The Best Types Of Horse Grain and Feed Practices

Hay is not enough to sustain a horse so consider different types of grain and best feed practices. Make sure your horses get that extra energy.

The amount and type of horse grain to feed depends on the horse itself. Its age, size, and, most importantly, how much energy it needs. Simply consider that a horse requires around 3% of its body weight in feed every day. That’s a lot of feed when you consider how much horses can weigh. However, most of that feed ration is hay while a lot of its energy will come from the grain feed.

Horses that are considered hard-working can expect to require more grain calories. Of course, pregnant horses will also need more grain calories compared to mature horses.

Do Not Overfeed Your Horses

While certain horses require a minimum amount of feed a day you should be careful not to overfeed them. There are rules to stick to which include:

  • Weigh out your daily feed rations, do not rely on scoop sizes
  • Hay should be a horse’s main source of feed, not grain
  • In a single feed, never exceed five pounds of grain

Overdoses in grain can result in colic, equine founder, or laminitis. In growing horses, it can also cause bone problems such as epiphysitis.

To prevent grain overdosing simply reduce the portion sizes then gradually increase them. You should still look to achieve the minimum energy requirements for the horse but in more frequent, reduced amounts. Horses generally prefer smaller portions anyway. Once you’ve reached a consistent amount of grain feed and a timed schedule then stick to it. Horses like to be regularly fed and won’t react well to sudden changes in amount or timing.

Ensuring that your horses get a properly balanced diet goes a long way to maintaining their health. While not an exact science, their diet can be complex and, if not considered enough, it can be harmful to your horses. A basic understanding of horse grains and feed practices will mean you know what benefit your horse is getting from its feed.


Forage should be your starting point and consists of grass and hay. This is the basis of your feeding program and contains the primary source of basic nutrients. However, with your horses out to pasture, it can be difficult to assess just how much forage they are consuming.

A healthy estimation would be that a 1,000-pound horse should consume 20 pounds of grass and hay a day. A third of that daily intake (around six pounds) will come in the eight hours when they are out to pasture. The remaining two-thirds (around 14 pounds) coming in the store over the rest of the day.

While your horses are in the store you can partly control how much forage they are consuming. Try to create a variety by using a different type of forage. If the horse is eating grass when out to pasture try to ensure they eat hay in the stall. Remember that the seasonal availability of pasture and its quality will also affect their consumption of forage. Less grass in the pasture would need to be supplemented by hay in the stall and vice versa.

You should also be careful that the quality of the hay does not exceed their nutritional requirements. Grass hay is usually a reliable option to have though you could call in a hay or feed dealer to provide a nutrient analysis. When feeding your horses in the stall look out for black, brown, gray, or white spots as these are indications of mold. Give it a sniff too, good-quality hay should smell fresh and not dusty or dank. It should also be pale to medium green color. Try to work out over time whether your horse needs further energy from grain which can also be controlled.

Types of Grain Feed

When deciding on the type of grain feed, take into consideration the horse’s nutritional needs. The balance of calories and nutrients has to be just right for each horse. The more exercise a horse is getting means more calories. For growing horses, getting the additional vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and calories is crucial. Lactating or pregnant horses need more nutrients to supplement fetal growth and milk production.

Think about discussing the grain feed composition with an equine nutritionist if you’re unsure. You may find that once the vitamins and minerals are added, the cost can exceed compound feed and premade grain.


Horses simply adore oats. They’re the quintessential horse feed and also one of the safest. Low in energy, high in fiber, they can be a great base for a grain feed. Though a basic grain, oats should be carefully considered. There’s more fiber in oat hulls and rolled oats have a higher digestibility than whole oats.

However, oats without hulls have a higher protein and lysine content. Lysine is useful for young horses as it is an essential amino acid that aids growth and development. One drawback is that oats on their own form an imbalanced diet which would result in a lack of calcium and an excess of phosphorus. Too much phosphorus actively prevents the absorption of calcium, which is not ideal.

You need to balance the oats out with other ingredients. This is specifically to ramp up trace minerals such as copper and zinc.


One such ingredient is barley. This is an ideal feed for horses that need to put on weight though it does lack bulk. Supplement the barley with chaff or beet pulp and insist on pre-prepared barley for horses. Horses need a low sugar and starch diet which can be disrupted by a high starch grain such as barley. The grain also lacks vitamins A and D with an even worse calcium to phosphorus ratio.


If you’re after energy then opt for cracked corn or corn flakes as it has the highest starch content. This is another excellent grain for weight gain, specifically in underweight and hard-working horses.

Compound Feed

Once you have established how much grain your horses need and the portion sizes you can decide how to feed it. The choice of grain is vital which is why a lot of horse owners opt for concentrate. This is a commercially balanced and mixed concentrate of grains as an alternative to feeding basic grains.

Just like individual grains, compound feed is an option that has its pros and cons. As a premade formula it comes already balanced with quality standards included. These formulas include various levels of starch, sugar, and protein. Vitamins and trace minerals are also carefully considered depending on the horse.

Without analyzing the make-up of a basic grain feed it could mean that your horses miss out on their basic nutritional needs. With a grain concentrate, you have a basic idea of what nutrients are included and match them to your horse’s needs. Compound feed is also formulated by equine nutritionists and requires less storage. However, with all those benefits it is comparably more expensive than basic grains.


It may be the case that your horses are getting all the calories they require from forage alone. If so, consider commercially-made sweet feed in pellet form as these will bump up the vitamins and minerals for your horses. They’re often referred to as a ‘balancer’ for that reason and may only require a pound or two a day considering the horse’s nutrient needs.

Best Feed Practices

To ensure your horse gets the best feed is a lesson in practicality and purity. Practical measures such as ground cover like carpeting or mats can prevent sand ingestion. Ideally, keep the feed pure by sticking with hay bins and grain feeders. An 8-foot square patch is ideal for a horse that likes to rummage with its feed.

Inspect your feed grains before introducing them to your horses. Any signs of mold or garbage debris are a no-no. Again, think practically and keep the grain separate with containers that have tight-fitting lids.

Feed Calculations

As well as not overfeeding your horse, you should be able to calculate how much they should be fed. Use a weight tape to establish an estimation of their weight. Place the tape around the horse, from the girth area to the highest point of the withers. Give or take 50 pounds, this should give you a good idea of the weight. This should be done every couple of weeks to note down any significant changes. If you can, you could use a large scale at a veterinary clinic to get an accurate reading.

Your formula will depend on the life stage of your horse and its nutritional needs. Whether they’re overweight, underweight, growing, or pregnant. Then there’s age, the type of horse and how much exercise it’s getting. The feed formula should consider the specific mix of vitamins and minerals, protein, fat, and calories for optimum health.

Body Condition

To calculate the feed, you need to assess the body condition of your horses. Are they in good shape for their life stage? Are they fat or thin? If you’re unsure, use the Henneke Body Condition Scoring System that rates a horse from 1 to 9. The lowest rank on the scale is emaciated with the top being obese. Ideally, your horses should rank between 4 and 6. Five should mean moderate fat cover. Signs to look out for include the ribs being felt easily but not seen. There should be fat cover over the loin, tailhead then behind the shoulders, and over the crest of the neck. Just feeling the horse in these places should be enough to determine the fat cover.

Final Thoughts

Working out the best type of horse gain takes an understanding of your horses. Their age, weight, body condition, life stage, and the amount of exercise they are getting. Be careful not to overfeed your horses. With the right type of grain and the best feed practices they should be fit and healthy.

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