is a type of silage, hay stored in this fashion must remain completely sealed in plastic, as any holes or tears can stop the preservation properties of fermentation and lead to mold or spoilage. Rodents chewing through the plastic can also spoil the hay introducing contamination to the bale.If a rodent dies inside the plastic, the subsequent botulism toxins released can contaminate the entire bale.
Sometimes, straw or chaff is fed to animals. However, this is roughage with little nutritional value other than providing fiber. It is sometimes used as a filler; it can slow down horses who eat their grain too fast, or it can provide additional fiber when the horse must meet most nutritional needs via concentrated feeds. Straw is more often used as a bedding in stalls to absorb wastes.
Whole or crushed grains are the most common form of concentrated feed, sometimes referred to generically as "oats" or "corn" even if those grains are not present, also sometimes called straights in the UK.
Oats are the most popular grain for horses. Oats have a lower digestible energy value and higher fiber content than most other grains. They form a loose mass in the stomach that is well suited to the equine digestive system. They are also more palatable and digestible than other grains.
Corn (USA), or maize (British English), is the second most palatable grain. It provides twice as much digestible energy as an equal volume of oats and is low in fiber. Because of these characteristics, it is easy to over-feed corn, causing obesity, so horses are seldom fed corn all by itself. Nutritionists caution horse owners that moldy corn is poisonous if fed to horses.
Barley is also fed to horses, but needs to be processed to crack the seed hull and allow easier digestibility. It is frequently fed in combination with oats and corn, a mix informally referred to by the acronym "COB" (for Corn, Oats and Barley).
Wheat is generally not used as a concentrate. However, wheat bran is sometimes added to the diet of a horse for supplemental nutrition, usually moistened and in the form of a bran mash. Wheat bran is high in phosphorus, so must be fed carefully so that it does not cause an imbalance in the Ca:P ratio of a ration. Once touted for a laxative effect, this use of bran is now considered unnecessary, as horses, unlike humans, obtain sufficient fiber in their diets from other sources.
Soybean meal is a common protein supplement, and averages about 44% crude protein. The protein in soybean meal is high-quality, with the proper ratio of dietary essential amino acids for equids. Cottonseed meal, Linseed meal, and peanut meal are also used, but are not as common.
Vegetable oil is a common fat source added to a ration. Corn oil is particularly popular, but other oils are used as well. Rice bran is a very good fat supplement that contains 20% fat as well as fiber and other nutrients. Flax seed is another good source of fat, though it must be ground up for horses to digest it. Some commercial feed manufacturers now make products containing both flaxseed and rice bran.
There are hundreds, if not thousands of commercially prepared vitamin and mineral supplements on the market, many tailored to horses with specialized needs.
Most horses only need quality forage, water and a salt or mineral block. Grain or other concentrates are often not necessary. But, when grain or other concentrates are fed, quantities must be carefully monitored. To do so, horse feed is measured by weight, not volume. For example, of oats has a different volume than of corn. When continuous access to feed is not possible, it is more consistent with natural feeding behavior to provide three small feedings per day instead of one or two large ones. However, even two daily feedings is preferable to only one. To gauge the amount to feed, a weight tape can be used to provide a reasonably accurate estimate of a horse's weight. The tape measures the circumference of the horse's barrel, just behind the withers and elbows, and the tape is calibrated to convert circumference into approximate weight.
Actual amounts fed vary by the size of the horse, the age of the horse, the climate, and the work to which the animal is put. In addition, genetic factors play a role. Some animals are naturally easy keepers (good doers), which means that they can thrive on relatively small amounts of food and are prone to obesity and other health problems if overfed. Others are hard keepers (poor doers), meaning that they are prone to be thin and require considerably more food to maintain a healthy weight.
Veterinarians are usually a good source for recommendations on appropriate types and amounts of feed for a specific horse. There are also numerous books written on the topic. Feed manufacturers usually offer very specific guidelines for how to select and properly feed products from their company, and in the United States, the local office of the Cooperative Extension Service can provide educational materials and expert recommendations.
When beet pulp is fed, a ration of 2 to 5 pounds is usually soaked in water for 3 to 4 hours prior to feeding in order to make it more palatable, and to minimize the risk of choke and other problems. It is usually soaked in a proportion of one part beet pulp to two parts water. Beet pulp is usually fed in addition to hay, but occasionally is a replacement for hay when fed to very old horses who can no longer chew properly. It is available in both pelleted and shredded form, pellets must be soaked significantly longer than shredded beet pulp.
Some pelleted rations are designed to be a "complete" feed that contains both hay and grain, meeting all the horse's nutritional needs. However, even these rations should have some hay or pasture provided, a minimum of a half-pound of forage for every 100 pounds of horse, in order to keep the digestive system functioning properly and to meet the horse's urge to graze.
When horses graze under natural conditions, they may spend up to 18 hours per day doing so. However, on modern irrigated pastures, they may have their nutritional needs for forage met in as little as three hours per day, depending on the quality of grass available.
Recent studies address the level of various non-structural carbohydrates (NSC), such as fructan, in forages. Too high an NSC level causes difficulties for animals prone to laminitis or equine polysaccharide storage myopathy (EPSM). NSC cannot be determined by looking at forage, but hay and pasture grasses can be tested for NSC levels.
In general, the portion of the ration that should be grain or other concentrated feed is 0 to 10% grain for mature idle horses; between 20 to 70% for horses at work, depending on age, intensity of activity and energy requirements. Concentrates should not be fed to horses within one hour before or after a heavy workout. Concentrates also need to be adjusted to level of performance. Not only can excess grain and inadequate exercise lead to behavior problems, it may also trigger Equine Exertional Rhabdomyolysis, or "tying up," in horses prone to the condition.
Even a slightly dehydrated horse is at higher risk of developing impaction colic. Additionally, dehydration can lead to weight loss because the horse cannot produce adequate amounts of saliva, thus decreasing the amount of feed and dry forage consumed. Thus, it is especially important for horse owners to encourage their horses to drink when there is a risk of dehydration; when horses are losing a great deal of water in hot weather due to strenuous work, or in cold weather due to horses' natural tendency to drink less when in a cold environment. To encourage drinking, owners may add electrolytes to the feed, additives to make the water especially palatable (such as apple juice), or, when it is cold, to warm the water so that it is not at a near-freezing temperature.
Ponies and miniature horses are usually easy keepers and need less feed than full-sized horses. This is not only because they are smaller, but also, because they evolved under harsher living conditions than horses, they use feed more efficiently. Ponies easily become obese from overfeeding and therefore are at high risk for colic, Equine Metabolic Syndrome, and, especially, laminitis. Fresh grass is a particular danger to ponies; they can develop laminitis in as little as one hour of grazing on lush pasture.
It is important to track the weight of a pony carefully, by use of a weight tape. Forages may be fed based on weight, at a rate of about 1 pound of forage for every 100 pounds. Forage, along with water and a salt and mineral block, is all most ponies require. If a hard-working pony needs concentrates, a ratio of no more than 30% concentrates to 70% forage is recommended. Concentrates designed for horses, with added vitamins and minerals, will often provide insufficient nutrients at the small serving sizes needed for ponies. Therefore, if a pony requires concentrates, feed and supplements designed specially for ponies should be used. In the UK, extruded pellets designed for ponies are sometimes called "pony nuts.".
Like ponies, mules and donkeys are also very hardy and generally need less concentrated feed than horses. Mules need less protein than horses and do best on grass hay with a vitamin and mineral supplement. If mules are fed concentrates, they only need about half of what a horse requires. Like horses, mules require fresh, clean water, but are less likely to over-drink when hot.
Donkeys, like mules, need less protein and more fiber than horses. They do best when allowed to consume small amounts of food over long periods, as is natural for them in an arid climate. They can meet their nutritional needs on 6 to 7 hours of grazing per day on average dryland pasture that is not stressed by drought. If they are worked long hours or do not have access to pasture, they require hay or a similar dried forage, with no more than a 1:4 ratio of legumes to grass. They also require salt and mineral supplements, and access to clean, fresh water. Like ponies and mules, in a lush climate, donkeys are prone to obesity and are at risk of laminitis.
However, if treats are allowed, carrots and compressed hay pellets are common, nutritious, and generally not harmful. Apples are also acceptable, though it is best if they are first cut into slices. Horse "cookies" are often specially manufactured out of ordinary grains and some added molasses. They generally will not cause nutritional problems when fed in small quantities. However, many types of human foods are potentially dangerous to a horse and should not be fed. This includes bread products, meat products, candy, and carbonated or alcoholic beverages.
It was once a common practice to give horses a weekly bran mash of wheat bran mixed with warm water and other ingredients. It is still done regularly in some places. While a warm, soft meal is a treat many horses enjoy, and was once considered helpful for its laxative effect, it is not nutritionally necessary. An old horse with poor teeth may benefit from food softened in water, a mash may help provide extra hydration, and a warm meal may be comforting in cold weather, but horses have far more fiber in their regular diet than do humans, and so any assistance from bran is unnecessary. There is also a risk that too much wheat bran may provide excessive phosphorus, unbalancing the diet, and a feed of unusual contents fed only once a week could trigger a bout of colic.
It is also important to never give a horse feed that was contaminated by the remains of a dead animal. This is a potential source of botulism. This is not an uncommon situation. For example, mice and birds can get into poorly stored grain and be trapped; hay bales sometimes accidentally contain snakes, mice, or other small animals that were caught in the baling machinery during the harvesting process.