The Different Types of Horse Feed: Which Feed Should you Give Your Horse?

by | Feb 15, 2019 | Blog

Walking into a feed shop can be a bewildering experience for the new horse owner. The shelves are absolutely stocked with bales of hay, bags of grain in huge varieties, supplements that all claim to have some or another magical effect. If you listen to the salespeople, you’ll end up feeding your horse twenty different things. But what does your horse actually need? Which type of feed will suit him? Read on to find out.

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The Two Subtypes of Feed

When we’re designing the horse’s daily ration, our first task is to categorize the two main types of food your horse will consume. These categories are known as roughage and concentrates. Roughage includes hay – such as timothy, alfalfa, or bermuda grass – and grass (grazing). This is the type of food that your horse would naturally eat in his wild state; thus, it’s best for his digestive system to consume vast amounts of roughage compared to concentrates. Concentrates are the grains and cereals that we feed our horses once or twice a day. In previous years, the different types of grains were often fed separately – such as oats, barley, corn, or bran. These days, many different feed companies manufacture concentrate mixes that are specifically tested and formulated to achieve a certain goal. These mixes are made by qualified nutritionists, and so it’s generally advisable to take advantage of their skill and feed a professional mix rather than attempting to balance a diet of straight grains yourself.

Feeding Roughage

The important thing about calculating your horse’s ration is to get the roughage:concentrate ratio right. Horses, especially native or pony types, in little or no work often do very well on roughage alone, perhaps with a vitamin and mineral supplement or balancer if the hay fed is not very green. Working, growing, breeding, or aged horses will need some help in the form of concentrates. However, the roughage should never make up less than 60% of your horse’s diet. Hay should preferably be fed ad lib – as much as your horse will eat. Overweight horses can be fed in a slow feeder to prevent them from engorging themselves while still providing something to nibble on 24/7. Natural Grazing Net Bag - for Better Digestion & Absorption

slow feeder

Choosing a Concentrate Feed

Now that you’ve established how much concentrate your horse should eat, let’s look at the different types of feed that might be suitable for your horse. Firstly, there are a variety of different brands of horse concentrate available, depending on the country that you live in. Examples of brand names include Nutrena, Capstone, or Purina. Feeds are rarely available internationally, so your choice of brand will depend on the country you’re in. A general rule of thumb is that cheaper feeds are not worth the risk – many are poorly formulated and can even be dangerous to your horse, while at best, they do not pack the nutritional punch that the higher quality feeds do. Feeding cheap concentrate can be penny-wise, pound-foolish; you might be paying less per kilogram, but end up feeding two or three times more than if you’d chosen a quality feed. All brands of horse feed generally have a few different formulas available. If the feed is quality, vitamins and minerals will be present in good balance in both, so the most important nutrients to look at when choosing a specific type are fats, carbohydrates and proteins. These may include: Breeding or growing mixes – These are generally 14-16% protein, as well as containing large amounts of carbohydrates, potentially in the form of corn. Breeding mixes are formulated specifically for growing horses and pregnant and/or lactating broodmares. The high protein provides for the young horse to grow or for the mare to grow her foal; high energy maintains condition. These mixes are outstanding for broodmares or for unbacked youngsters, but they can be disastrous for horses in work due to the high energy content, which can make them as wild as a kid on a sugar kick. Just because your five-year-old is growing doesn’t mean he needs to be on a breeding mix! Show or performance mixes – Also usually high in protein (about 13-14%), these mixes are relatively high in energy, but generally do not contain large amounts of corn – they contain some carbohydrates but also a fair amount of fats for slow-releasing, non-heating energy. They are designed to support the horse in heavy work by providing the necessary protein to build muscle tone and repair working tissues, as well as enough fast- and slow-releasing energy for hard work. For a happy hacker, however, this mix will prove too much. The horse will have excess protein in its diet and will likely also become hot and difficult to manage. “Cool” mixes – These mixes contain primarily fats instead of carbohydrates for slow-releasing energy that is more likely to help the horse gain condition instead of becoming hyperactive. Their protein percentage is also quite low (10-12%). Designed for the horse in little or no work, these mixes are generally more affordable as well, and they allow the horse to maintain weight without becoming difficult to ride for the novice or occasional rider. High-performance horses will not be able to build sufficient muscle on these mixes, however, and they are unsuitable for rapidly growing horses. Youngsters aged five to eight years old in light to moderate work should do well enough on this type of feed provided their muscle tone is closely monitored.

Feeding Concentrates

Having chosen the type of concentrate that’s right for your horse, remember that grains are unnatural for the horse’s digestive system. They are safe to feed, but they must be treated with respect. Some golden rules of concentrate feeding include: • Always feed your horse at the same time every day. • Make all changes to feeding schedules slowly. • Ensure feeding utensils are kept hygienic (this includes your feed bins, which must be ratproof). Lockable Storage Feed Bin

Lockable Storage Feed Bin

• Feed according to weight, not volume – know the weight of your feed scoop. 3-Quart Enclosed Feed Scoop

feed scoop

Feeding Supplements

A wide variety of supplements are available, each claiming to have some or another magical effect on your horse. Don’t get sucked into that rabbit hole. Many supplements are useful, but others – even natural ones – do have contra-indications and can unbalance your feed ration. The supplements that have proven useful are highly specific. Generic vitamin and mineral supplements should not be necessary if your ration is correctly balanced; a balancer is a better idea if your hay or grazing is of low quality. Devil’s claw is a popular supplement to support joints, but it can aggravate gastric ulcers; MSM is a safer ingredient. Finally, fenugreek has proven useful in the treatment of gastric ulcers and support of the digestive system.


When calculating a ration for your treasured equine, use the advice of a professional nutritionist. Your local feed merchant will be able to help you.

About The Author

<a href="" target="_self">Firn Hyde</a>

Firn Hyde

I'm a young horsewoman living in a tiny home on a horse farm in South Africa with three dogs, two pigs, a longsuffering man, and God's grace. I run a stableyard and compete in dressage with two kind geldings who keep me happy and a psychotic mare who keeps me humble. For the past two years, I've been writing for a living, and I enjoy every opportunity to combine my two passions.

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