Feed requirements of horses

Correct nutrition is important for both health and performance of your horse. The nutritional needs of horses depend on:

  • age
  • growth
  • activity
  • health
  • environment.

Feed cost calculator

A simple way to determine feed costs is by using the Feed cost calculator on the DPI NSW website.

By creating a daily feed budget, you can calculate how much feed you will need for your horses, each day, week and month. Then you can estimate how much feed you will need, as well as an approximate cost to feed your horses until the next spring.

To create a feed budget specific to the weight and condition of your horse, there are 6 steps you need to take:

Step 1

Estimate the weight and condition score of each horse (refer to Condition scoring and weight estimation of horses or use a weight tape).

Step 2

Separate your horses into categories, refer columns 1 and 2 of Table 1:

Table 1. Daily energy and protein requirements for different categories of horses (from Nash, 1999)

Type of Horse Mature weight (kg) Daily live weight gain (kg/day) Digestible energy (MJ DE) Crude protein (g)

Weanling
(4 months)

400
500
600

0.85
0.85
1.00

56.5
60.2
69.0

675
720
825

Weanling
(6 months, moderate growth)

400
500
600

0.55
0.65
0.75

54.0
62.8
71.1

643
750
850

Weanling
(6 months, rapid growth)

400
500
600

0.70
0.85
0.95

60.7
72.0
80.3

725
860
960

Yearling
(12 months, moderate growth)

400
500
600

0.40
0.50
0.65

65.3
71.9
95.0

700
851
1023

Yearling
(12 months, rapid growth)

400
500
600

0.50
0.65
0.80

71.5
89.1
105.0

770
956
1127

18 months old

400
500
600

0.25
0.35
0.45

66.5
82.8
100.00

716
893
1077

2 years old

400
500
600

0.15
0.20
0.30

64.0
78.7
98.3

650
800
998

Maintenance

400
500
600

 

56.1
68.6
81.2

563
656
766

Pregnant
(9 months)

400
500
600

 

62.3
76.1
90.0

654
801
947

Pregnant
(10 months)

400
500
600

 

63.2
77.4
91.6

666
815
965

Pregnant
(11 months)

400
500
600

 

67.4
82.4
97.5

708
866
1024

Lactating
(foaling to 3 months)

400
500
600

 

95.8
118.4
141.0

1141
1427
1711

Lactating
(3 months to weaning)

400
500
600

 

82.4
101.7
120.9

839
1048
1258

Step 3

Determine the nutritional needs of each horse using Table 1.

Step 4

Ascertain the nutritive values of common feeds using Table 2:

Table 2. Average nutritive value of common feeds (adapted from Nash, 1999, Kohnke, 1999 and Huntington et al. 2004).

Feed type Energy as fed
(MJ DE/kg)
Average energy content, as fed
Crude protein
(g/kg)
Average energy content, as fed

Wheat

14

114

Triticale

13

140

Maize

14

90

Barley

13

100

Lupins

14

300

Peas

14

230

Oats

12

90

Tick beans

13

255

Lucerne hay/chaff

8

170

Clover hay

8

120

Meadow/grass hay

7

90

Oaten hay/chaff

7

80

Cereal straw

5

40

Perennial ryegrass (summer)

9

100

Perennial ryegrass (winter)

12

220

Phalaris (summer)

9

100

Phalaris (winter)

12

220

Annual pasture (summer)

5

70

Annual pasture (winter)

10

150

Step 5

Determine how much feed each horse can consume daily.

You can then calculate if certain feeds can be consumed in sufficient quantities to provide the required nutrition.

Horses are able to consume about 1.5 to 2% of their body weight in dry feed (feed that is 90% dry matter) each day. As a rule of thumb, allow 1.5 to 2 kg of feed 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. This is 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 formula:

weight of horse (kg) x percent of bodyweight / 100

For example, for a 500 kg horse with an intake limit of 1.7 % of its body weight:

500 x 1.7 / 100 = 8.5 kg feed that can be safely consumed each day

Step 6

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. (Using example calculations at end of this page).
  • 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).

Important notes

Note 1: Ensure the horse has free access to good quality water to drink.
Note 2: Ensure protein requirements are met, refer to table 2 for the 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 to 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.

Handy hints

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, 250ml (1 metric cup) of oil has roughly the same energy content as 2.5 kg oats. No more than 500ml (2 cups) of oil should be fed per day. Introduce oil into diet slowly (50ml increase per day until desired daily amount is reached). Mix into feed just before feeding to avoid rancidity. Oils can also help to minimise 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 (MJ ME or DE) and protein content.

Example feed budgets

Steps 1-3. Horse weight and nutritional needs

For a 400 kg horse, with only maintenance requirements (not growing, pregnancy, lactating or in heavy work).

Referring to Table 1, this horse’s nutritional needs are:

  • Energy: 56 MJ ME per day
  • Protein: 563 g protein per day

Step 4. Nutritive value of the feeds available

Referring to Table 2, the nutritive values of the following feeds are:

  • Lucerne hay = energy: 8 MJ ME/kg, protein 170 g/kg
  • Oats = energy: 12 MJ ME/kg, protein: 90g/kg

Step 5. Daily intake limits

Using the intake limits formula, this horse’s maximum daily dry feed intake limit is:

400 x 1.7 / 100 = 7 kg (approx.)

Step 6. Balancing needs and supply

Scenario 1: Feeding 100% lucerne hay

  1. Calculate the amount to feed to meet energy needs
    Daily horse energy requirement = 56 MJ ME per day
    Energy content of the feed = 8 MJ ME/kg
    Amount to feed per day = 56 / 8 = 7 kg lucerne hay
  2. Calculate the amount of protein being fed
    Daily horse protein requirement = 563 g per day
    Amount of hay fed = 7 kg hay
    Protein content of the feed = 170 g/kg
    Amount of protein being fed = 7 x 170 = 1190 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

  1. Calculate horse's energy requirement from each feed type:
    Daily horse energy requirement = 56 MJ ME per day
    Energy required from hay = 90% of 56 = 56 x 90 / 100 = 50 MJ ME per day
    Energy required from oats = 10% of 56 = 56 x 10 / 100 = 6 MJ ME per day
  2. Calculate the amount of each feed type to feed Energy required from hay = 50 MJ ME per day
    Energy content of hay = 8 MJ ME Amount of hay to feed = 50 / 8 = 6.3 kg lucerne hay per day Energy required from oats = 6 MJ ME per day Energy content of oats = 12 MJ ME Amount of hay to feed = 6 / 12 = 0.5 kg oats per day Total amount being fed = 6.3 kg lucerne hay + 0.5 kg oats = 6.8 kg
  3. Calculate the amount of protein being fed
    Daily horse protein requirement = 563 g per day
    Amount of protein from hay = 6.3 kg fed x 170 g/kg protein content = 6.3 x 170 = 1071 g from hay
    Amount of protein from oats = 0.5 kg fed x 90 g/kg protein content = 0.5 x 90 = 45 g from oats
    Total amount of protein being fed = protein from hay + protein from oats = 1071+ 45 = 1116 g

Is this horse able to eat 6.8 kg of this ration per day? Yes.

Does the protein meet the horse's needs? Yes.

Note

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.

More information

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
  • equine veterinary practitioner
  • equine nutritionist (there are a number of qualified equine nutritionists in Victoria associated with major horse feed companies).

Acknowledgements

Thank you to Dr Charles El-Hage for his assistance with this document (c/o University of Melbourne Equine Centre, Victoria, Australia).

References

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, K. (1998) "Dietary fat: friend or foe?" Trail Blazer Magazine, Sept /Oct.

Page last updated: 07 Feb 2021