Feeding horses

All animals need adequate nutrition to maintain health. Horses with poor pasture or little pasture will lose weight and body condition. Animal owners have a duty of care to provide adequate nutrition and clean drinking water. If your pasture can’t supply the required nutrition, horses will need to be supplemented or fully hand fed.

A horse’s body condition can be scored on the following scale:

  1. Poor
  2. Moderate
  3. Good
  4. Fat
  5. Very fat

Once a horse reaches a condition score of 2 - Moderate, it will need feeding to maintain health and return to an optimum condition of 3 - Good.

Body condition score 1 – Poor
graphic of horse with body condition score of 1 


  • Sunken rump
  • Prominent poverty line in hind quarters
  • Cavity under tail
  • Ribs prominent
  • Prominent backbone and croup
  • Ewe neck, narrow and slack
Body condition score 2 – Moderate
graphic of horse with body condition score of 3 


  • Flat rump either side of backbone
  • Poverty line still visible
  • Ribs just visible
  • Narrow but firm neck
  • Backbone well covered
Body condition score 3 – Good
 


  • Rounded rump
  • Ribs just covered but easily felt
  • No crest, firm neck
Body condition score 4 – Fat
graphic of horse with body condition score of 4 


  • Well-rounded rump
  • Gutter along back
  • Ribs and pelvis hard to feel
  • Slight crest on neck
Body condition score 5 – Very fat
graphic of horse with body condition score of 5 


  • Very bulging rump
  • Deep gutter along back
  • Ribs buried
  • Marked crest on neck
  • Folds
  • and lumps of fat

Source: Animal health and disease investigation: for stock inspectors and animal managers (1998)

Similar descriptors apply for other animal species as well. For example horse, sheep, goats, alpacas—palpate if excessive wool or hair impacts visual assessment.

Knowing your horse’s weight is a good guide to its dietary requirements for maintenance. The weight of a horse can be estimated by its height and body condition score.

Height

Condition score

Hands

cm

1

2

3

4

5

12

120

190

210

250

300

360

13

130

240

285

345

375

455

14

140

310

330

400

460

540

15

150

380

420

465

535

600

16

160

420

470

520

575

650

Source: Estimating a horse’s condition and weight (2009)

  • Feed quality

    Generally the best options for feeding horses for maintenance is a good quality hay. If hay quality is lower, a grain or pellet supplement may be used. Roughage for horses should be at least 50% of the ration if a mix is used. The quality of hay varies widely. The energy in feed is measured in megajoules per kilogram (MJ/kg). Quality is also affected by protein levels of the feed. Cane tops can vary greatly in quality and are not recommended as a horse feed.

    Feed type

    Energy (MJ/kg)

    Crude protein (%)

    Oats

    10

    6–12

    Horse pellets

    10

    8–20

    Grass hay

    6

    5–10

    Lucerne

    8.5

    16–25

    Oaten hay

    7

    5–10

    Straw (barley, wheat, oats)

    5

    3–5

    Cane tops

    5

    5

    Adapted from Nash d. 1999 et al.

  • How much to feed for maintenance only

    Horses eat between 1.75 to 3% of their bodyweight each day, e.g. depending on its size, whether it is still growing, in foal or has a foal at foot.

    A horse will generally eat about 2.5% of its bodyweight each day for maintenance. A horse in work will have higher dietary requirements. For maintenance a horse will need:

    Weight (kg)

    Feed requirements (kg) dry matter

    MJ energy

    400

    10.0

    56.1

    500

    12.5

    68.6

    600

    15.0

    81.2

    Cost for full feeding a horse for 30 days
    Feed prices current at 17 January 2020

    Horse weight and the amount of hay they need

    Grass hay
    $700/t

    Lucerne
    $900/t

    Oaten hay
    $500/t

    Straw
    $350/t

    Pellets 50% and straw 50%
    $1000/t and $350/t

    400 kg

    10 kg/day + 10% = 11 kg

    $231

    $297

    $165

    NA

    $222

    500 kg

    12.5 kg/day + 10% = 13.75 kg

    $288

    $371

    $206

    NA

    $253

    600 kg

    15 kg/day + 10% = 16.5 kg

    $346

    $445

    $247

    NA

    $303

    NA = straw fed as a full diet will not provide enough nutrition

    For example, if you have a 500 kg horse in a paddock with no pasture, it will need to eat roughly 12.5 kg of hay every day. If you have lucerne bales that weight 25 kg and cost $30, you will need to feed the horse half a bale a day. Fifteen bales a month at $30 will cost $450.

    Water

    A horse will drink between 25 to 50 litres of water a day depending on temperature and the moisture content of the feed. If horses become dehydrated, they are more susceptible to developing colic. The water needs to be of good potable quality. Shade should be available.

  • Other things to consider when feeding horses

    • It is better to start feeding horses while there is still some pasture in the paddock.
    • Horses have a single stomach and cannot digest the lower quality feed that cattle and sheep can eat.
    • Make changes to a horse’s diet gradually over 5 to 7 days.
    • Talk to a veterinarian before attempting to supplement with any unusual foodstuffs.
    • Feed horses in poor and very poor body condition on just good quality hay for at least the first two weeks. Ideally, split into smaller feeds throughout the day. For more information read the ‘How to feed starved horses’ fact sheet.
    • Consider the feed requirements of all animals if group feeding, e.g. ponies versus large horses.
    • Old horses may need special, additional feeding (often due to teeth) to maintain condition.
    • Horses of any age with teeth problems may struggle to eat enough.
    • Competition between horses for feed – horses need adequate feeding space or to be separated at feeding time to avoid injuries.
    • Hungry horses will eat things they normally wouldn’t, e.g. poisonous plants.
    • Slow feeder hay nets can help reduce feed waste.
    • Overall horse health.

Water

A horse will drink between 25 to 50 litres of water a day depending on temperature and the moisture content of the feed. If horses become dehydrated, they are more susceptible to developing colic. The water needs to be of good potable quality and shade should be available.

Forecasting pasture

In the subtropics, summer rainfall largely determines how much pasture grows before the end of the pasture growing season, in autumn. Higher or lower summer rainfall gives higher or lower pasture yield for carrying stock for the year ahead. For most graziers, the paddock feed and water supplies available in April or May have to last until next summer. Many graziers comment on the benefits of moving early in the year to adjust stock numbers according to pasture supply.

Generally the aim is to let stock eat about 30% of the useful feed which is available at the end of the summer growing season (or 15–20% in low rainfall environments). For example, if there is 3000 kg dry matter per hectare (ha) of useful pasture, then 30% x 3000 kg = 900 kg of useful feed per hectare. If a cow eats around 9 kg of dry matter a day, then there is about 100 days grazing per hectare; or 200 days grazing per 2 ha; or 365 days grazing per 3.65 ha. It is ideal to do these dry season pasture budgets each autumn to adjust stock numbers according to pasture availability. Winter rain may grow some high moisture, high quality herbage but usually not a significant bulk of dry matter feed.

References:

Condition scoring and weight estimation of horses, Agriculture Victoria 

Estimating a horse’s condition and weight, NSW Department of Primary Industry

Drought feeding and management for horses, Agriculture Victoria

Animal health and disease investigation: for stock inspectors and animal managers, Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (1998)

More information: