Nutrition is an often-overlooked important factor in any animals’ health. Properly balanced nutrition can improve coat health, performance, longevity, musculoskeletal health and even immunity.

Each horse has their own unique physiology in addition to different energy demands based on the various disciplines.  Forage is the primary ingredient in all horse’s diet and with our climate, our horses need hay for half the year at least.  Manitoba has also been in a two-year stint of varying hay quality and quantity due to dry summers, making finding appropriate hay both difficult AND costly.

There are so many different kinds of supplements and feeds that the options can be overwhelming. Hopefully, these basic nutrition facts give you a baseline for how to make some of those tough decisions when it comes to feeding your horse. The team at Central is always around to help with these choices if ever you need!

Overall, there are 6 considerations for nutrition:

1.     Protein

2.     Carbohydrates

3.     Fats

4.     Vitamins

5.     Minerals

6.     Water


Water is an easy one to start with – it should be available free choice, clean, appropriate temperature and easily accessible.  The average horse will drink 20-50L (5-15 gallon) per day. The temperature should be between 7-18 degrees Celsius ideally. In some cases, free-choice water is not possible and then watering is ideally done right after any grain given or large feed, and at least a few times per day.

In winter horses tend to drink more if the water is warmer (but not too warm!). This helps reduce risks with impaction colic.


Protein content can come from hay as well as grains such as corn, barley and oats. The average horse needs 8-12% protein content in their feed. Though a performance horse may need slightly more for muscle building their increased energy requirements come from elsewhere. Growing horses may also need supplemental protein to get them closer to 12-18%.

Alfalfa has a higher protein content, as do other legumes than grass hays.


Carbohydrates are a component of both forage and grains in the diet. There are multiple forms of carbohydrates as well but they break down into two basic categories – Nonstructural carbs (NSC) which are more easily digestible and provide readily usable glucose, such as starches and sugars. A big component of this is the grains in the diet.  The other form of carbohydrates is structural carbs which include fiber – this is more broken down in the horse’s specialized hindgut. This is the process that handles the majority of the hay and grass.

Horses who do a low amount of work with good quality hay may never need grains or supplemental feed. This is where hay testing is very important to know about the energy available in the hay and the vitamin/mineral content. But for working or performance horses no matter how good the hay quality, it may not meet their energy demands. Therefore, the higher concentration of energy needed from non-structural carbs can be added in the form of grains.


Fats are one of the energy sources a horse can utilize for exercise. It is slower to mobilize but lasts longer compared to carbohydrates. You can get more fats in the diet from extruded feed sources or a variety of oils in which Omega 3/6 FA acids come in different ratios.

In the grass, there is an abundance of Omega 3 naturally. Come winter, hay is much reduced in fat content. Important to know is that the ratio of Omega 3-6 makes a difference.  In horses the fat that can be most beneficial for anti-inflammatory processes – arthritis, skin conditions, immune conditions etc. – is Omega 3. Omega 6 can actually be pro-inflammatory if it is in abundance in the diet compared to Omega 3.

Flax oil and fish oils are higher in Omega 3’s and good options for your horse (though not all horses like fish oil!).

Overall healthy fats can help in putting weight on a horse who is not an easy keeper, is a good energy source for horses that might have metabolic issues where sugars need to be avoided, it is good for their coat, joints and heart when used correctly.


Grasses and hays can contain all the vitamins your horse will need, but hay quality can definitely affect vitamin content. Hay testing is important for this reason.

Extruded complete feeds and vitamin/mineral mixes can be added to the diet to ensure these needs are met. Make sure to follow directions for feeding as some Vitamins can accumulate, so feeding too much can be dangerous.


At minimum salt, blocks should be available for all horse’s free choice at all times. Beyond that, there are mixed vitamin/mineral mixes in a loose mix and variations of blocks.

It is very important not to give horses salt blocks or mixes meant for other species such as cattle, goats, and sheep and vise versa, as these animals have different requirements for their minerals like copper and toxicities can occur easily.

Growth in foals will change their requirements for things like calcium and phosphorus and should be considered as well. Extruded supplement feed for foals often account for this.

This is another place hay analysis will help reveal deficiencies. In addition, if you have a horse that may have special needs like the growing foal, a pregnant or lactating mare, a senior OR you live in an area that has certain known mineral deficiencies like selenium, adding in special feeds or mineral mixes may be needed.


Performance Horses:

Performance horse nutrition can be very different from your average pleasure rider but is still very individual for every horse, their physiology and their level of exercise per week.

The main difference is the caloric needs of horses doing daily training. They simply cannot intake enough hay in one day to keep up with their energy output and maintain good body condition and muscle mass. Therefore, supplementation with concentrates like grains and complete feeds is necessary. When choosing these additions many things need to be considered.

  • The horse’s tolerance of non-structural carbohydrates/sugars – do they get too hyper or “hot” on sugars, are they ulcer prone, have metabolic disease tendencies (laminitis). Choosing a higher fat diet may be better.

  • Are they doing more long endurance style exercise (endurance riding), require intense strength (jumping, barrel racing), or involve quick fast spurts of energy (horse racing). Longer endurance requirements may benefit from the higher fat supply in the feed and fast short spurts may do better with higher levels of carbohydrate in the feed for readily available energy. Horses looking to build muscle will benefit from good usable proteins.

  • Feeding higher-fat diets for energy is beneficial to do well before competitions/events and not just in the days before as it primes the body’s ability to use fats for energy.

  • Beet pulp is a commonly used option for energy without the fiery hyper attitude as it is a good digestible fiber low in starch.

  • If a horse is sweating a lot during exercise, they lose electrolytes more than the average horse so a good complete mineral mix plus electrolyte supplements are more important in these cases.

Buying Hay:

Use your eyes and nose when buying hay.

  • Smell for a nice sweet smell of dried grass/legume, make sure there is no moldy smell.

  • Open a square bale to check for dust level – hugely important for horses with respirator issues and horses kept indoors.

  • Take a proper core sample for testing! This will tell you quality and deficiencies in the hay so you can decide if you want to buy it and what areas you may need to supplement.

Senior Horses:

Seniors may begin to need special considerations as well as they age. You can decide when these changes need to happen based on stool quality, body condition in various seasons and disease status – example: Cushing’s disease.

  • Some seniors may need a more digestible concentrate if their gastrointestinal tract isn’t doing as good of a job at digesting and extruding nutrients. – Do they have watery liquid around their formed stool?

  • Better quality protein for maintaining muscle mass

  • Winters can be harder on seniors so their caloric intake might need to be increased.

  • In larger herds it is also important to make sure some horses are not being bullied out of a feed ring – especially in seniors – multiple feeding areas or smaller group pens may be needed.

When looking through the overwhelming number of feed options, a good way to know which one you need is to compare the protein, fat levels, and carbohydrate levels between them rather than just look for a single magic number. Based on your horses needs and some suggestions from your vet you should be able to find one that will work best. Then we have to slowly introduce them to that feed and monitor changes while on it – how is their stool, how is their coat, energy, are any health issues better or worse on this feed? Also very important is -how is their body condition on this feed? Overweight/underweight we need to make adjustments. This may take 2-4 months of being on the feed before we can properly assess these things. If one feed doesn’t have everything you are looking for you can add the minerals, or fat separately rather than looking for a feed that does it all!

Written by Dr. Heidi Bjornson
Learn more about Dr. Heidi Bjornson here.