Equine Nutrition Basics


The true secret to horsemanship and horse health rests with equine nutrition basics. You can groom and train all you want, but no horse can fulfill their potential without a properly balanced diet. A horse’s diet impacts hooves, skin, coat, and immune system. Diet plays a part in metabolic problems, too. Yeah, I’m looking at you, the overweight horse with insulin resistance.  


Where to get started? We need to understand the basic feeding principles and some of the essential nutrients that a horse needs to thrive. Then, we need to make a choice – wade through tons of marketing and guess on a good diet for your horse? Or work with an equine nutritionist with years of higher education under their belt? 


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Forage and the basics of feeding horses 


  • A horse’s digestive system is perhaps one of the strangest things about horses. You may recall that horses spend a lot of time creating vet bills for us, many of them directly linked to their wacky guts. Ideally, horses are grazing 17+ hours a day in a natural slow feeder system. A horse stays physically and mentally occupied when the digestive system is on a slow and steady path. The risk of ulcers, colic, and laminitis reduces when the belly is happy. 


hors supplements being put into tub


Equine nutrition basics – start with high-quality forage.


  • Forage is a broad term used to describe hay, chaff, pasture grass, hay cubes, and hay pellets. It should be the bulk of your horse’s diet, and quality does matter. Although, some horses that need to stay chewing but lose weight may do better with a lesser quality of hay with fewer calories as long as nutritional needs are met with supplements. 


  • But does forage provide all of a horse’s nutritional needs? Usually not. There are some dietary components that horses can make from the ingredients they eat – these are the non-essential nutrients. However, horses need to consume essential nutrients as they cannot be manufactured in the horse. In a nutshell, your horse needs to eat specific essential ingredients and the building blocks to make those non-essential nutrients. Chances are, hay alone will not provide that. 


  • To fill in any dietary gaps, use a concentrated feed, a ration balancer, or a vitamin and mineral supplement. Feeds generally have additional calories and provide energy, whereas supplements and ration balancers try and round out the diet without additional calories. There are also complete feeds, which contain all of a horse’s nutrition and support a horse without forage.   


  • When your horse has access to fresh pasture, many nutrients and Omega-3 fatty acids fuel him. The hay-making process does mean that some nutrients, like Vitamin E, are dried up and gone by the time your horse munches on that hay.  


horse on stall rest eating from a haynet

Slow feeders are fantastic for helping horses eat a little bit over time, just like grazing. 


Equine nutrition basics – vitamins, minerals, and amino acids


Amino acids


  • If I remember only two things about high school science, they are: the mitochondria are the cell’s powerhouse, and amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. Proteins, in turn, make bones, tendons, ligaments, muscles, skin, hair, and hooves – rather important things. 


  • There are 22 amino acids that your horse needs. Ten of them are essential, and horses get them from the diet. Of those 10, three are termed limiting amino acids. These three amino acids (lysine, methionine, threonine) are usually deficient in a typical horse’s diet, limiting the proteins that can be made. Your horse will happily make the remaining 12 amino acids on his own. 



  • Vitamins are carbon-based compounds essential for a horse’s diet. Each vitamin has its job in the body. Fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) dissolve in body fat and are stored. Because horses keep these vitamins, they can stock up and create possible toxicity.  


  • The famous Vitamin A has a few jobs – mainly to support healthy vision, assist in growing new cells, keep mucus membranes happy, and help with muscle functions. 


  • Vitamin D works by absorbing calcium from the digestive system and helps with the elimination of phosphorus for healthy joints and bones. 


  • Another important dietary component is Vitamin E.  This antioxidant works to clear free radicals from the body, as well as supports the immune system and muscles. 


  • Vitamin K is involved in blood clotting, and strangely enough, is made by microbes in your horse’s gut.  


  • Water-soluble vitamins (C, the B’s, riboflavin, niacin, folacin, pantothenic acid, and biotin) dissolve in water, and are not stored by the water. Unused and extra vitamins are excreted if not used. 


  • Vitamin B is a broad category of vitamins – B1, B2, riboflavin, folacin, niacin, pantothenic acid, and biotin are all classified as B vitamins. B vitamins help your horse metabolize food and create energy. 


  • Vitamin C is another antioxidant that helps make the collagen found in connective tissues. There may be some good coming from Vitamin C supplements for soft tissue injuries in horses. 


horse supplement in tub with desiccant pack

Store your horse’s supplements in their containers, with the lid securely fastened.  The desiccant packs help keep excessive moisture away.




  • Minerals are inorganic compounds, without any carbon. There are over 5,000 minerals in existence – but not all are needed by horses. A tiny amount of these minerals is needed by your horse for healthy body functioning. 


  • There are many essential minerals – calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, chloride, potassium, sulfur, and sodium. There are also trace minerals – the essential minerals required in such tiny amounts it seems strange – iron, zinc, copper, selenium, manganese, cobalt, and iodine. 


  • Calcium isn’t just for bones; it helps muscles of all types contract. The heart, smooth muscle like the intestines, and skeletal muscles for movement all need calcium to function properly. Nerves and blood-clotting mechanisms also rely on calcium. 


  • Phosphorus also assists with bone formation, has a role in making DNA, and helps cellular membranes stay healthy.  


  • Magnesium activates enzymes (catalysts that regulate the chemical reactions) in a horse’s body. Nerves, muscle cells, bones, and hearts need magnesium, too. 


  • Sodium and chloride work similarly. Sodium helps muscles contract, and both help nutrient absorption in the intestines.  


  • Potassium helps muscles contract and relax. 


  • Sulfur is directly involved in the protein keratin’s formation, the stuff of skin and hooves.  


  • Iron helps move oxygen from the lungs into the blood and muscles.  


  • Zinc helps enzymes metabolize carbs and proteins in the body. 


  • Copper supports healthy connective tissue and assists with proper pigmentation of the coat and skin.  


  • Selenium works with the hormones from the thyroid gland to keep everything at proper levels. It’s also an antioxidant.  


  • Manganese works to help with bone formation – which is an ongoing process. 


  • Cobalt is needed for the horse’s gut microbes to make B12.


  • Iodine also assists with thyroid function. 


horse grazing in fly sheet with frings

Pasture is a great source of nutrition for horses – but it can be seasonal. 


Consider the factors that go into your horse’s diet


  • Many factors go into creating a diet for your horse. Some of these things you can’t change, and some you can. And some things will forever be a mystery. 


  • Genetics and your horse’s age are etched in stone. Easy, peasy here, nothing will change those. 


  • The type of pasture grass your horse eats is generally the same, too, although it may vary seasonally if the fields are top-seeded. In some areas, top-seeding pasture allows one grass to grow while the other remains dormant.  


  • Also, consider the location where your horse’s hay is grown. Nutrients in the soil end up in the hay. This is one reason why having your horse’s hay evaluated is part of creating a diet plan.   


  • And for the list of moving targets: Consider your horse’s job, any metabolic issues like pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID) or Insulin Resistance (IR). Your horse will also have different caloric needs when in hard training versus working a few light months over the winter. His electrolyte needs will vary from summer to fall, depending on how much your horse sweats. If pasture is part of your horse’s diet, you may need to add Omega-3 fatty acids and some vitamins, like Vitamin E, when the paddocks are dormant. 


  • And then there’s the matter of any “special” things for your horse that may need supplements. Injured horses may need calming supplements, and poor hoof quality could benefit from biotin and vitamin supplements. You can find horse supplements for helping with IR, heaves, tendons and ligaments, and just about everything that ails your horse. 


ingredients on label of probiotics

Compare your horse’s supplements by looking at the analysis more than the ingredients. 


Choosing supplements for your horse 


  • Working with a nutrition expert can do a few things for your horse’s health and your wallet. First, you will find out if there is a missing piece in your horse’s diet. Second, you will find out if any nutrients are overlapping.  Excess supplementation can be tolerated in some cases, otherwise, the ingredients are excreted in the urine.  Other stored nutrients can create problems if your horse has too much. 


  • When you can streamline your horse’s diet and eliminate duplications, that will pad your pocketbook. Time to shop for new saddle pads! 


  • Avoid shopping by price, shop with math instead. Calculate how many doses are in a container, then use that data to calculate cost per dose. That makes the comparison between differently sized buckets easy.  


  • But, you may calculate that one particular supplement is more affordable than the others, but at the expense of duplicating ingredients or omitting ingredients. Keep it simple.  


horse looking at yellow bucket full of feed

Dinner is served.


Best practices for feeding supplements 


  • Take extra care about noticing your horse’s manure and digestive habits while introducing or switching supplements.  Many horses need days or weeks to slowly acclimate to a diet change,  although adding or changing supplements is such a small volume.  Make sure there are no signs of diarrhea or any other change to the manure and how your horse feels.


  • Feed the proper amount. It’s easy to measure a scoop or two a day, but when using ration balancers or feeds, exact feeding means your horse is getting what he needs. If you think your horse gets hot with his grain-based food and you reduce the amount on spicy days, he’s missing nutrients.  


  • Spread out his feeds and supplements over multiple feedings instead of one big one.  Help prevent colics and upset digestive systems by feeding smaller meals more frequently.  

In the feed room:


  • Store everything tightly. Luckily, tight lids are everywhere – I’ve never met a supplement container that was easy to open. 


  • Save your scoops. The other fantastically annoying thing about supplement tubs is that scoops love to bury themselves in powdery goodness.   


  • Do re-visit your horse’s diet as things change. Changes to his training and turnout schedule will alter caloric and energy needs. When the seasons influence the pasture, the nutrients and calories vary. And don’t forget about age and medical issues. In a nutshell, it’s constantly changing.  Working with a qualified equine nutritionist is helpful, and I can’t recommend Clarity Equine Nutrtion enough. 


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