Feed and Water

Horses, donkeys and mules require good quality feed. Good overall feed management includes providing feeds that are safe and that meet the nutritional and behavioural needs of horses, donkeys and mules. Good quality forage (hay or pasture) should form the bulk of the diet for equines. Section 4.5-Condition Scoring includes other information relevant to feeding equines.


Water is the single most important nutrient in the management of horses. Equines (in particular donkeys and mules) will limit their water intake to the point of dehydration if the quality (palatability) of drinking water is compromised. They may also limit their intake of water from a new source, such as when moved to a new location. It may be advisable to take a supply of water with you on trips.

Generally, the minimum daily amount of water required by horses at maintenance and in a moderate environment (i.e. 5°C-20°C) is 5L (1.32gal) of water for ever 100kg (2201bs) of body weight. The amount of water the horse needs will go above this minimum with:

increased humidity

increased ambient temperature

increase in the horse's metabolic activity level (in work, pregnant, lactating)

the presence of some health conditions (e.g. diarrhea)

a diet high in salt or potassium.

Snow as a Water Source

There is limited research on snow as a sole water source for horses. Given the scientific research on the water needs of horses in general, snow alone will not meet their water requirements. Some research shows that limiting liquid water intake can lead to reduced feed intake, a particular concern in the winter months given the increased energy needs of horses in cold temperatures. Water requirements may even increase in cold temperatures because water intake increases as feed intake increases.


Horses must have access to safe palatable and clean water in quantities to maintain health and vigour.

In extreme weather conditions (cold or hot), special attention must be paid to ensure water availability, access and intake.

Water troughs, containers and any automatic watering devices must be cleaned regularly and maintained in working order with no sharp or abrasive edges.


a.construct and locate water troughs and buckets so they are protected from contamination and freezing

b.check automatic watering systems daily to ensure they are dispensing water properly

c.check for stray voltage from the water source (e.g. electric fence ground rods and defective heaters).
Horses may refuse to drink if they receive even a slight electric shock when drinking

d.offer tepid water in cold temperatures to encourage intake, especially for geriatric horses (water can be heated up to 20°C to optimize intake in cold temperatures) 

    e. test water quality at least annually, unless it is from a previously tested water supply safe for human consumption.

Safety of Feedstuffs

Before feeding hay, ensure it is free from dust, mould, soil, weeds and poisonous plants. Concentrates should be dust-free and not too finely ground. Some feeds that are appropriate for other farm animals are not appropriate for horses (e.g. medicated cattle feeds).

Feed must also be securely stored. This will help prevent contamination of the feed which can impact horse health. When horses gain unrestricted access to concentrates (e.g. pellets, grains such as oats and barley), they are likely to overeat, which can also cause serious health problems.


Horses must have daily access to forage that is free from visible mould and has minimal dust. Horses must only receive feedstuffs that are appropriate for the species. Concentrates must be stored in a secure manner that prevents horses from overeating.


a.ensure the ration has been balanced for nutrient content and that all feed components used in the ration are of good quality and free from spoilage labels on all feeds

c.clean buckets and troughs regularly concentrates in sealed, rodent-proof containers

e.remove baling twine and any other debris from the feeding area.

Feeding Behaviour

Horses are strongly motivated to forage (eating hay, grazing pasture) based on their inherent nature. When given the opportunity, they exhibit approximately the same feeding patterns observed in free-ranging horses: eating an average of 12 hours per day and never voluntarily fasting for more than 3-4 hours. (actually many sources say horses graze up to 18 hours a day - Keith Hunt)

Horses without available pasture or free-choice forage (e.g. round bales) should be fed at least twice daily. If feeding concentrates, a good practice is to feed forage first. Feeding forage increases the amount of time horses spend eating and results in slower digestion. Allowing large spans of time between meals (and thus with the horse's stomach essentially empty) appears to be linked to gastric ulcers and has sometimes been associated with increased frequency of stereotypic behaviour, such as cribbing.


a.employ feeding strategies that allow horses to forage (e.g. grazing pasture, eating hay in a dry lot) or that allow horses to mimic their natural feeding behaviour (e.g. slow-feeding hay nets, trickle feeders)

b.maximize the time that horses have access to forage. Depending on dietary needs, this may be achieved by free-choice feeding of forage, feeding forage multiple times per day or using slow-feeding devices

c.allow horses to feed in a head-down position, when possible. This results in natural dental wear and reduces the risk of respiratory conditions. The ground/flooring where horses are fed should be free from contaminants (e.g. sand and manure) or the feed should not be in direct contact with the ground.

Nutritional Content and Feed Management

The amount of feed horses need is based on the horse's maintenance needs (i.e. to maintain at rest or idle) plus the horse's activity needs (growing, in work, pregnant, lactating). The average mature horse will consume 1.5-2% of its body weight in feed per day to meet its daily maintenance needs. As forage is important to maintain proper gut function, it is crucial that forage forms the majority of the ration.

The nutrient content of hay can vary. With forages of good nutritional content, little to no supplementation is needed. Donkeys, mules, miniature horses, ponies, and some breeds of horses are particularly prone to obesity. These equines may need special feed management (eg. provide coarse grass types of hay and/or some straw).

Feeding haylage or silage can be suitable for horses provided these feedstuffs are of excellent quality; are free from toxins and ruminant-specific additives; and the horses are given time to adapt to this type of feed. Horses fed haylage or silage should be vaccinated against botulism poisoning.

Concentrates are fed at different rates based on the increased energy needs not met by the forage. The quantity of concentrates fed should be no more than that necessary to provide the required energy - horses will not need concentrates to meet their energy needs. Feeding excessive concentrates can contribute to obesity, digestive upset and laminitis.

Minerals and vitamins may be deficient in some diets. It is advisable to consult a nutritionist or veterinarian familiar with the nutrient content of feeds grown in your region.

Feed Space

Feed space varies depending on the size, number, and temperament of horses that will feed simultaneously from the same site. Generally, competition for feed can be reduced by providing horses in groups with multiple feeding sites (whether buckets or boxes). Hay racks or feed troughs that provide lm (3.3ft) of feeding space per animal are generally appropriate. An extra feeding point (i.e. one more than the number of horses) can help reduce aggression.


Horses must receive a diet that is adequate for maintaining health and vigour.

The daily ration must address the horse's maintenance and activity needs and other factors relevant to individual horses and the environment.

Horses must have access to salt either provided in the ration or free access (a block or loose salt).


a.consult a nutritionist or veterinarian to develop a feed program and balanced ration

b.monitor the weight and body condition score of individual horses on a weekly basis and adjust the feed to maintain an optimum body condition score (refer to Section 4.5-Body Condition Scoring)

c.have feeds, including forage, analyzed to obtain accurate nutrient values

d.provide feed on a regular daily schedule, preferably divided into several meals

e.make any changes to the type or quantity of feed gradually over 7-10 days to avoid gastrointestinal upset

f.feed on the basis of the energy value and weight of the feed (not volume of feed).

Thermal Impacts on Dietary Energy Needs

Horses exposed to ambient temperatures below 5°C need more feed (particularly forage) for maintenance. Most horses will increase their feed intake in cold temperatures achieving their increased energy
needs; however, some may need to be fed a more energy-dense diet. Horses may voluntarily decrease feed intake as temperatures increase. Refer also to Section 2.1.2-Shade and Outdoor Shelter and Appendix K-Resoures for Further Information.


a.increase the quantity of forage in the diet during cold temperatures additional feeds (e.g. concentrates) for horses not maintaining their body condition on forage only during cold temperatures.

Growing Horses

Growing horses will generally consume 3% of their body weight in feed per day. Their specific feed requirements depend on their age, growth rate, activity level and anticipated weight at maturity. A key principle in feeding young, growing horses is to provide high quality feeds that are balanced for growth.

Foals and Weanlings

The dam's milk will normally meet the foal's nutrient requirements for the first 6-8 weeks of life. If creep feed is necessary, it should be provided to foals at a rate of 0.5-1% of body weight per day to a maximum of l.-2.3kg (4-51bs). The same formulation of creep feed can be fed to weanlings at a rate of 1% of body weight per day up to a maximum of 2.3-2.7kg (5-61bs). Weanlings need high quality hay fed free choice or at 1.5-2% of body weight per day. Creep rations need to be balanced for growth.

Yearlings and Two-Year-Olds

Growth rate slows considerably by 12 months; however, even two-year-olds have higher nutrient requirements than mature horses at maintenance. It is advisable to feed yearlings and two-year-olds separately from mature horses as they may not compete well when fed with mature horses. If high quality hay or high quality pasture is available, yearlings and two-year-olds may not need concentrates.


   Growing horses must receive a diet that is adequate for maintaining health, growth and  vigour.


a.consult a veterinarian or nutritionist when caring for an orphan foal. Specialized knowledge is needed to meet their nutritional requirements

b.ensure the total daily ration for growing horses consists of 13-15% protein overall (depending on the region, the protein content of forage will vary and should be balanced with the concentrate)

c.consult a nutritionist or veterinarian to determine if your foal would benefit from creep feed

d.consult a nutritionist or veterinarian to ensure the nutrient requirements of young horses entering training are met

e.feed horses of similar nutritional needs together.

       Horses in Work

Work increases nutrient needs. Dietary energy (the caloric content) is the nutrient most affected by increased work. Other nutrient requirements also increase marginally however, the increased protein, vitamin and mineral needs are often met with the extra energy source. The addition of more energy dense feeds (e.g. concentrates) to the ration is usually necessary for horses in work. Added fat can be used to reduce reliance on large amounts of carbohydrates.


Horses in work must receive a diet that is adequate for maintaining health and vigour.


a.divide the concentrate ration into at least two meals and avoid feeding more than 0.5-0.6kg (1.1-1.31bs) of concentrate per 100kg (2001bs) of body weight in any single feeding

b.avoid feeding immediately prior to or after strenuous exercise

c.ensure sufficient salt is provided as horses lose salt in sweat during-work

d.ensure any increase in concentrate is done gradually over 7-10 days to prevent digestive upset.


In the breeding season, stallions have higher energy requirements similar to horses in light work (see Section 3.4.3). Although the energy expended by the stallion during mating is modest, the additional activity of changes in behaviour (e.g. pacing, nervousness) can substantially increase energy needs. Stallions finishing the breeding season in good body condition can be tapered down to maintenance by increasing the hay portion and decreasing the concentrate portion. Adding extra feed or supplements will not enhance fertility for stallions already receiving a balanced diet.


Stallions must receive a diet that is adequate for maintaining health and vigour.


a.take advantage of the months prior to the breeding season to ensure the stallion's body condition is appropriate (refer to Section 4.5-Body Condition Scoring

b.ensure any increase in concentrate is done gradually over 7-10 days to prevent digestive upset

c.avoid feeding more than 0.5-0.6kg (l.l-1.31bs) of concentrate per 100kg (2001bs) of body weight in any single feeding.

       Reproductive Mares and Jennets

Proper nutrition improves fertility and promotes normal growth and development of the fetus. The energy requirements of mares and jennets increase significantly during late gestation (i.e. the last three months) and are the greatest during early lactation (i.e. months 1-3).

There are advantages to including a small amount of concentrate (i.e. 0.5-0.75% of body weight) during late gestation: growth of the foal in late gestation can compress the mare's digestive tract, reducing the mare's/jennet's digestive capacity. Including concentrate will supply the energy needed while reducing the amount of hay she needs to consume concentrate may help meet the mare's/jennet's increased nutrient requirements when the nutrient content of hay is poor it can help adapt the mare/jennet to increased concentrate feeding during lactation.


Pregnant and lactating mares/jennets must receive a diet that is adequate for maintaining health and vigour and that allows the mares/jennets to provide adequate nutrition to the foal.


a. consult a nutritionist or veterinarian to ensure the nutrient requirements that are of concern during pregnancy and lactation are met (e.g. calcium, phosphorous and micronutrients) 

b. ensure mares/jennets are fed a diet with sufficient protein (11% during late gestation; 13.5% in early lactation [months 1-3]; 11% in late lactation [months 4-6]) 

c. supplement with concentrate when: energy needs increase (late gestation and lactation), the mare/jennet needs to improve body condition, or if the nutrient content of hay is poor

d. ensure any increase in concentrate is done gradually over 7-10 days to prevent digestive upset

e. divide the concentrate into at least two meals and avoid feeding more than 0.5-0.6kg (l.l-1.31bs) of concentrate per 100 kg (2201bs) of body weight in any single feeding.

       Geriatric Horses 

Geriatric horses (see glossary) will typically consume 1.5-2% of body weight in feed to meet their daily maintenance needs. Good quality forage is generally a good sole maintenance feed source provided the teeth are in good condition. Dental disease is common in geriatric horses and can result in slower eating inadequate chewing and/or refusal to eat due to pain. Some geriatric horses may need specialized rations (refer to Section 4.3-Dental Care).

Weight loss or failure to maintain appropriate body condition in the face of perceived adequate feeding strategies are common problems in geriatric horses. However, old age itself is not a cause for weight loss. Therefore, owners need to make an effort to determine the cause and take corrective action. Euthanasia may be necessary on welfare grounds if appropriate corrective actions fail to result in an increase in body condition above the nainimum acceptable score. Refer to Section 4.5-Body Condition Scoring.

Causes of weight loss or poor body condition in geriatric horses, include:

a. underfeeding or giving feeds of insufficient nutritional content

b. reduced feed intake (e.g. due to competition for feed)

c. inability to eat (e.g. due to painful dental problems)

d. lack of appetite due to health conditions

e. increased nutrient requirements (e.g. due to health conditions)

f. parasitism.


Geriatric horses must receive a diet that is adequate for maintaining health and vigour.

Refer to Section 4.5-Body Condition Scoring for other relevant Requirements.


a.have a veterinarian perform a dental examination on geriatric horses at least annually with a nutritionist or veterinarian to establish a feeding program for geriatric horses

c.monitor the weight and body condition score of geriatric horses regularly - identify animals that are
too thin or fat, ascertain the specific cause and employ effective strategies to correct the problem

d.ensure geriatric horses have sufficient access to feed (e.g. increase the number of feed locations or the
amount of feed space at any single location, rearrange the groups such that competition is minimized)

e.ensure changes to the type or quantity of feed are done gradually over 7-10 days to avoid
gastrointestinal upset.