What Do Horses Eat?

Lucile Vigouroux, BS, MSc

Lucile Vigouroux, BS, MSc

. Reviewed by Jennifer Rice, DVM, CVSMT
Updated Jun. 18, 2024
Close up of paint horse eating hay

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In This Article

What Do Horses Eat?

Proper horse diet and nutrition are a big part of taking good care of your equine companion. Horse feeds come in several forms, and how you meet your horse’s dietary needs can have a big impact on their overall health, welfare, and performance.

Balancing key ingredients and providing species-appropriate nutrition helps ensure that your horse is set up for success from the inside out.

What Do Horses Eat?

As herbivores, horses need a forage-based diet because they extract energy primarily from fermenting fiber in their large intestine (hindgut). You should always prioritize hay or grass and make it the bulk of your horse’s nutrition.

Some horses also need extra calories from grain to maintain both their body weight and energy levels, especially if they are working hard and competing.

Food for a horse can be classified into four main categories:

  • Forage comes in the form of grass, hay (the dried form of grass), as well as different hay products: hay cubes, hay pellets, and haylage.

  • Concentrates are the grains that provide energy-dense nutrition.

  • Supplements can be added to the diet to correct any nutritional deficiencies or to help manage various health conditions.

  • Treats are a little something extra you can feed your horse to bring them joy and add variety to their diet. Carrots, apples, and horse cookies are popular choices.

Horse Feed

Commercial horse grain products are formulated to provide a balanced diet that specifically meets your equine’s nutritional needs. The “staple” grains used in concentrates provide energy mainly through carbohydrates. These include:

  • Oats

  • Corn

  • Wheat

  • Rice

  • Barley

Good sources of protein (amino acids) in horse grains include soybean and alfalfa, while the ingredients in fat-based grains generally consist of various vegetable oils. Horse grain can also contain fiber in the form of beet pulp, for example, which helps to promote healthy digestion.

In addition to providing dietary energy (DE), horse grains are fortified with vitamins and minerals to ensure a balanced diet.

If your horse can maintain their body condition and energy on hay alone—no grass or grain—consider adding a ration balancer to their diet to help prevent a nutritional deficiency; hay loses a lot of its vitamins and minerals in the drying process. A ration balancer is a pelleted feed enriched with essential vitamins and minerals without providing a lot of calories. You only need to feed a small amount (1–2 pounds per day).

To feed your horse concentrates or a ration balancer, you’ll need a feed bucket, feed pan, and feed scoop.

How To Choose the Best Horse Feed

Grain provides extra energy, protein, and fat when forage alone isn’t enough. How much grain to feed a horse per day depends on several factors. A general guideline is to choose a commercial product formulated specifically for your horse’s life stage, activity level, and any health issues.

A widespread concern is feeding horses with metabolic issues. These individuals need a “low-carb” grain that provides energy through protein and fat rather than the non-structural carbohydrates (NSCs) starch and sugar. Reach out to your veterinarian if you suspect that an underlying health condition may be affecting what your horse should and shouldn’t eat.

Age also matters when selecting a horse grain, at least to some extent. You’ll find different options available for different life stages:

  • Heavily pregnant and lactating mares (high in energy)

  • Foals (enriched with minerals such as calcium and phosphorus)

  • Growing horses (protein-rich)

  • Adult horses (varying recipes depending on workload)

  • Seniors (easier to chew and digest)

Of course, your horse’s lifestyle and activity levels will also play a big role in selecting the right grain. Sedentary mature animals have much lower energy and protein requirements than competitive equine athletes (see chart below) who expend a lot of energy and lose minerals through sweat on a daily basis.

Horse Hay

Most barns will feed a type of hay called grass mix. This is commonly a blend of orchard grass and timothy grass species, though the exact makeup of your hay bales can vary based on season and region. A grass mix is a safe, suitable hay option for most horses.

If you’re trying to add fuel to your horse’s ration, legume hay alfalfa is a good source of protein, which the horse’s body can convert into energy.

On the other hand, you may choose to feed a low nutritional-quality grass hay to a horse that needs to lose weight or be on a low-carb diet for health reasons, while also using a hay net to slow down their hay intake.

Regardless of the nutritional quality of hay, any forage you bring to the barn should be of good overall quality—meaning free of mold or debris. Hay should smell fresh and sweet, have a green color, and contain leaves—not just stems.

Horse Feeding Chart

This horse feed chart outlines the basic daily nutrient requirements of mature horses:

Horse feeding chart

As a general rule, a horse should eat at least 1.5–2% of their body weight in hay or grass daily, regardless of their energy needs.

Depending on their unique metabolism and workload, a horse may be able to meet all of their dietary needs with forage alone or they may need concentrates to supplement their diet. The only way to truly know your hay’s nutritional content is to send a sample to a lab for testing.

If your horse does need grain, split it up into small portions fed throughout the day. The amount of concentrates you need to feed depends on the particular product’s nutritional content (check the feed label). That said, always keep individual meals under 5 pounds to help reduce your horse’s risk of developing colic.

Any nutritional supplements that a horse needs are commonly mixed into the grain bucket at feeding time.

How Often Should You Feed a Horse?

Having evolved as roaming herbivores, horses have digestive tracts designed to “trickle feed,” which means ingesting small amounts of forage all day long. Free-choice forage is ideal.

When it comes to grain, keeping a regular feeding schedule and gradually making any necessary adjustments is very important, as sudden diet changes can also cause colic.

Excessive feeding—especially of horse feeds high in starch and sugar, like grass and grain—may lead to or worsen:

On the flip side, not giving your horse enough forage can lead to weight loss and behaviors such as cribbing and windsucking due to stress and boredom.

Lack of forage is also linked to stomach ulcers and reduced gut motility, which can both lead to colic.

The bottom line is that horse-friendly feeding regimens include providing free access to forage and dividing grain meals into small portions fed throughout the day. For questions about your horse’s own feeding regimen, always consult with your primary veterinarian.


Nutrient Requirements of Horses, 6th revised edition. National Research Council. 2007. National Academies Press, Washington DC.

Julliand V, Leblond, A. Risk factors associated with colic in horses. Veterinary Research. ResearchGate. 2002.

Blikslager A. Colic Prevention to Avoid Colic Surgery: A Surgeon's Perspective. Elsevier. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 2019.


Lucile Vigouroux, BS, MSc


Lucile Vigouroux, BS, MSc

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