Feed requirements of horses
The nutritional needs of horses will depend on age, growth, activity, health and environment. Correct nutrition is important for both health and performance.
Creating a feed budget for a day will tell you how much feed you will need for your horse(s) per day/week/month, and then you can estimate how much feed you will need and an approximate cost to feed them until the next Spring.
To create a feed budget, there are 6 steps you need to take:
Estimate the weight and condition score of each horse (refer Condition Scoring and Weight Estimation of Horses or use a weigh tape).
Separate your horses into categories (refer columns 1 and 2 of Table 1).
Determine the nutritional needs of each horse (refer Table 1).
Ascertain the nutritive values of common feeds (see Table 2).
Determine how much feed each horse can consume daily. This enables you to calculate if certain feeds can be consumed in sufficient quantities to provide the required nutrition.Horses are able to consume about 1.5 - 2% of their body weight in dry feed (feed that is 90% dry matter) each day, (ie 1.5 - 2 kg per 100 kg of the horse's body weight). However it is safer to use 1.7% of body weight (or 1.7 kg per 100 kg of body weight) to calculate a feed budget, to ensure that the horse can consume the full amount of feed each day.
To calculate how much feed each horse can consume daily, use the following example:
1.7 (% of bodyweight) x 500 (kg horse) = 8.5 kg max feed
(In this example the horse weighs 500 kg, so it can safely consume up to 8.5 kg of dry feed per day.)
Calculate a feed budget for each horse:
- Note energy requirement of horse using Steps 1, 2 and 3.
- Note energy content of feedstuffs in Step 4.
- Calculate the horse's maximum feed intake (Step 5).
- Match horse energy needs to energy supplied by type of feed. (Use example calculations at end of this Agnote).
- Ensure the horse can consume enough feed (is the feed amount equal to or below your calculation in Step 5?)
- Ensure that at least 70% of the feed is roughage (hay, pasture or chaff).
Note 1: Ensure the horse has free access to good quality water to drink.
Note 2: Ensure protein requirements are met, refer table 2 for protein content in various feeds. Protein-rich supplements, such as lupins or soybean meal, can be added to increase protein content of the feed.
Note 3: With cold wet weather maintenance feed levels increase and decrease to normal requirements as it becomes warmer.
Note 4: When lucerne hay is the main feed used, a phosphorous supplement may be needed to balance the high level of calcium present in lucerne hay. Consult an equine nutritionist for further information.
Note 5: Introduce changes to feed gradually, over 3-5 days, as a sudden change in diet can cause colic or laminitis.
Note 6: Where an increase in horse body weight is required, a maximum of 10% increase in feed amount should be used. More than this amount could be detrimental to the horse. Visual appearance of body weight gain can take several months.
Note 7: Concentrates such as grains should make up a maximum of 30% of a horse's diet, and should be introduced gradually.
Hint 1: Addition of a vitamin and mineral supplement is recommended to ensure a balanced diet.
Hint 2: Maintain a dental and worming program to enable the horse to process the feed efficiently.
Hint 3: Vegetable oil (or canola, corn or sunflower oil) can be used to add extra fat to the diet. As a guide, 250 ml (1 metric cup) of oil is roughly equal to 2.5 kg oats. No more than 500 ml (2 cups) of oil should be fed per day. Introduce oil into diet slowly (50 ml increase per day until desired daily amount is reached). Mix into feed just before feeding to avoid rancidity. Oils can also help to minimize dust levels in the feed.
Hint 4: Prepared horse feeds can be incorporated into a feed budget by reading the label and factoring in the energy (MJME or DE) and protein content.
Table 1. Daily energy and protein requirements for different categories of horses. (from Nash, 1999).
|Type of Horse||Mature weight|
|Daily gain liveweight|
|Digestible energy (DE)|
18 months old
2 years old
Table 2. Nutritive values of common feeds. (adapted from Nash, 1999, Kohnke, 1999 and Huntington et. al. 2004).
Energy as fed
Perennial ryegrass (summer)
Perennial ryegrass (winter)
Annual pasture (summer)
Annual pasture (winter)
Example feed budgets
Combinations of feeding lucerne hay, pasture hay and oats for horses of different weights.
Assume: Meadow hay = 7 MJME/kg (protein 90g/kg)
Lucerne hay = 8 MJME/kg (protein 170g/kg)
Oats = 12 MJME/kg (protein 90g/kg)
See detailed calculations of example budgets below.
400 kg horse, maintenance
Requires 56 MJME per day
Requires 563 g protein per day
Max dry feed intake/day 7 kg (approx)
Scenario 1: Feeding 100% lucerne hay:If lucerne hay = 8 MJME / kg, (170 g protein / kg)
- Convert MJME requirement to kg:
Daily horse MJME requirement (69)
Feed MJME / kg content (8) = 8.6 kg hay per day.
- Protein calculation:
Kg hay (8.6) x protein content (170) = 1462 g
Is this horse able to eat 8.6 kg hay per day? Yes.
Does the protein meet the horse's needs? Yes.
Scenario 2: Feeding 90% Lucerne hay and 10% oats
If lucerne hay = 8 MJME / kg, (170 g protein / kg)
If oats = 12 MJME / kg, (96 g / kg)
- Calculate horse's energy requirement of each feed type:
Hay: 90% of 69 (horse daily MJME requirement)
= 62 MJME per day in lucerne hay, minimum.
Oats: 10% of 69
= 7 MJME per day in oats, maximum.
- Convert above MJME requirements to kg:
Hay: Horse MJME requirement (62)
Feed MJME/kg content (8) = 7.8 kg hay daily
Oats: Horse MJME requirement (7)
Feed MJME/kg content (12) = 0.6 kg oats daily
7.8 + 0.6 = 8.4 kg total feed per day.
- Protein calculation:
Kg hay (7.8) x protein content (170)
+ Kg oats (0.6) x protein content (90) = 1380 g protein.
Can this horse eat 8.4 kg feed per day? Yes.
Does the protein content meet the horse's needs? Yes.
The calculations and figures in this document vary between horses and feedstuffs. It is recommended to obtain a feed analysis to ensure accurate estimation of nutrient content. A qualified equine nutritionist or an equine veterinary practitioner should be consulted for advice specific to your needs.
Other factors that may contribute to a horse's weight gain/loss include amount of available pasture, palatability of feeds, horse health and metabolism, weather conditions and wastage of feed.
Feed budgets can provide guidelines only. Constant re-assessment of the horse's condition needs to be made to ensure the feed quantity and nutrient content matches the horse's requirements.
Important points to remember when feeding horses
- Provide fresh, clean water at all times. Ponies may require 15 litres/day and horses 30 litres/day. These requirements can double in hot weather or when the horse is being exercised.
- Feed twice a day. Small frequent feeds are better than a once daily feed.
- Provide plenty of roughage. Roughage aids digestion and satisfies hunger.
- Only feed good quality feed. Avoid musty or mouldy material.
- Treat horses regularly for worms. Consult with your veterinarian for a suitable regime.
- Provide access to a salt lick.
- Avoid feeding on the ground. Feeding on the ground can lead to increased ingestion of worm larvae.
- If feeding a number of horses, make sure there is enough space for every horse to have access to the food and that no horse is missing out.
- Check horses teeth regularly.
If unsure about any aspect of your horse's requirements or your proposed feed budgets it is suggested that you contact one of the following for expert advice:
- Contact us or consult the Agriculture Victoria website
- An equine veterinary practitioner
- An equine nutritionist (there are a number of qualified equine nutritionists in Victoria associated with major horse feed companies).
Thank you to Dr Charles El-Hage for his assistance with this document (c/o University of Melbourne Equine Centre, Victoria, Australia).
Nash, David. (1999) "Drought Feeding and Management for Horses" RIRDC publication No 99/98, Australia.
Stubbs, A. (1998) "Healthy Land, Healthy Horses" RIRDC publication No 98/137, Australia.
Kohnke, J. (1999) "Feeding Horses in Australia - a Guide for Horse Owners and Managers" RIRDC publication No 99/49, Australia.
Crandell & Huntington, "Dietary Fat – Friend or Foe?" Kentucky Equine Research, Australia, www.ker.com.
Huntington, P., Myers, J. and Owens, E. (2004) Horse Sense, the Guide to Horse Care in Australia and New Zealand (2nd ed). Landlinks Press, Collingwood, Australia.