Now that you’ve bought a horse, you’ll need to know how feed a horse. Feeding a horse may be the single biggest expense in keeping the animal, but the process need be neither arduous nor mysterious if you follow some simple guidelines.

A horse has a digestive system which, in simple terms, relies on two factors to function optimally. To keep the food flowing through its gut at a rate that doesn’t cause problems such as colic it needs a regular intake of small volumes, accompanied by or made up of large volumes of roughage.

How much should you feed a horse?

Most owners feed twice a day, morning and night. At the SA Smallholder, we do not recommend feeding your horse only once a day.

Horses stabled during the day should be given a haynet.

The morning feed should comprise a ration of protein (concentrates). If, for whatever reason, the horse is kept in its stable during the day it should have a net of fodder available to keep it busy. However, if at all possible avoid keeping an idle horse stabled during the day.

The evening feed should comprise concentrates and a large net of fodder with which the horse will settle down for the night. Assuming your horse is stabled at night, you need a container for feed and a bucket for water and, to prevent wastage of fodder, a haynet hanging on a hook. On the floor there should be a thick layer of bedding (wood shavings, straw etc), set back a bit from the area where the feed, water and haynet are placed.

The haynet (or hayrack if you prefer a permanent installation) should be no higher than the horse’s face to prevent grass seed entering its eyes when eating.

Pellets vs meal

There are many brands of horse concentrates on the market. Some come in meal form, others are pelleted and still others cubed. Some contain maize, some are free of certain components such as maize but all are rated according to their protein content, stated in a percentage. Common protein percentages are 10%, 12% and 14%. Factors such as the size and age of the horse, its breeding and work rate will affect what one chooses and how much but one should bear in mind that horses are also individuals and, like humans, some do better on one diet than on another. A certain amount of experimentation is called for, with the proviso that any change in diet ~ be it of concentrate or fodder ~ should be made gradually over a few days if one is to avoid colic.

Generally, riding horses and ponies and those on light work should thrive on a 10% ration twice daily, at a rate of a couple of kg a feed (half a bucket or so). More athletic horses will require a 12% concentrate while racehorses etc will be fed a 14% ration or higher. Special circumstances might dictate otherwise. Mares in foal and horses recovering from injuries might require higher or lower protein rations.

Whether one feeds meal or pellets is largely a matter of personal preference. However, horses with very small mouths might find some of the larger cubes a bit daunting.

Very important when choosing your concentrate ~ even more so than the cost ~ is to ensure that your feed store has a regular supply of the brand and protein content you decide on, and that the store enjoys sufficient stock turnover in that range to ensure that what you purchase is always fresh, for nothing gives a horse colic faster than stale, mouldy feed.

It is important to ensure that the horse’s diet includes enough minerals, particularly salt. While some horsemen add coarse salt to their horses’ feed a far simpler way is to put a large lump of rock salt in the stable, in a spot away from water. The horse will ensure its own salt requirements are met, and spend many hours amusing itself, licking away at the lump.

There should always be fresh water in the stable.

Why is grazing important for your horse?

Grazing is important for your horses.

By letting the horse graze in a paddock during the day you are most closely emulating its natural living conditions and will avoid many of the nasty vices that bored stabled horses acquire such as stable-walking, weaving, crib-biting and wind-sucking.

If you don’t have grazing, hang a haynet of fodder off the fence, or roll a round bale into the paddock, removing all the baling twine. Wastage can be prevented by enclosing the bale with a “bale-saver” which prevents trampling and soiling of dropped hay.

While most working horses will require some form of concentrate you can occasionally get away with feeding nothing more than fodder, particularly to small, hardy mixed breed ponies and horses out of work, if you have access to very high-quality, fresh fodder. It is unlikely in winter that this option will be available to you. What is certain, however, is that while in some cases you can get away without feeding concentrates, there are no cases in which you can get away without feeding fodder.

Observe your horse after feeding

Careful observation of the horse will tell you if its diet is adequate. Overfeeding is also dangerous as it can lead to laminitis, a very serious disease, ironically, of the foot. And, of course, get the diet wrong and you lay yourself open to bouts of colic, which because of the nature of the horse’s insides, is a potentially fatal illness.

But there’s another very important observation to make which will tell you whether you’ve got the horse’s diet right: look, and listen, to what comes out of its rear end. Fresh horse droppings should be green-brown in colour and formed in tight, shiny balls, larger for horses and smaller for ponies. The dung should be sweet-smelling.

If the dung is foul smelling or too moist ~ the consistency of cow-pats, for example ~ you should look at the diet. If you break open one of the balls of fresh dung and observe small white insects within, your horse has worms.

Horses, like humans, also break wind, some more than others. But if the clippity-clop of your child’s pony across the countryside or around the arena is accompanied by a ripe miasma and a rhythmic symphony of sound from its rear, you should, likewise, rethink its diet.

It is most important that you adhere to a routine in the management of a horse, in terms of feeding, grooming, hoof care and letting it in and out of the paddock.

This is part of series on Equines. For more, click here.

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