Does my horse need grain?

Does your horse need grain? The short answer is – it depends.

There are a lot of varying factors when determining the correct diet for a horse. For instance, do you classify your horse as a working horse? Or is it a racehorse? Or maybe a broodmare? And are you finding it difficult to maintain a healthy weight for your horse?

If your answer to these questions is no, then no, your horse doesn’t need grain.

You see, though many horse owners still feed grain to their horses on a daily basis, most horses don’t need that grain for a balanced and healthy diet.

For years wild horses have survived by grazing on relatively low-quality grasslands for up to 18 hours a day, and the needs of today’s domestic horses can be similarly met by forage alone.

So ideally, if your horse is ‘idle’, (as in not working or exerting increased amounts of energy) it will get all the nutrients necessary to sustain it’s diet by grazing on fresh pasture or hay.

What if my horse is active?

However, active horses DO need grain. The energy requirements of say, a racehorse, is twice that of a pasture horse. But to eat twice the amount of forage is impossible!

So, if your horse has high energy requirements, it is important that you determine exactly what nutrients it needs to sustain activity.

According to April Lee’s Helpful Horse Hints, a horse will eat 2% of its body weight per day.

If the average horse weighs around 1,000 pounds, or 455kg, he needs to eat 15,000 Kcal to maintain his weight.

And if he eats 2% of his body weight, it would be equal to around 9kg of hay per day. This will give him the required amount of 16,000 – 20,000 Kcal of energy.

If he is a moderately active horse, he needs more than that, around 26,245 Kilocalories, and if he is highly active, or a racehorse, he needs double (30,000 – 40,000 Kcal per day).

The below table from Horse Racing Sense show the average requirements of different nutrients for different types of horses. It is interesting to note the significant variances in required energy, dependent on the horses activity levels.

Please be aware that these numbers are a guide only, and each horse should be treated as an individual.

Type of Horse Crude Protein (% of daily ration) Energy (calories) Vitamin “A” Calcium (international units) Phosphorus
Mature at rest
10% 13,860-16,390 10,000-12,500 16,000-20,000 12,000-15,000
Mature at light work 10% 18,360-21,890 10,000-12,500 16,000-20,000 12,000-15,000
Mature at moderate work 11.5% 23,800-28,690 10,000-12,500 17,200-21,200 13,000-16,000
Mare in last 90 days of pregnancy 13.3% 14,880-17,350 20,000-25,000 19,500-24,000 15,000-18,000
Lactating Mares 19% 24,390-27,620 20,000-25,000 42,000-47,000 35,600-38,600
Foals (3 mos.) 14.3% 12,070 4,400 30,500 19,100
Yearlings 12.3% 16,810 11,000 26,000 17,400
18 month 11.3% 17,160 16,000 23,000 16,000

When your horse requires such large amounts of calories to sustain activity, it is necessary to use grain as a supplement in his diet.

Grain is a much more efficient way to maintain the weight and strength of a horse, as it provides around 1.5 times more energy per pound, and is much smaller by volume. Feeding grain will also make it easier for you to monitor the levels of nutrients and minerals that your horse eats.

What levels of nutrients does an active horse need?

The levels of nutrients required by individual horses does vary. Using a thoroughbred racehorse as an example, the table below shows a suggested feeding plan from Virbac Australia for a 500kg horse.

Feed type Early training Full work Purpose in ration
Oaten Chaff 400g 400g Roughage
Lucerne Chaff 400g 400g Roughage
Whole Oats 2kg 4kg Energy
Steam/Rolled Barley 2kg 1kg Energy
Cracked Corn   1.5kg Energy
Extruded full-fat Soyabean Meal 250g 250g Protein
Cracked/Crushed/Rolled Lupins or Tic Beans 250 – 500g 250 – 500g Protein
Black Sunflower Seeds 250g 250g Protein/energy/fat
Vegetable Oil 1 cup 1 cup Fat as energy
Lucerne Hay ad lib ad lib Roughage

For specific protein, fat, carbohydrate, mineral & vitamin requirements suited to your horse, it would be best to consult a vet or equine nutritionist.

However, as a general guide the energy needs of your horse can be met by feeding grain as a percentage of their total feed. Grain should make up a maximum of 25% of your horse’s total feed.

This means, using the same figures as before, that a 455kg highly active horse eating 18kg of feed can have up to 4.5kg of grain per day. The balance of feed will come from grazing fresh pasture or hay.

It is important though to keep an eye out for any loss of condition or health problems that may arise – these could be caused by an imbalance in nutrients.

Types of grain

Barley is an important component in many horse feeds and grain mixes. It is very similar to oats, though it does tend to be quite hard and requires processing to make the nutrients more available. Barley is lower in fibre than oats but is a great source of energy and protein.
Corn provides energy to horses in the form of starch. It has a high concentrate of carbohydrates, and around 7-12% protein. Corn does not provide all the essential minerals and vitamins that your horse will need, so it is most effective when mixed with other grains or supplements.
Hay provides a good amount of fibre and energy for your horse. Different types of hay will obviously have different qualities, but a premium hay can absolutely supply all the calcium and vitamins that your horse will need on a day-to-day basis – providing it is not burning large amounts of calories during the day.
Lupins are a great source of digestible fibre and are therefore considered to be a nutritious form of slow-release energy. They are low in sugar and starch, with around 28-34% protein, 11-15% fibre and 5% fat. Many horse nutritionists refer to lupins as a ‘Super Fibre,’ as they provide one of the healthiest forms of digestible energy for horses and are great for improving immune systems and general health.
Oats are probably the most common grain fed to horses. They are a great source of quick-release energy, mainly in the form of starch. Oats provide around 13% protein, along with phosphorus, fibre & B vitamins – all of which are important for a healthy metabolism. Phosphorus especially is important for strengthening bones, teeth, joints, and hooves, and it is an electrolyte (like Gatorade), which means it is really great for hard working horses.
Sunflower Seeds are full of natural protein and fats, which improves coat condition. They are a cool energy source, and are rich in vitamins, minerals, and magnesium. Horses generally enjoy sunflower seeds as a treat, but they are definitely safe to include as a staple in their regular diet. However, please be aware that too much (anything over 450grams) can cause an unbalanced diet which could negatively affect your horse’s health.
Tic Beans are high in protein and fibre, and are a rich source of vitamins, minerals & potassium. They have an energy level similar to that of cereal grains, making them a great source of nutrition for your horse when used as part of a balanced diet.

Best practices for feeding grain

These grains are all available as straight grains or in specially formulated grain mixes.

Straight grains are often processed – i.e., rolled or cracked – for better digestibility, but are available as whole grains as well. And grain mixes are generally formulated in consultancy with equine nutritionists to ensure that the correct nutrient levels for your animals are being met.

If you choose to create your own grain mix specific to your individual horse’s requirements, and your local produce store does not stock the grain you require, they should be able to help you source the grain or find an appropriate alternative.

Please keep in mind when feeding your horse that though grains are a traditional horse food and have been for years, they are not a ‘natural’ food for horses. Is it easy to feed too much grain to horses, which can result in health issues such as ulcers or colic.

When feeding grain, try and spread the meals out throughout the day, as horses really are a grazing animal and like to snack, rather than just have 1 or 2 big meals per day.

Keep up the consistent amounts of forage, using either fresh pasture or hay, and try and mix your grain with chaff or some sort of roughage to slow down your horses’ intake and make sure that they properly digest the grain.

Remember, grains are used as a supplement feed to meet the energy requirements of active horses. By monitoring the individual needs of your horse, you can ensure that their diet sustains their specific activity levels and is not harmful to their health

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