Does my horse need feed?

This question often arises especially with horses who are turned out to pasture 24/7. Your horse might be among the herd and you notice they are the skinniest of the bunch. From feeding in many different places with many different types of rules about feed and medications, the most I can say is- it is up to you or your veterinarian’s judgement. Horses mainly eat ‘roughage’ or grazing food such as grass and hay, so adding grain to the diet may help them but I have found several different things that have worked for horses I’ve been responsible for to support either their weight gain or their new exercise regimen.

At the lesson barn I have worked for, we feed all of the horses morning and night. These horses are ready for this routine and get anxious when you break out of it. But when I started riding for a family friend I noticed their horses were staying even more fit without any grain at all. I noticed above the grain distribution there are more important factors to your horse’s weight gain.

Quality of fields: The large lesson barn I work with always has 50+ horses, and while there is definitely room for all of them, they make sure to strip the fields down to the bare bones grass wise. There is no outside foraging, so hay must be provided every other day in large quantities to keep up with each horse’s needs. The small family farm on the other hand, has six horses in total over about 15 acres. The fields were allowed to grow in between ownership, as these horses have just been transferred to the area within the past six months. So their field is much more lush than the lesson barn’s.

Roughage Quality and Accessibility: The quality and accessibility of hay is another important factor in whether or not your horse might need the supplement of grain every day. For example, at the lesson barn the hay is given in such large quantities because the largest field has about 12 horses in it, and it is given in several different areas because some of the horses don’t like each other. The hay shipped in is….average quality, definitely sufficient but nothing that could support every horse without grain. Some horses who are at the bottom of the pecking order are also taken out and fed larger grain amounts separately so they do not thin out. The horses on the smaller farm have about three horses in the largest field, all of which like each other (these horses are also the buddy sour horses I wrote about in a previous article). The quality of hay they get is honestly straight out of their backyard. They get premium cuts of timothy grass that to my belief will be supplemented with alfalfa in the colder months. Out of all of these horses, the only per say ‘skinny’ one is the older one, and he isn’t even skinny he has the older horse look so it doesn’t exactly count. The other two are honestly fatties who could not eat for a week and be okay. Anyway, yes, the main determination of whether or not to feed your horse grain will be because of the quality of hay and the amount they receive.

Amount of Work: Another reason the horses at the lesson barn receive grain is because six days a week they are used in up to two lessons each, if they are able. It is important that they have the extra food to burn so they do not get worn out. Furthermore, in the hot months sometimes horses are given extra electrolytes provided by the barn owner and in the coldest days of the cold months they are given a heavier mix of oats and oil to support the extra energy they’ll be burning to keep warm. For the smaller barn, as long as there is premium hay in surplus amounts, they won’t need any kind of grain unless they are being worked during the winter months (it will be harder for them to work in the cold months because there is only outdoor riding at this farm).

Rules of Feed (Supported by the post from the Humane Society’s list of important feeding habits):

  • When you are deciding to feed or wean your horse off of feed, it is important to not do it instantaneously. Horses are animals of habit, as are their digestive tracts. A sudden change could result in anything from discomfort and irritability to colic.
  • It is important to also never feed your horses right before or after being worked. A common dialogue between everyone and the feed person for the day is “Is my horse’s food in its stall” or “Make sure your horse is cool before it eats”. This is important communication in such a large barn to make sure every horse is well take care of and at the least risk of colic or other ailments. It’s the same as, imagine running a marathon or do anything that will push your exercising limits….and then come home and eat pancakes or something else heavy…..that would not be fun.
  • There are other ideas found on the humane society’s website that I will link, but these are the most apparent rules I follow and most important to keeping your horses fit and healthy.

Humane Society’s Site


“The Rules of Feeding Your Horse.” The Humane Society of the United States, HSUS, 29 Aug. 2018,


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