Energy Needs Of Horses Vital In Feeding Management
By Donald Stotts

STILLWATER - Eating well is not always eating safely; horse managers who ignore that lesson when feeding their animals may be creating digestive problems for their horses.

"Many feeding management recommendations for horses are related to supplying energy safely," said Dave Freeman, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension equine specialist.

One source of energy that horses rely on is fiber. Hays and pastures supply energy in the form of fiber. Typically, horses should have access to pastures, hays or coarsely processed forage at minimum levels of 0.75 percent of body weight per day.

"Long-stem forage has many advantages: intake is slower, generally it can be fed free choice and it guards against feeding too much carbohydrate energy because hays are low in starches and sugar," Freeman said.

On the other hand, grains are low in fiber. They supply large amounts of carbohydrates (starch) as compared to forages. If allowed free access, most horses will consume enough grain to cause digestive upset. The most common problem with equine over-eating is the consumption of too much starch in a single feeding.

"Grains vary in the amount of starch; for example, corn has more starch per pound than oats," Freeman said. "Knowing the energy concentration of the grain mix will assist in determining the amount of ration that is needed to supply a horse's energy needs."

Generally, the higher the fiber content, the lower the digestible energy content. Crude fiber estimates on feed tags can provide useful information in this regard. Additionally, added-fat feeds will raise or maintain the energy level of feeds while reducing the amount of starch.

Horses in a positive energy balance will store energy as fat. Body fat is reduced when the ration does not provide sufficient nutrients to maintain energy balance. Accurate assessment of a horse's fat cover allows for visual appraisal of the animal's energy status.

"In general, most horses should be fed a balanced ration at levels that produce moderate to fleshy body condition, thus avoiding extremely thin or obese conditions," Freeman said.

Routine assessment of each horse's body condition is necessary because horses in similar production and weight classes will vary in their nutrient needs.

Freeman said while horse managers commonly group together horses in similar production and weight classes, animals in abnormally high or low body condition may need to be separated further to help ensure the individual needs of each animal are met.

"Once horses are grouped, horse managers need to assess energy sources, levels and utilization of feedstuffs," Freeman said.

Freeman said it is important that changes in intake level and the physical form of rations be done gradually, the recommended time period being several days to weeks. This practice allows a horse's digestive tract time to adapt to different levels and physical forms of nutrients.

"Gradual changes are especially important when feeding energy-dense rations," Freeman said. "Grain amounts should be increased incrementally when changes in management require an immediate need for additional energy; increasing grain one-half pound every two to three days until the energy balance is met is a common recommendation."

The technique also is useful when introducing horses to pastures with large amounts of lush forage. Simply limit access for several days.

One method many horse managers find useful is to feed horses by the weight of the ration rather than its volume. Feeding by weight will decrease the chance of overfeeding because of differences in weight per volume of different feeds and different processing methods. For example, corn weighs more per volume than oats, and pelleted feeds weigh more per volume than textured feeds.

"Horse managers need to weigh feed periodically to ensure accurate monitoring of intake by horses," Freeman said. "This is especially important when changing feed sources; one of the most common causes of digestive upset is overfeeding energy in a single session because differences in weight of grain mixes were not taken into account."

Freeman said processing also typically increases digestibility of hard-seed coat grains and assists in intake of ingredients with different particle sizes in a mix.

Pelleting, micronizing, flaking, rolling, cracking, wafering and extruding are examples of processing methods that are considered acceptable by the horse industry.

"Small-seed grains with hard-seed coats such as milo and wheat should be processed to increase utilization of ingredients," Freeman said. "The benefit of processing soft-seed coated grains, such as oats, is much less." Freeman said horses with poor denture conformation may benefit more from processed food than other animals. This is often a consideration with older horses.

Also, the value of processing is increased when feeding large quantities of grain to horses with limited capacity, such as rations fed to growing horses to obtain maximum gain.

"In many ways, the horse's digestive physiology is best suited for a continuous low-level supply of feed," Freeman said. "However, management, housing and production needs dictate that most horses are meal-fed."

To meet the requirements of both horse and owner, Freeman suggested grain mixes should be split into two daily feedings when the daily amount of grain exceeds 0.5 percent of the animal's body weight (five pounds for a 1,000-pound horse).

"Those feeding grain to horses at levels of one percent or greater of the animal's body weight should consider splitting amounts into three portions per day," Freeman said.

In any case, meal feedings should be separated as much as possible, 10 to 12 hours between morning and evening feedings for two daily meals being a common recommendation.

courtesy of Oklahoma State University

Equiworld.Com Copyright Equiworld 2005. Equiworld is a registered trademark in the UK and/or other countries. Equiworld, Hayfield, Aberdeen, Scotland, AB15 8BB

To submit equestrian news items to Equiworld please visit,

To submit links to horse web sites please visit,

Updated: October 2005.