Horse nutrition and feeding information and advice

Feeding/Nutritional Management Tips


1.Hay or Haylage - which is best for your horse?

2. Nutritional management of horses and ponies with or prone to  laminitis

3. Management tips to reduce colic risk

4. Ways to build and/or maintain condition in horses and ponies

5. Feeding sick/injured horses and ponies

6. Visual assessment tips regarding haylage - is it safe to feed?  



 1. Hay or haylage - which is best for your horse? 

Should owners choose hay or haylage? Which is best for their horse or pony? There are so many myths surrounding both, probably more so with hay but that is only because hay has traditionally been around for much longer than haylage!


The main principle for conserving forage (usually grass) for future feeding to horses is to reduce moisture content and/or oxygen to stop the natural decay that normally begins following mowing in the field. When making hay the water content of the hay crop must be reduced from 65-85% to 20% or less over three to five days. This is achieved by sun drying in the field or air/heat drying in a barn for barn dried hay. Haylage on the other hand, is wilted to a water content of 45-50%, before being wrapped to enable “pickling” of the crop in an oxygen free environment, this is known as ensiling. Haylage therefore does not need as much drying time. When haylage was first made for horses, it was cut earlier in the year when grass is lush, higher in protein and energy and lower in fibre, perhaps too much for most horses and ponies! Nowadays though haylage for horses tends to be cut later as the end product is more suitable.



This is the most traditional method of conserving grass. It can vary tremendously in nutritional content, mostly determined by the time of year it is harvested; this in turn is often predetermined by the weather. This year the high rainfall of the summer has meant that if hay was not harvested early in the year it is probably still on the field now and will be of poor nutritional value.

There are two types of hay, namely meadow hay and seed hay. Meadow hay contains many different grass and herb species, all maturing at different times through the summer. This results in more leaf and seed heads and is normally less stalky and softer to touch. Seed hay is now thought to be single species grass hay such as Ryegrass or Timothy. This is generally stalkier and less leafy than meadow hay and so feels harder to the touch than meadow hay. Seed hay is often lower in protein than meadow hay!

Hay tends to be less nutritious than haylage as it is cut later, however this is not always the case. Hay is usually medium protein and low to average sugars with good levels of digestible fibre to maintain gut health and function.

Good hay will have been cut and dried thoroughly at the right time, baled and stored properly. The problem with hay tends to be related to its hygienic quality. The weather conditions in the UK are not always favourable for thorough drying and mown hay is often rained upon. Barn dried hay however relies less on the weather.

There is some confusion about dust in hay; in fact it may come from one of three different sources.


Moulds and Fungi may grow on cut hay prior to baling in damp weather conditions or may grow on baled hay at higher temperatures when hay has been baled too damp

Soil splash from previous heavy rain

Leaf shatter resulting from very dry hay, leaves break and shatter during baling


Dust can result in respiratory disease such as COPD in horses particularly those that are stabled. Hay that has been made properly does not need to be stored in the barn before feeding, it can be fed straight away whilst it is still relatively nutritious. Feeding one-year-old hay that has been left to gather dust in a barn and which has lost all its vitamins is simply another myth!

Hay is often soaked to reduce dust levels and to swell any fungal spores that may be present to a size where they should become harmless. Soaked hay should be fully submerged in water for twenty to thirty minutes, no longer prior to feeding.  However, for horses and ponies prone to laminitis it can be soaked for an hour to help remove any soluble sugars present.


The making of haylage is probably more suited to the weather in the UK these days. Haylage is grass that has been preserved by ensiling. The grass crop is usually cut slightly earlier than hay and wilted to a moisture content of about 45-50%. This is then wrapped tightly to exclude oxygen. A fermentation process then takes place and increasing acidity from the pickling process drops the pH to about 5.0. At this pH, moulds and fungi cannot grow and at the end of the fermentation process the haylage will remain stable as long as the bag or wrapping remains fully intact. This can take up to 8-10 weeks. Making good haylage requires farming expertise and if grass is ensiled when it is too dry or it doesn’t contain enough soluble sugars, incomplete fermentation occurs. In these cases, pH levels do not fall enough as there is not enough acid produced by the fermentation process and there is a greater growth of undesirable moulds and fungi. Haylage that has undergone incomplete fermentation or that has undergone secondary fermentation/heating can most definitely be a health hazard to horses. In addition this can result in the production of ammonia, which may irritate the horses airways.

Botulism is a concern when feeding haylage but the clostridium botulinum organism tends to proliferate in very wet haylage. Clostridia are bacteria which live in the soil and may contaminate the haylage crop via close cutting or from mud splashing or from deceased animals. However, haylage with a dry matter above 50% is too dry for clostridia to multiply.

Yeasts may grow on haylage cut with high levels of soluble sugars and although small amounts of white spots are not harmful too much yeast can cause aerobic instability of the haylage.

Feeding too little haylage is a very common problem. Haylage contains more water than hay and so more haylage needs to be fed than hay to ensure the dry matter intake is adequate. For example if haylage contain 1/3 more water than hay, then 1/3 more haylage should be fed. Feeding small daily amounts in small nets is not recommended under any circumstances.


Good haylage for horses should be 55-70%DM, 5-6.0 pH, 7-10% protein, low ammonia and high fibre. 

The supplier of hay or haylage should provide a basic analysis prior to purchase and if not this should be of concern. When assessing the costs, it is important to remember that haylage is heavier than hay as it contains more water!


Hay or Haylage?

The choice of hay or haylage often depends upon local availability, the number of horses and size of the bales. Well-made, good quality hay is probably safer to feed to most horses and ponies, particularly if it is soaked.  Haylage is preferred for horses in hard work or with known respiratory conditions, but it must have fermented thoroughly and been made specifically for horses.

Haylage tends to contain higher levels of energy and protein and so less concentrates may be required however, it must be used within 3-5 days once opened as it will deteriorate on exposure to air. Any haylage that appears to smell “off” or is discoloured should be returned to the supplier, it simply should not be fed.

Finally, mouldy hay or haylage should never be fed to horses under any circumstances.


2. Laminitis Management Tips

A. Reduce sugar and other soluble carbohydrate intake

B. Reduce bodyweight slowly in the overweight horse or pony.

1. Eliminate all high starch based concentrates (including low energy cool feeds) from the diet. Check with your supplier the starch content of the feed.

2. Feed later cut meadow hay with a low level of water-soluble carbohydrate (WSC) i.e. sugars of less than 12%.

3. Soak hay for 30 minutes (in warm water if possible) or in cold water before feeding to remove as many residual soluble sugars as possible

4. Feed 2% of the horses bodyweight as hay reducing to 1.5% if not losing weight

5. Restrict access to pasture by using a muzzle or strip grazing or reduce time out at grass to no longer than four hours. For severely affected horses and ponies, temporarily stop all access to pasture, use grass free areas instead such as arenas until a significant reduction in bodyweight has been achieved, but do not starve.

6. Introduce horses to pasture slowly if have been stabled all winter, i.e. 1 hour at a time. 

7. Turning horses out for four hours per day instead of twenty four can reduce sugar intake by as much as 80%. Also restrict pasture access to horses at certain times of the year i.e. not during grass flushing times where e.g.a drought period is followed by sun and rain.

8. If the horse is sound, exercise wherever possible even walking out in hand 

9. Take into account breed types and natural body frame when assessing condition

10. Monitor weight loss and retest for insulin resistance following weight loss programme.

11. Feed a multivitamin and mineral, performance level supplement or low starch balancer with a small amount of low calorie unmolassed chaff and unmolassed beet pulp (very dilute) if required.

12. Researchers found that NSC (non structural carbohydrate) were highest in pasture in April (20%) fell to 13% in May and were less than 10% in August, October and January.

13. In summer months, researchers also found lowest levels of WSC (water soluble carbohydrate) in the morning between 4-5am, rising to peak levels at 4-5pm (due to photosynthesis all day which makes sugars) and during the dark hours many of these sugars are used up for respiration.

14. In winter months restrict turn out on a sunny frosty morning and put horses out in the afternoon, this is because very cold nights reduce respiration rate in plants and thereby prevent pasture from using up the sugars it made the day before during photosynthesis.

15. It may be prudent to feed protected sodium bicarbonate (KER Equishure) to help maintain normal pH levels in the caecum for susceptible horses and ponies.

For underweight laminitics, energy should be supplied as fat and fibre or low starch horse and pony cubes/fibre based compounds. Be careful as some “cool” mixes are typically 25-30% starch (check with the manufacturer).

Supplementation with a high performance vitamin and mineral supplement may be useful whilst horses are in the painful acute stages of the disease.

© Zoe Davies 2010 -




 3. Management tips to reduce colic risk

Colic is responsible for more horse deaths than any other equine disease. Fortunately there are steps you can take to help reduce the risk of colic occurring and some of these may be quite surprising.

These steps presume that horses and ponies have effective worming programmes.

Keep an eye on the weather 

One of the most common causes of colic is impaction where food material becomes effectively stuck in the horses’ digestive tract, as does food coming along behind it.

Impaction colic is more likely when horses are dehydrated i.e. they have not consumed enough water, and/or have lost water through sweating or diarrhoea. To make up for the loss in water, horses resorb more water from the gut making the food material drier and therefore more likely to become stuck or impacted.

In fact, dehydration can occur in both very hot and very cold weather. In hot weather horses sometimes can’t consume enough water to match their losses particularly if they are also working. This can lead to rapid dehydration and reduced motility of the gut. In a heat wave, where ambient temperatures are sustained at around 30 degrees C or above, dehydration can rapidly occur.

To avoid dangerous body water losses in horses in hot weather, don’t work them hard, ride at cooler times only and allow the horse access to water when riding such as out on a hack (as long as the water is not too cold).

In very cold weather, horses often stop drinking as the water is too cold or iced up! Horses prefer water at 5 degrees C and above in winter and between 15 -25 degrees C in summer.

Take the water content of feed into account

Grass contains much more water than hay and haylage. Grass contains 80-90% water, hay (and dried chaffs) 10-15%, haylage 30-40% and cereals and compound feeds 12-15% on average. This is a huge difference in moisture content.  Horses at pasture therefore consume a lot more water from the grass compared to stabled horses on drier forage and feed. Dry food/forage is known to increase the risk of colic.

 When changing horses from pasture to hay for example in winter, this should be done slowly and hay if possible feed soaked hay to start with. Likewise any change at all in forage for example a new batch, should be undertaken slowly        

Try not to stable horses for long periods

           Confining horses to stables increases the risk of colic. The movement of the gut, which helps food along it, reduces when horses are stabled and therefore food is more likely to get stuck or impacted. If horses are also fasted for longer than 4 hours and/or fed two large cereal based feeds (more than 2kg per feed) whilst stabled, impacted and tympanic (gas) colic risks increase further. Horses should be turned out as much as possible, therefore, even if this is on an exercise area such as an arena, with limited forage available.

Don’t feed mouldy feed/ forage

Horses should not be fed feed or forage that is mouldy or feed that is out of date. This may contain mycotoxins (poisons) that are made by some fungi. They are invisible and odourless and can cause severe health problems including colic in horses. Although it is easy to see or smell mouldy hay and therefore avoid feeding it remember that haylage that has not fermented thoroughly may also contain fungi and possible mycotoxins.

Keep cereal feeds to a minimum 

Horses need natural fibre-based diets. In fact when horses are turned out on lush spring pasture and hay is fed in the field, the risk of colic is reduced. This is because horses need fibre and spring grass often contains very low levels. Fibre binds to water in the gut to help moisten the passage of feed through it. 

Feeding starch based cereal feeds (particularly more than 2kg at a time) is more likely to result in colic as soluble carbohydrate may pass undigested into the hindgut where it ferments and produces gas. If more calories are needed for condition, use additional oil and quality fibre instead of cereal starch.

Feeding horses after colic

As soon as the horse can eat voluntarily then a good maintenance diet of quality forage should be introduced. This should be grazing and/or haylage or soaked hay, helping to stimulate the gut to move and provide moisture. An additional broad-spectrum performance level vitamin and mineral supplement should also be fed for a week or so. Many vets advocate not feeding any cereal feeds at this time, as this will help hindgut function to return to normal. After two weeks, the usual feed can be reintroduced slowly rising in small steps until the normal amount of feed is achieved.



© Zoe Davies 2010

4. Build and maintain condition


There are a great number of horse owners who find it difficult to maintain condition of their horses and ponies particularly when they are working. Also as there are good doers there also breeds which are more likely to be poor doers such as thoroughbred types and 

There are many of reasons why some horses lose weight and it is important to check with the vet that there are no underlying health problems, such as poor appetite from ill health, worms, poor dentition and/old age, liver/kidney disease or intestinal malabsorption. These conditions require specific veterinary attention. A poor worming programme in youngstock for example may lead to permanent damage, malabsorption of nutrients and general unthriftiness.

Otherwise healthy horses are underweight because of one or more of the following reasons;

  • Inappropriate choice of feed
  • Forage is of poor nutritional quality
  • Quantity of feed not enough for the workload 
  • Quantity of feed not enough for their size
  • Excitable or fizzy temperament 

For example, horses in hard work need 100% more energy or calories than comparable horses at rest. That’s a lot of extra calories! 

  1. Monitor bodyweight with a portable weighbridge or a weigh tape. Most feed companies will supply weigh tapes. In order for horses to put on weight, they need to take in more calories than they use up, just as in humans!  These extra calories are laid down as fat under the skin, commonly seen as  “condition” or “top line”. Likewise when too few calories are supplied horses will take the extra calories they need from their fat stores and they will lose weight
  2. Feed 2.5% of bodyweight per day as recommended for horses in hard work. For a 500kg horse this equates to 12.5kg per day (Dry Matter) split between forage and concentrates. Forage should never be less than half of this. Ideally forage should be fed ad lib. Once horses have reached the required condition, the daily amount of feed can be reduced to 2% of bodyweight per day. Bigger horses need more feed!
  3. The calorie intake may be increased by feeding a higher nutritional quality forage. Pasture is very nutritious at this time of year, however spring grass is low in fibre and contains 90% water. Horses may still need extra calories in the form of hay to maintain fibre intake and/or concentrates. Hay is preferred to haylage (if possible) due to the higher Dry Matter. 
  4. Feed a nutritionally balanced conditioning concentrate feed to provide the additional calories required. Often owners simply feed more of a low energy feed such as cool mix/cubes but conditioning feeds are a far better choice, supplying more appropriate energy levels, vitamins, minerals and quality amino acids to help build lost muscle. Ideally choose a concentrate feed with a Digestible Energy (D.E.) of 12MJ/kg or more. Do not feed more than 2.5kg of concentrate feed in any one feed.
  5. Some horses waste energy through over excitable or “hot” behaviour and are less able to maintain weight. This can be natural i.e. a genetic tendency or it may be the environment including feed. Excitable horses should be turned out as much as possible and fed a high energy but low starch, high fibre/oil concentrate feed (preferably cubes) to help maintain a calm temperament. Choose a high energy feed containing a maximum of 20% starch.
  6. Adding a high calorie fat source, such as linseed or soya oil to the feed will increase the energy density of the diet. Vegetable oils contain almost three times the energy of oats; one cup of oil has the same amount of calories as about 0.7 kg of oats. Unmolassed beet pulp provides readily digestible fibre, contributing to the energy supply and is an excellent mixing agent. 
  7. Good quality forage provides fibre that is broken down to volatile fatty acids (VFA’s) by hindgut microbes in the gut. Many of these VFA’s are converted to energy sources in the body i.e. fibre is a vital source of calories for horses.  
  8. Feeding poor nutritional quality forage (e.g. late cut hay) which contains higher levels of indigestible fibre results in characteristic “hay bellies”. This makes horses appear fat when actually the top line shows horses are underweight. Feeding poor quality forage also reduces voluntary intake of feed.
  9. Feeding a yeast and/or prebiotic supplement will help ensure optimal fibre digestion in the hindgut, thereby increasing VFA’s for energy and helping to nutritionally stabilise the hindgut.
  10. Feeding a B-complex vitamin supplement will help horses with poor appetites. B vitamins are essential for efficient energy metabolism and are often low following illness, stress, and injury or antibiotic treatment.

© Zoe Davies 2010 

5. Feeding sick or injured horses


Injuries and working horses go hand in hand as many exasperated horse owners will tell you! Unfortunately it seems the working horse is particularly prone to injury and days or weeks on the easy list often follow either the original injury or post operation enforced rest.

Training, competing and often international travelling place enormous stresses on the biological systems of these horses and once the immune system is suppressed or repeatedly challenged, the horse will often succumb to disease.

Even youngstock, finding their speed without the necessary experience, often become injured whilst out in the paddocks, so injury and illness are commonplace in training establishments and studs.

Severe trauma such as burns, serious accidents and acute infections will drastically increase the need for energy, quality amino acids and vitamins whereas nutrient needs for common respiratory viruses or less serious injuries will be fewer. Vitamin C ( is a particularly useful supplement for these horses to help maintain the immune system during the injury or illness. Maintaining intake of important antioxidants including vitamin E and selenium is also essential.

Feeding sick or injured horses will depend upon the nature and/or severity of the injury or illness. Although individual diets for specific ailments may be required, the aim of this article is to give nutritional guidelines for more common problems. It is important to maintain intake of nutrients to aid healing and uphold immune function.

Horses that are placed on box rest due to illness will have raised metabolic rates and lower activity but will still require quality nutrition; forage alone will not be enough to supply all the micronutrients required. It is better not to make sudden changes in dietary ingredients at this time, but quantities of high starch cereal based feeds such as most mixes (including some cool mixes) will need to be removed, whilst quality forage is increased. Increasing forage will help provide calories and keep the digestive tract working normally and will also help prevent horses becoming bored. For horses losing weight on forage alone, there are low starch compound feeds now available with higher oil and fibre to maintain calorie intake and vitamins and minerals, and these are a good choice for horses on box rest. Feeding cool mixes or cubes is common practice, but they often contain very high starch levels, which may result in muscular problems. The starch content should be less than 10% in the chosen feed.

Alternatively the high energy feed may be replaced either by a low calorie, protein vitamin/mineral balancer or a good performance level vitamin mineral supplement, but only if horses can keep condition on forage. The balancer will also maintain the important intake of quality amino acids.

Horses that are in pain may quickly lose their appetite at a time when nutrition is vital. Pain and/or a high temperature will often prevent horses eating and unfortunately this soon leads to horses breaking down their own body tissues to produce energy, a process known as catabolism. This process may kick in from as little as twenty-four hours without food. Catabolism soon produces further problems including weakness, muscle wastage, (including heart muscle) reduced repair and healing and suppression of the immune system. Horses with a poor appetite may also benefit from supplementation with B complex vitamins, as will horses that are being treated with antibiotics. 

For horses that cannot eat, for example post operative or severely sick horses, these animals will need to be fed in the short term either via a nasogastric tube as required or given parenteral nutrition intravenously. This requires veterinary supervision and as soon as physically possible, horses should then be given feed orally to maintain health of the digestive tract.

Horses in acute or chronic pain may benefit from a short period of analgesia and this should again be discussed with the vet. In some cases observation or good management can help horses to eat. An example of this would be a horse with a leg injury that may not be able to move to the feed manger. These horses may initially need the feed taken to them in the stable. 

Horses should be offered little and often to tempt them to eat. For horses that can be walked out in hand, access to grazing is a great appetite stimulant; otherwise small amounts of fresh grass can be picked and offered straight away.

The addition of one or more of the following, apple juice, carrot juice, molassed beet pulp, alfalfa, chopped apples and carrots may help to stimulate the horse to eat and the addition of warm water will help release the aromas to try and tempt the horse to eat.

Specific Illnesses


Is a general term for abdominal pain. Colic has many causes and if severe, surgery is often needed. If colic surgery has taken place without resection (removal of a portion of the gut), then good quality forage should be introduced as soon as the horse can eat, this will help stimulate the gut to move. When the horse is able to eat voluntarily following surgery, a maintenance ration high in quality fibre and water content should follow with additional vitamins and minerals for a week or so. Many vets advocate not feeding any cereal feeds at this time, as this will help hindgut function to return to normal. Cereal concentrates can be introduced from 2 weeks, but in small amounts.

If resection has been carried out, special dietary requirements will be necessary depending upon which part of the gut has been resected. In general horses will have an increased need for B vitamins, phosphorus and quality amino acids and a reduced capacity for fibre digestion.

If the small intestine is resected, emphasis on the large intestine will be needed. The amount of cereals will need to be reduced, as the small intestine is the primary site for simple carbohydrate digestion. Feed alfalfa and beet pulp and oil (if the ileum is fully intact) If the ileum has been resected horses will also need injectible vitamins A and E and possibly K and extra calcium as this is a major site of calcium absorption.

Following colic not requiring surgery, once the colic has stopped (during which water and feed is usually withheld) normal feed can be reintroduced at a low level, building up to pre-colic intakes unless the current feed regime has caused the colic in the first place! This might be the case where large amounts of cereal concentrates are fed.

Liver (hepatic) disease

The liver has many important functions including glucose synthesis from fat and protein and detoxification. Feeding horses with liver disease is aimed at reducing the livers workload. This includes supplementing with fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K and short branch chain amino acids such as valine, leucine and isoleucine. The diet should be low protein 8-10% but contain higher levels high GI (Glycaemic Index) feeds such as cereals. Alfalfa should be avoided due to the high protein content. Additional B vitamins and vitamin C are also helpful.

Kidney (renal) disease

Horses with renal disease should be fed in a similar way to those with liver disease, i.e. low protein diet containing high levels of quality branch chain amino acids. The kidneys are the primary sites of calcium excretion and so feeds rich in calcium such as alfalfa and beet pulp may result in the accumulation of calcium crystals in the kidneys, which may form kidney stones. Wheat bran and rice bran should be avoided. Feed quality meadow hay and supplemented cereals.


In adult horses diarrhoea is usually a result of large bowel disease. It often follows sudden changes in diet such as a change in forage or hard feed although this is often temporary. 

If diarrhoea continues for more than a couple of days horses should be supplemented with B vitamins and electrolytes. Feeding ad lib hay, salt and water is recommended if the diarrhoea follows treatment with antibiotics. High GI feeds such as high starch cereal mixes (even cool mixes) should be avoided.

Preprobiotics may also be beneficial.

To summarise it is important to maintain intake of micronutrients and quality amino acids to aid and support the immune system and provide the ingredients for tissue repair. Attention to detail will reduce the risk of an unnecessarily prolonged recovery and reduce the time spent on the easy list.


6. Visual assessment tips regarding haylage - is it safe to feed? 

 The facts about haylage and visual assessment tips - is it safe to feed?

  1. Haylage bales should have no damage or holes.
  2. Haylage must be used within 5 days of opening because as soon as air/oxygen gets into the bale it starts to deteriorate.
  3. It must not be fed if there is any visible mould/black areas, this is dangerous.
  4. Haylage contains more water than hay and therefore more haylage has to be fed than hay to provide the equivalent nutrients such as protein, fibre vitamins and minerals etc. This can increase the cost of feeding haylage!
  5. It must not be fed if there is any heat, which is evidence of spoilage and again can be very dangerous to feed.
  6. A small amount of yeasts are OK, but large amounts are evidence of spoilage due to very high levels of sugars still within the haylage bale and therefore poor fermentation.
  7. Haylage should be low in sugar if properly fermented as the sugars are used up during fermentation. Haylage therefore does not need soaking to remove sugars.
  8. Haylage should be slightly green/yellow and smell slightly sweet, too much vinegar smell is from acetic acid (poor fermentation) or tobacco smell and brown in colour is from butyric acid (again poor fermentation).
  9. Haylage should not be too wet as feeding this results in a higher risk of botulism which is usually fatal in horses. Haylage should not contain less than 50% Dry Matter or more than 50% Moisture.
  10. Removing mouldy bits from haylage and feeding the rest is dangerous, due to the possibility of mycotoxins still present in the bale which are not visible.
  11. There should be no evidence of gas/air in the bale i.e inflated bags before opening, this is also dangerous to feed.
  12. Each bale is a self fermenting unit which is why there can be so much inconsistency with bales opened from the same field.
  13. Haylage requires a certain amount of moisture and sugar within the grass plants to successfully ferment and produce a stable crop.
  14. Excess water in the bale is a sign of damage to the wrapping and rain water has got in or the haylage is too wet when initially wrapped!
  15. Spoiled haylage can cause colic, diarrhoea and other digestive upsets. Colic can be extremely severe and so it is really important not to “risk” feeding it, just simply return it to the supplier for a replacement.

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