A Guide to Equine Feeding and Maintenance

Horse nutrition

The right type of nourishment acts as a base for all activities carried out by horses, so a proper nourishment plan is a must for both a horse’s health and performance. In other words, you can aid a horse to reach peak performance by taking care of the necessary forage, vitamins, minerals and amino acids.

Non-racing horses can get by on a simpler diet than horses trained to compete

Finding the right kind balance in both the diet and training regime of each horse separately requires a special skillset. A horse needs different dietary mix depending on their age, level of activity and other factors, with racing horses you must ensure that they are receiving sufficient amounts of energy. On the other hand too much energy in the wrong form or poor quality grains can cause muscle and behavioural issues. An unwillingness to comply often premeditates the lack of a certain supplement or illness.

The muscles of racing horses require different supplements than their non-racing equivalents. Often they also require supplements in higher quantities. Blood samples can be taken from racing horses in order to find out any potential nutritional deficiencies and other issues precisely. A horse’s diet needs to be planned out carefully in order for the horse to prepare for and recover from races and for the horse to develop in between. Horses are elite athletes just like human beings. A horse and its needs must be tended to in order to get the best possible performance at exactly the right moment. A racing coach has once said that a happy horse runs faster. In any equine sport, a healthy and interactive relationship between a horse and human is a precondition when going for peak performance. The ability to perform is of course a prerequisite, but a horse’s mental health is just as important. Mental health issues may cause a horse to refuse to perform.

Is your horse receiving the right concentrated feed, roughages and complimentary feed?

What can be done in cases of stomach problems and irritable bowels?

Is your horse experiencing problems with their joints?

Is your horse stressed before racing or during long distance travel?

Is your horse receiving enough amino acids for the daily strain and growth?

Horse reading is one of the key attributes in the stables

Equine sports are a way of life for many. Some people raise horses purely for their own leisure as a hobby while for others a horse is a tool. No matter the reason for owning or caring for them, horses need to be treated well, which adds up to a healthy diet and physical and mental well-being. Horses are individuals just like people. What is suitable for one may not be suitable for the other.

A horse has its own way to communicate its needs. Horse reading is extremely important, but other details may be needed to get the whole picture. The horse’s manure may provide many clues of any nutrient deficiencies. In addition to feces, clues to deficiencies may also show up in a horse’s hair coat.

Tip: The next time you are cleaning the stables, have a look at your horse’s manure. Visible grains in the dung mean that they have passed through the horse’s digestive system without any nutrients being absorbed from them.


The functioning of a horse’s stomach and bowels impact the whole horse

Healthy bowels enable nutrients to be absorbed efficiently and a horse to retain its stamina. The digestion of the feed occurs in the small intestine and the large intestine. Each horse is an individual and there are differences in each digestive system and small and large intestine.

The central part in the digestive process is the small intestine, where most of the nutrients are absorbed. The remaining nutrients are then absorbed in the large intestine. Stress can slow down the digestion process, which in turn can cause constipation. The feed should contain a sufficient amount of fiber so that is passes smoothly through the intestine.

The digestion of the feed in the large intestine is carried out by bacteria that also receive their nutrition from the feed. The bacteria break down fibres, starches and proteins that provide fatty acids as a by-product. These acids provide a horse 30 percent of their entire energy needs.

stomachThe bacteria of a horse provide a majority of vitamin B, as well as vitamin C and vitamin K in the large intestine, when the intestine is healthy and the feed is appropriate.

Read more about how the bowels function

The amount of bacteria in the large intestine depends on the mix of the feed and how nutritious it is. Any dietary changes should always be done gradually in steps so that the functioning of the intestine does not suffer. The bacteria in the intestine are hampered by acidity that can be caused by excessive starch. For instance, Barley and corn contain more starch than oats. This can cause symptoms such as bloatedness, diarrhea and lower levels of activeness.

Besides bacterial and dietary issues, a horse can suffer from poorly performing bowels due to the actions of humans. A horse must not have trained with a stomach that is too full or empty.

Find Hoof’s complimentary feed for the stomach and digestive system here

Roughages & concentrates

Roughage is the main feed of a horse and it must always be of good quality

There are two types of feed:

Roughages, such as meadow grass, hay and silage that are all high in fibre content

Concentrates, such as grains that are high in protein and carbohydrates

. (Read more about complimentary feeds) Variations of the mix in concentrate feed are minimal, while roughages can vary a lot.

The hygiene and nutritiousness impact the quality of the roughages

Roughages with poor hygienic quality can contain various moulds, yeasts, dust, soil and bacteria, which can give the horse bowel diseases, respiratory problems and allergies amongst other issues.

The quality of the nutrients depends on how the feed is farmed and harvested, successful storing, the climate, soil and the raw material used. As the hay gets older the amount of vitamins it contains decrease. Hay that remains on the field long after it has been harvested has lost a lot of vitamins. The poor quality of roughages can cause a deficiency of nutrients, which harms the development of foals, the milk production of mares and the performance of race horses. Feed of poor quality can cause harm the functioning of the intestines and problems with the joints.

Concentrates contain nutrients that roughage cannot provide.

Concentrates such as grains, nuts and seeds are fed to the horse whole or ground either separately or mixed into the roughages as a balanced meal.

Concentrates come as both high in carbohydrates and high in protein.

Concentrates high in carbohydrates include corn, barley, wheat, oats and rye. The grains’ contain a large amount of energy not a lot of protein. Rye is not used in horse feeding as it causes indigestion.

Concentrates high in protein include soy beans, cottonseed, peanuts, linseed, rapeseed, coconut, palm oil, sunflower seeds

Grass and oats

A horse’s standard feed in Finland is hay and oats

A horse’s intestine slows down if the feed contains too many concentrates and not enough roughage. At least half of a horse’s daily feed should be roughages, the optimal amount of roughage is between 60 percent and 90 percent of the feed, depending on what the horse is used for. Following this the optimal amount of concentrates is noticeably smaller, between 10 percent and 40 percent of a horse’s daily feed.

Oats is the most common horse roughage in Finland due to it being farmed extensively. A horse burns off the starch in oats faster than with other grains. Oats also contain more fats than other grains. A horse should not be given more than 4-5 kg of oats a day.

The daily amount of hay a horse should receive depends on each horse’s characteristics, its type and what it is used for;

At least 1 kilo for each 100 kg of weight

Optimal amount is usually 1,5 kilos for each 100 kg of weight

Maximum recommended 2 kilos for each 100 kg of weight

Supplementary feeds

The diet must be balanced; different kinds of complimentary feed form an essential part of a horse’s meal

Complimentary feeds are a powder or liquid that is mixed into the daily feed of a horse or livestock to balance out certain deficiencies in the feed. Like humans, animals can use synthetic or naturally occurring supplementary nutrients that can both prevent and fix nutrient deficiencies. Good nourishment comes from high quality raw materials and forage.

Complimentary feed is used to increase the minerals, trace elements, fatty or amino acids or vitamins received by a horse or cattle in order to maintain a nutritional balance. Some complimentary feed contains matter that the body needs for the normal functioning of the joints, muscles and the digestive system. Complimentary feed can also be used when a horse’s need for nutrients increases due sports performance, hard labour, pregnancy or growth. They can be resorted to when a horse’s hooves or coat are in poor condition or when a horse experiences muscle stiffness or bowel issues.

The three main types of nutrients are presented next in order to understand their significance. These three main types are amino acids, minerals and vitamins. All three are essential for the care and wellbeing of a horse.


Amino acids act as building blocks for proteins in a body of a horse

Proteins are vital organic compounds that are constructed from one or more chains of amino acids. The body of a horse contains 65 percent water and 20 percent proteins. Horses without sufficient amounts of amino acids are likely to suffer from deficiencies that can lead to numerous health problems. A horse needs amino acids for muscle performance and growth, maintaining their vitals, producing milk, pregnancy and to produce anti-bodies.

Pregnant and feeding mares and race horses especially need amino acids in their feed on top of other forage. Amino acids are also important for foals under a year old that have a need to grow their tendons, body mass and connective tissue.

Eating wild forage can provide a sufficient amount of amino acids for some horses but it depends on the purpose of the horse. The levels of raw protein and amino acids of the forage may be too low, and do not fill the daily need. The horse doesn’t store protein sourced nutrients if it has received insufficient amino acids, in these cases the calories contained in the proteins are stored as fat.

A horse needs 20 different kinds of amino acids of which it can produce ten by itself. The rest are known as essential amino acids, of which the main ones are lysine and methionine.

Lysine deficiency is the most common form of deficiency for amino acids and it cannot be formed from other amino acids within a horse, while hay and oats contain relatively little lysine.

Methionine is an amino acid that contains sulphur, which helps maintain connective tissue, skin and tendons. A horse produces methionine cysteine that is used is the building blocks of Keratin. Keratin is the essential protein in the hooves and coat.

Essential amino acids are needed to build tissue and to fix cells, which occurs when muscles recover from stress. The right quantity of acids combined with the right kind of diet helps a horse improve its physique and recover from stress, labour or a race. That is why the right balance of amino acids is essential when a horse needs to be kept in the best possible shape.

Signs that a horse is not receiving enough amino acids include loss of appetite, decrease in performance or the production of milk, stalled growth of the hooves and decrease in the condition of the coat.

See Hoofs amino acids here


A lack of minerals can cause growth deficiency in foals and brittle and broken bones in adult horses

Minerals and trace elements are inorganic elements, which are irreplaceable construction materials for a horse’s bones and connective tissue. They also help the body perform essential functions. A balanced diet of minerals and trace elements is important as they work in tandem. A deficiency or surplus of one mineral harms the absorption and use or another.

The main minerals for horses are Calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium chloride, potassium and sulphur. They help maintain bone density and health and the performance of muscles and the nervous system as well as maintain the growth of the hooves and coat.
Necessary trace elements are iron, zinc, copper, selenium, iodine and cobalt. These elements improve the absorption of nutrients, maintain the metabolism and joints tissue of a horse and help the horse’s red blood cells transport oxygen to the muscles.

The amount of trace elements required depends on the horse’s age, breed, weight, climate and laboriousness of its chores. Sufficient trace elements in a diet is especially important for horses that experience high levels of stress, such as show horses, race horses, horses in transit and during illness.
Salt is a necessary supplement and it can be added to the diet through a salt lick on the pasture or by offering salt in a separate container. A horse cannot regulate its own need of salt, so its consumption must be monitored. The amount of salt consumed increases when a horse sweats. Constant drinking and urinating are usually signs of excessive salinity.

The most important ratio in a horse’s diet for strong muscles and bones is the ratio of Calcium to phosphorus (Ca:P). As a general rule the ratio of Ca:P should be between 1,2:1 and 2:1 depending on the age and usage of the horse. Growing foals and feeding mares require more calcium. Diets where the ratio of phosphorus to calcium (P:Ca) exceeds 1:1 parity can lead to issues in the bone structure, especially for growing foals.

Adult horses around 1,4:1

Growing foals 1,8:1

Feeding mares 1,6:1

See Hoofs minerals and trace elements here


A good rule of thumb is to take care of vitamins A, B, C, D and E

The liver of a horse produces vitamin C, while the bacteria in the large intestine produce most of the vitamin B if the intestine is functioning properly and the feed is nutritious. The performance of the intestine can be impaired, in which case vitamins should be provided through complimentary feed. The need of vitamins may increase due to changes in diet, strain, changes in environment, pregnancy, rapid growth, extensive training and racing as well as other stress factors.

The vitamin recommendations for a horse vary depending on whether the vitamins are meant to prevent a certain deficiency in the diet or whether the recommended vitamins are designed to fulfill all the needs of the horse. Vitamin requirements are unique for every horse. The vitamin recommendations for every country vary to account for the local climate and soil. In the Nordic countries the vitamin requirements fluctuate greatly between seasons. As the year progresses deeper into winter a horse will retrieve less and less vitamins from hay and oats. This means, special attention should be given to vitamin requirements during the indoor feeding season.

It is thought that only around 20 to 30 percent of the vitamin B produced in the intestines is absorbed by the horse. However, most types of vitamin B are produced in sufficient quantity in the intestines. Despite this, race horses in particular may require supplementary vitamin B as it aids the energy production in muscles, the work of the nervous system and metabolism. Foals can often develop vitamin B deficiencies as their digestive system has not fully developed. The need for vitamin B is emphasized in all horses during illness, stress, digestive problems, receiving antibiotics, changes is coating and when aging. Poor quality hay and too much concentrate feed can also increase the need for vitamin B.

Vitamins are divided into water soluble ones (vitamin B, C) and fat soluble ones (A, D, E, K) depending on how they dissolve and are stored in the horse’s body. Fat soluble vitamins are stored in the fatty tissue, liver and kidneys, while water soluble vitamins aren’t stored at all but pass through the body and are discharged in the urine.

See Hoof´s vitamins here

Fat soluble vitamins A, D and E are recommended to provided daily during the indoor feeding season in the Nordics.

Vitamin A improves immunity, metabolism, eyesight, mucous membranes, skin condition and reproductive functions. Supplementary vitamin A should be provided to foals and pregnant mares especially. Vitamin requirements also increase slightly from strain, but greater deficiencies are rare as vitamin A stores well and goes a long way.

Vitamin D is obtained from sunlight so deficiencies in the Nordics occur especially during the dark periods. Vitamin D is an extremely important part of bone growth in foals. Deficiency prevents ossification and the skeleton may remain brittle, causing back pains amongst other issues. Extensive training of a horse also increases the need for vitamin D.

Symptoms of vitamin E deficiency are not visible, so its consumption must be monitored

Vitamin E is the most important vitamin as horses cannot store it very well. Vitamin E acts as a natural antioxidant supporting the immune system under strain. The vitamins main task is to protect the cells and their mediums from oxidation caused by free radicals, unstable chemical compounds. Active muscle cells are very susceptible to the damage done by free radicals, which is why foals, brood mares and race horses need more vitamin E than on average to maintain normal muscular and nervous functions and to prevent illnesses related to these.

Adding vitamin E to the horse’s diet is highly recommended during the indoor feeding season in the Nordics and also during summer if a horse does not receive fresh grass as its main feed.

See Hoof´s vitamin E supplements here

Vitamin K affects the clotting of blood and the forming of bones. This vitamin is especially required for foals and during illness and when receiving antibiotics. Vitamin K deficiencies are rare as it is formed naturally in a horse’s intestines through microbe activity.

A healthy and well-nourished horse produces vitamins B and C themselves

In addition to acting as an antioxidant, vitamin C helps with the absorption of iron. This vitamin also acts as a catalyst for producing collagen, that cartilage, tendons and connective tissue require for maintenance and development. Vitamin C also helps maintain the horse’s immunity and aids the healing process. Vitamin C impacts the well-being of a horse on a broad spectrum.

The horse produces the necessary vitamin C from glucose in the liver, but this production can be disrupted due to stress or illness. Vitamin C is poorly absorbed in the large intestine so a horse needs all the vitamin C it produces. Vitamins B and C are water soluble so excess vitamins are discharged through urine. This means possible excess consumption is not harmful.

See Hoof’s vitamin C supplements here

Vitamins B1 and B2 are extremely important in the metabolization of fats, proteins and carbohydrates

Vitamin B1, known as thiamine impacts the functioning of the enzyme system, which greatly affects a horse’s performance. It also impacts the nervous system and soothes horses suffering from stress. In normal conditions a horse’s own micro-organisms will produce enough vitamin B1 themselves. Race horses should receive supplements.

Vitamin B2, known as riboflavin aids the functioning of the enzyme system that handles carbohydrates, amino acids and fats. This vitamin has an important role in relation to growth and health and its strongly associated with energy production and eye sight. Foals are dependent on supplementary vitamins until their own bacteria starts producing vitamin B2.

Vitamin B3, known as niacin and nicotinic acid, partakes in different stages of the metabolism and energy production. It also impacts the health of the skin and eyesight. Symptoms of deficiency normally show up as lack of appetite and diarrhea. Niacin is only stored in the body for a day after which it disappears. Deficiency does not cause severe symptoms and usually a horse will not require vitamin B3 supplements if their diet is in order.


Vitamin B7 (vitamin H), known as biotin helps protein absorption and grows the hooves and improves their quality. This vitamin is also necessary for the growth of cells, production of fatty acids and the metabolism. Deficiency can cause tiredness, skin problems and a weak appetite. Biotin is formed in a horse’s intestines but this may be insufficient for a horse in active labour.

In conjunction with vitamin B12 and vitamin C, Folic acid takes part in the production of hemoglobin for red blood cells, which is especially important for horses under heavy strain. Folic acid also aids protein metabolization and is essential for the growth and renewal of tissue.

Vitamin B12 is the only vitamin B that doesn’t occur naturally in plants, so a horse must receive it either through their own bacteria or from complimentary feed. Red blood cells, certain amino acids and the hooves of horses need vitamin B12 as building blocks. Vitamin B12 also contains sulphur that foals needs in order to grow.

See all of Hoof’s vitamin B options here

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