The Horse's Hoof Diet Guidelines

by Yvonne Welz ©2011
Revised 04/11

How do you keep your horse's diet as natural as possible in the modern world? What if you don't have 100 acres of varied terrain to supply your horse with the different plants and minerals that it requires to fulfill its nutritional needs? There are so many diets programs available, often with contradictory opinions about what and what not to feed. It can get so confusing! In our opinion, what matters most, when trying out a supplement program, is that you are able to see positive results in your horses--an improvement in their overall health and bloom. We've found what works best for us, and for many of our friends. These recommendations are based on our own trial and error experiences, and on our own latest nutritional research findings.

1. Forage: Feed free choice grass hay or pasture as much as possible. Ideally, try to always provide something for the horse to munch on 24 hours per day. Provide lower quality grass hays to the easy-keepers. We highly recommend slow-feeding systems! If available and affordable, it is ideal to purchase pesticide-free or organic hays. Realistically, this is not an option for most horsesowners, but perhaps that will change if demand increases. Forage should be the basis of the equine diet. For more information about choosing appropriate hays and grasses for horses, visit Some horses with hoof problems are very sensitive to sugar content of hay, and some grass hays can be high in sugar! In general, cool season grasses (orchard, timothy, brome) are higher in sugars than the warm season grasses (bermuda, prairie grass).

Try to limit alfalfa or legume hays to no more than 10-20% of the total daily hay quantity -- but it may be a good idea to feed a very small amount of alfalfa daily to any horse that is NOT on grass pasture, for the extra nutrients it provides. Alfalfa is lower in sugar/starch than most grass hays, and is very nutritious, but should be fed more as a “supplement.” We have personally observed no ill effects on hooves from the feeding of small amounts of alfalfa; however there can be ill-effects if the horse is overweight! The problem with alfalfa is in feeding it in large amounts - because it is too rich in calories, and has a poor mineral balance and too much protein for horses. So feed it sparingly to most horses, but use as needed.

2. Energy Sources:

Grain: We recommend feeding as little grain as possible. Grain should be considered more of a "supplement" than a food, due to the many problems caused by excess starch in a horse's diet. A small amount of grain (less than a pound per day, preferably just a handful) fed for variety will not be a problem for most horses. There are quality organic grain pellets available to give you more options (be sure to purchase from a top quality company). Whole grains should be clean and from a trustworthy source -- ideally, buy organic or pesticide free and non-GMO. As long as the amounts fed are kept to a minimum, all grains can be fed to some horses in very small quantities for variety. (Horses with Insulin Resistance, Metabolic Syndrome, or EPSM/PSSM or other grain-sensitive disorders should usually avoid all grains).

Grain Substitutes: Most horses should require little to no grain at all, but they will still need nutrients to balance out their hay, which should be supplied in vitamin/mineral supplements. If "grain" is necessary to mix these supplements, try using soaked grass hay pellets, or grass/alfalfa mix pellets. Many people use beet pulp and/or rice bran, but those two bi-products have very heavy pesticide levels, and most beets are now GMO. These bi-products and other filler ingredients of questionable quality are also among the primary components of most commercial low-carb grain mixes. Alternatively, there are a few really high quality companies who produce equine feed products that truly stand out, with organic high quality human grade ingredients, non-GMO, and sustainable production - seek those out. Really scrutinize what you feed your horse (I don't eat processed foods, so why would I feed that to my horses?)

Fats: Horses do not usually require high amounts of fat in their diet, and green grass will supply all the fatty acids that they need. Non-grazing horses should probably receive a supplement to provide the necessary Omega-3 fatty acids. Our absolute favorite are chia seeds, which can be fed without any worry about preparation or safety! Other suitable products include whole extruded soybeans (must be properly prepared), whole fresh-ground flaxseed, or a stabilized flaxseed meal (fed in small amounts). We recommend that you avoid feeding liquid vegetable oils in general to horses (and to yourself, except for olive oil and coconut oil!) For most horses, natural fat sources such as black oil sunflower seeds (BOSS), chia seeds, flaxseed, or whole extruded soybeans can provide excellent energy nutrition and fatty acids.

3. Vitamins/Minerals: If your horse lives on an organic pasture with grass & herbs grown in virgin soil that produces plant life with correct nutrient values, it may not be necessary to provide supplements. However, over-farming, over-grazing, pesticides, chemicals, harsh fertilizers, acid rain, etc. have all contributed to a decline in nutrient values of our soils. Ideally, you really need to have your pasture and hay analyzed to determine your area's deficiencies. If you don't have a reliable source of hay, and therefore can't test, try to find out the general values of hay grown in your area. There will be a pattern: different areas of the country have different excesses and deficiencies. Here is more information about feed analysis: ANALYZING HAY AND FEEDS

Once you know your hay's (or your area's) deficiencies, you can look for a supplement that will complement that. Some companies will custom-blend supplements for you (you may need the help of a nutritionist for that). For those people who won't be testing hay, a general multivitamin/mineral balanced nutrient supplement can be used as a base for the horse's diet. A precaution against over-supplementation is to always choose chelated mineral supplements, which are better absorbed and handled in the body, plus chelation prevents a mineral from interacting with other minerals and causing problems. Finally, try not to mix lots of different products and brands together (which could cause negative mineral interactions!) -- instead, stay with one good company, and keep it simple!

Free-choice minerals can provide a more natural way of balancing hay variables—we recommend that these free choice minerals be provided in balanced mixes within a program tailored for this type of supplementation. Free-choice minerals can be provided to the horse, either routinely or with free access at all times. Although their use is debated, there is anecdotal evidence that horses can regulate their minerals, and we have had good experiences with high quality free-fed minerals within a complete supplement program (i.e. not as the sole source of supplementation). If you are providing an exact daily-fed mineral mix based on your own specific hay and feed analysis, it may be best to avoid free-choice minerals altogether, which might throw your intricate balance out of whack. However, if you are like most owners, and simply trying to help balance out your rations in general, free-choice minerals make sense -- but choose wisely! Some free-choice minerals have very questionable ingredients.

Always provide free choice plain loose salt at all times for all horses. We recommend providing loose salt, in addition to a white salt block, if you must use a block (do not use the red mineral blocks made for cattle).

4. Other supplements:

Probiotics: Use a daily probiotic or prebiotic. It is cheap insurance for keeping your horse's digestion in top condition. It is indispensable for horses that are stressed, underweight, going through changes such as de-shoeing and de-toxing, any horse prone to colic or digestive upsets, and even for the easy-keeper whose system may not really be working correctly. It really works!

We also recommend that you feed your horse fresh food as often as possible. Besides the standard carrots and apples (keep quantities small for overweight horses!), offer vegetables (leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, pumpkin, squashes), fruits (bananas, grapes, peaches, watermelon, oranges, apricots, nectarines, berries), and very small amounts of nuts and seeds.

Beyond these basics, supplements become a very individualized situation. We always prefer to keep it as simple as possible.

Nutritional Paradigm:

We provided the above information in a generic format, without reference to specific brands. With that in mind, we feel there are two general overall approaches to nutrition: 1) scientific/analytical and 2) intuitive/artistic.

If you love graphs and grids and flow charts, you might really enjoy going the scientific/analytical direction. There are lots of numbers to crunch. Have your hay and feed anaylyzed and custom-create a specific supplement just for your horses. However, in the end, it still remains hypothetical! Just because it looks good on paper doesn't mean it will create optimal health, and there are lots of details that can lead to the wrong calculations. It is just one approach.

The second intuitive/artistic approach will appeal to you if you are really in tune with your animals' needs, and are interested in learning techniques like muscle testing, testing reflex points, and other ways to help you gain insight into what your horse needs, nutritionally, to be in better balance with the world. Personally, this is the approach that we utilize, and the products and nutrition program that we choose are from Dynamite Specialty Products.

©2011 by The Horse's Hoof. All rights reserved. No part of these publications may be reproduced by any means whatsoever without the written permission of the publisher and/or authors. The information contained within these articles is intended for educational purposes only, and not for diagnosing or medicinally prescribing in any way. Readers are cautioned to seek expert advice from a qualified health professional before pursuing any form of treatment on their animals. Opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the publisher.

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