We’ve all heard the old adage, “You are what
you eat”. But does that apply to our horses? In fact,
equine nutrition plays a crucial role if you want a happy,
healthy horse. Unfortunately, it’s still lacking
for far too many. Many horses have had their fundamental
eating habits changed either because of lack of knowledge
or human convenience. By getting back to a more natural
feeding program, you can give your horse a new lease on
life and allow her to reach her full potential.
Feeding is Unhealthy
digestive system needs small quantities of food numerous
times daily. This is because his relatively small stomach
can hold only one to four gallons of food at a time. This
food moves into the gut track very quickly so horse feels
hungry again about an hour after eating.
Infrequent feeding can unbalance his intestinal bacteria,
resulting in stomach disturbances, diarrhea, and colic.
It can also contribute to gastic ulcer disease, estimated
to afflict 60% to 90% of mature horses.
Ulcers occur when stomach tissue is damaged by digestive
acids. Because a horse is meant to graze on an almost continual
basis, his stomach constantly produces digestive acid for
the breakdown of food. When there is food in the stomach,
the acid is properly absorbed and neutralized. Allowing
your horse free access to pasture or grass hay, while cutting
down on grain and concentrated processed feeds, lowers his
risk of developing ulcer disease. It also reestablishes
a more natural feeding pattern and wakes up his foraging
What is a Natural Diet for Horses?
There’s more to feeding a horse than offering freechoice
hay, as not all hay is created equal when it comes to equine
health. Different types of grass hay, such as Bermuda, Timothy,
Orchard, Brome and Rye, along with small amounts of alfalfa
or grain hay, give your horse a variety of textures, tastes
When feeding your horse on a freechoice basis, grass hays
should comprise the main course, with legume hays like alfalfa
serving as a condiment only. One reason for this is that
alfalfa can contain 50% more calories and protein per pound
than grass hay. People often make the mistake of feeding
alfalfa hay in the same quantities as grass hay, or worse
yet, as the only feed. No horse needs this much protein
or calories. In addition, alfalfa has a high calcium to
phosphorus ratio often 4:1 and higher. The ratio for a healthy
horse is 2:1.
Furthermore, a University of California study confirms that
too much alfalfa may lead to a higher risk of enteroliths.
These rockhard mineral deposits, also known as stones, build
up in the stomach or intestine and can cause colic and death.
The study revealed that horses suffering from stones had
a higher pH concentrate in their colons, and more alfalfa
in their diets.
Too much grain can also cause health disorders. In the wild,
a horse finds grain in only small scattered amounts, often
when winter is approaching and the horse needs more calories.
It is neither natural nor healthy for a horse to consume
large amounts of this highly concentrated foodstuff, which
can cause vices, colic, ulcers and high insulin levels if
Detrimental Sugar and Starch
Traditionally in the past, horses have been fed high starch/sugar
diets, but recent research shows this practice has detrimental
affects. While a low starch/sugar diet is extremely important
for easykeeper breeds, a “better safe than sorry”
approach may be appropriate for most horses. Ingredients
which contribute to high levels of starch and sugar in feeds
include grains and molasses. These can wreck havoc on a
horse’s glucose levels. The surge of glucose causes
a quick release of insulin and a rush of adrenaline, which
results in fatigue lasting several hours. With Insulin
Resistance, the easykeepers cannot tolerate these up and
down levels and eventually their bodies stop processing
the glucose properly. Instead of high sugar/starch feedstuffs,
try alternatives such as rice bran, wheat bran and beet
You should also
consider the types of hay and pasture your horse eats, as
some are naturally higher in sugars than others. Cool season
grasses such as Timothy, Brome, Orchard and Fescue are normally
higher than warm season varieties such as Bermuda and native
prairie grasses. Grain hays fall into the dangerous
category while alfalfa can have low to moderate sugar levels.
Stressed plants (often affected by drought), nutrient imbalance
and temperature changes have higher sugar levels as well.
Tip: The safest time to graze horses at risk
for glucose imbalances is from 3 am - 10 am and on
The Importance of Mineral Balance
Left to their own devices, horses are incredibly intuitive
about what their bodies need. I once witnessed an amazing
gray use his powerful natural hooves to dig into a bank
on the range. Inch by inch he worked until he uncovered
what he was looking for a reddish rock that he began to
lick. Although there were many other rocks around, that
particular one contained the specific minerals his body
Horses need a correct balance of minerals for energy production,
fluid balance, normal growth, bone formation, healing, and
the proper functioning of cells. Imbalances can cause a
variety of disorders including skin and hoof conditions,
allergies, poor stress tolerance, low immune reserves and
intestinal problems. Stress, environmental toxins, unbalanced
feeding programs and genetic patterns can all contribute
to mineral imbalances.
denotes interference between minerals. For example,
Calcium bsorptiondecreases manganese.
A Hair Mineral
Analysis, when done by a qualified practitioner, is a very
effective tool for pinpointing mineral imbalances. From
a sample of your horse’s mane, an HMA can reveal mineral
excesses, deficiencies, key ratios, and levels of toxic
substances such as aluminum, lead, mercury, arsenic, and
cadmium. These imbalances can then be corrected through
The Facts on Flax
Adding ground flaxseed to a horse’s diet can strengthen
the immune system, enhance mineral absorption, help chronic
inflammatory conditions, improve hair, skin and hoof conditions,
and may even alleviate allergies. Flax can help prevent
sand colic because it’s a soluble fiber source that
forms a gel to trap, suspend and carry sand out of the body.
It’s also high in Omega3 fatty acids, a nutrient lacking
in most horses that are fed only hay instead of pasture.
Variety is the Spice of Life
Horses rarely choose to eat only hay or grass and in fact,
derive needed nutrients from a variety of natural plant
materials. They will nibble on leaves, bark and seeds, as
well as fresh fruits and vegetables.
Providing branches from a variety of trees not only lets
your horse nibble leaves and bark for nutrients, but also
gives him a chance to use his teeth naturally, helping to
wear down sharp edges. You can offer many types of trees,
although you may wish to start with fruit, citrus and pines.
Check with your local county extension office about whether
or not a particular tree might be poisonous, and also ensure
the tree is free of large thorns and pesticides. Natural
logs with bark can be obtained from specialized lumber yards,
often free of charge from their scrap pile. Be sure to use
only natural logs and branches, and avoid lumber or wood
that splinters or has been treated.
Horses will also enjoy fresh vegetable scraps along with
edible flowers and leaves. Many will even like the tangy
taste of citrus fruit. You can sprout bird seed and offer
that as a treat, or try the sprouted seed mixes available
in grocery stores. Organic carrots grown in your own garden
will always be a hit!
On the Level
How you feed your horse is as important as what and how
often you feed him. Because humans don't want to eat off
the ground, we assume horses don't either, so we install
chestlevel hay racks and mangers. However, a horse is built
to chew and swallow with his head at ground level. Eating
with his head raised leads to improperly chewed food, decreased
saliva, and uneven tooth wear, and also increases the possibility
of choking or partial obstruction.
can occur because foreign particles are easily inhaled,
causing irritation and possible infection. If you are wary
of ground level feeding because you’re concerned about
sand colic, use rubber mats or tire feeders, and supplement
with flax seed. Although equine nutrition is a complex
subject that should be geared towards the needs of the individual
horse, implementing a natural feeding program will go a
long way towards ensuring a happy, healthy life.
is a natural horse care consultant, clinician and host of
the “If Your Horse Could Talk” webcast available
She is a seasoned writer and former Senior Editor of Equine
Wellness Magazine. Along with her husband, Kenny, they share
their small Arizona ranch with their beloved animals.
Lisa has dedicated herself to extensive research, as well
as an exploration of handson experiences which included
clinics, seminars and courses covering natural horsemanship,
hoof care, dentistry, bodywork, homeopathy, iridology, essential
oils and nutrition. Since then, she has earned her degree
in Environmental Plant Science and has completed the Basic
Homeopathy Veterinary course through the British Institute
Known to colleagues
and friends as one who “walks her talk,” Lisa
has positively influenced thousands of horse owners and
grateful horses, sharing her knowledge of natural and holistic
to Related Articles