In this episode of Ask the Equine Nutritionist, Dr. Nerida Richards and Dr. Lydia Gray discuss the question of whether to continue feeding grain to a new horse. They point out the importance of good hindgut health when it comes to feeding and highlight the benefits of a hay-based diet for horses. Dr. Richards explains that if the horse is not going to be in intense work and the hay quality is good, a forage-based diet can support gut health and provide all the necessary nutrients for the horse. However, they also recommend supplementing the hay diet with vitamin and mineral supplements to ensure the horse’s nutritional needs are fully met.

When considering whether to continue feeding grain or switch to a hay-based diet, it’s essential to assess the horse’s individual needs and workload. Dr. Richards suggests that if the horse is doing a lot of intense work, it may be necessary to bring in additional feed. However, for a relaxed horse in light to moderate work, a hay-based diet can promote optimal gut health and efficiently extract energy from forages. Adding vitamin and mineral supplements can help meet the horse’s trace mineral requirements. It’s also recommended to consult with a veterinarian if the horse’s body condition is low or if there are concerns about underlying health issues.

Ask the Equine Nutritionist - Should I continue to feed grain to my new horse?

Understanding Horse Nutrition

Horse nutrition is a critical aspect of caring for your equine companion. Providing your horse with the right balance of nutrients is essential for maintaining their overall health and well-being. By understanding the essentials of horse nutrition, the importance of balanced nutrition, and the role of nutrition in overall horse health, you can ensure that your horse is happy and healthy.

The essentials of horse nutrition

Horses are herbivores, which means they primarily eat plant-based materials. Their digestive systems are designed to process large amounts of fibrous materials, such as grass and hay. Consequently, a horse’s diet should be predominantly forage-based. Forage includes grass, hay, and haylage and provides essential nutrients like fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals.

Water is also a crucial component of a horse’s diet. Horses should have access to fresh, clean water at all times. It is recommended that horses consume a minimum of 10-12 gallons of water per day, but this amount may increase depending on factors such as temperature, exercise level, and gestation.

Horses also require essential nutrients such as proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals to maintain proper bodily functions. These nutrients support muscle development, provide energy, aid in digestion, promote strong bones, and support the immune system. Ensuring that your horse’s diet incorporates a well-balanced mix of these nutrients is crucial for their overall health.

Importance of balanced nutrition

Providing your horse with a balanced diet is essential for their overall health and well-being. A balanced diet ensures that they receive the correct ratios of nutrients to support growth, maintain weight, and perform at their best. A deficiency or excess of certain nutrients can lead to various health issues, including weight loss, poor coat condition, hoof problems, and metabolic disorders.

A balanced diet also plays a significant role in supporting a horse’s immune system. Proper nutrition strengthens the immune response, helping horses fight off diseases and recover from illness or injury more effectively. It also plays a crucial role in maintaining healthy hooves, maintaining muscle mass, and preventing digestive issues such as colic.

Role of nutrition in overall horse health

Nutrition plays a vital role in maintaining a horse’s overall health. A well-balanced diet can improve their coat condition, promote healthy hoof growth, enhance muscle development, support reproduction and gestation, and even influence their behavior and mental well-being.

Additionally, proper nutrition can directly impact a horse’s performance and energy levels. Whether you engage in recreational riding, compete in equestrian sports, or utilize your horse for work, their nutrition directly affects their ability to meet the physical demands placed upon them. A horse with a well-balanced diet is more likely to have the necessary strength, endurance, and mental focus to excel in their daily activities.

Specifics about Feeding Grains to Horses

Feeding grain to horses: pros and cons

Grains, such as corn, barley, oats, and wheat, are commonly used as a supplemental feed for horses. Feeding grains to horses can provide additional calories and nutrients, making them suitable for horses with increased energy requirements, such as those in intense training or competition. Grains can be an excellent source of energy for performance horses and those needing weight gain.

However, it is essential to consider the cons of feeding grains as well. Grains are high in starch, and excessive starch consumption can disrupt the pH balance in a horse’s hindgut, which can increase the risk of digestive issues such as colic and laminitis. Additionally, some horses may have sensitivities or allergies to specific grains, leading to adverse reactions or poor digestion.

Effects of grain feeding on horse health

Feeding excessive amounts of grain or an unbalanced grain-based diet can have adverse effects on a horse’s health. One common consequence is weight gain or obesity, which can lead to various health complications, such as metabolic disorders. The high starch content in grains can also upset the microbial balance in the horse’s gut, potentially causing digestive disturbances.

Furthermore, grain feeding can increase the risk of certain conditions, such as gastric ulcers, hindgut acidosis, and musculoskeletal disorders. It is crucial to manage the portion sizes and selection of grains carefully to ensure optimal health.

Misconceptions about grain feeding

There are a few common misconceptions about grain feeding that need to be addressed. The first misconception is that all horses need grain in their diet. While some horses may benefit from grain supplementation, many horses can meet their energy needs through a well-balanced forage-based diet alone. Understanding your individual horse’s energy requirements, workload, and body condition will help determine if grain supplementation is necessary.

Another misconception is that increasing the amount of grain will automatically result in weight gain and improved performance. While grain can provide an energy boost, it does not replace the importance of overall balanced nutrition. An excessive intake of grain without sufficient exercise can lead to weight gain and health issues, rather than improved performance.

How to introduce grains in a horse’s diet

If you decide to include grains in your horse’s diet, it is important to introduce them gradually. Sudden changes in a horse’s diet can cause digestive upset and increase the risk of colic. Start by incorporating small amounts of grain, such as a handful, into their daily ration. Monitor their response, observing for any signs of digestive disturbances or allergies.

Slowly increase the amount of grain over several weeks, keeping a close eye on your horse’s body condition and overall health. It is crucial to regularly assess their weight and adjust the grain portion accordingly. Additionally, choose high-quality grains that are free from mold, dust, and pests. Ensuring proper storage and freshness of the grain is essential for maintaining its nutritional value and minimizing the risk of mycotoxin contamination.

Feeding a New Horse

New horse feeding dilemmas

Bringing a new horse into your care can present various challenges, including determining their nutritional needs. The dietary requirements of horses vary based on factors such as age, breed, size, workload, and overall health. When feeding a new horse, it is crucial to gather as much information as possible about their previous diet and gradually transition them to your feeding regime.

Additionally, some horses may have underlying health issues or specific dietary restrictions that need to be addressed. Consulting with a veterinarian or equine nutritionist can provide valuable insight into your new horse’s specific nutritional needs and ensure a smooth transition onto their new diet.

Adapting a new horse to your feeding regime

When introducing a new horse to your feeding regime, it is important to do so gradually. Abrupt dietary changes can lead to digestive upset or colic. Begin by maintaining their existing diet for a transition period, allowing their digestive system to adjust to the new environment and routine. Gradually introduce any changes, such as different hay or concentrates, over several weeks.

Monitoring their response and watching for any signs of digestive disturbances, allergies, or changes in body condition is crucial. Providing plenty of fresh water, quality forage, and slowly incorporating new feeds will help your new horse adapt to their new feeding regime and ensure their nutritional needs are met.

Assessing your new horse’s nutritional needs

Each horse is an individual, and their nutritional needs may vary. When assessing your new horse’s nutritional needs, consider factors such as their age, body condition, workload, and any underlying health issues. Consult with professionals such as veterinarians, equine nutritionists, or experienced equestrians to ensure the best possible care for your new horse.

A thorough evaluation of their body condition, including weight, coat condition, and muscle tone, will help determine if adjustments to their diet are necessary. Additionally, observing their energy levels, behavior, and overall performance can provide valuable insight into their nutritional requirements. By taking a comprehensive approach to their nutrition, you can ensure your new horse receives the proper balance of nutrients for optimal health and well-being.

Understanding Forage-Based Diets in Horses

Benefits of forage-based diets

Forage-based diets are essential for a horse’s overall health and well-being. As herbivores, horses’ digestive systems are designed to process fibrous materials such as grass and hay. Forage provides a natural source of fiber, which promotes healthy digestion, prevents digestive disorders, and reduces the risk of ulcers.

High-quality forage also contains essential nutrients such as proteins, vitamins, and minerals. These nutrients are necessary for maintaining muscle mass, supporting the immune system, and promoting overall health. Additionally, chewing on fibrous materials stimulates saliva production, which aids in buffering stomach acid, reducing the incidence of gastric ulcers.

Furthermore, forage-based diets keep horses mentally stimulated, as they spend more time grazing and naturally foraging for food. This mimics their natural behavior and helps prevent boredom and vices such as cribbing or weaving.

Ideal frequencies and quantities in forage-based diets

To maintain a healthy forage-based diet for your horse, it is important to ensure they have access to grazing or quality forage throughout the day. Horses should ideally have access to pasture or hay for a minimum of 16-18 hours per day. This availability of forage allows horses to eat small amounts consistently, which aids in proper digestion and prevents digestive disturbances such as colic.

The quantity of forage required depends on the horse’s weight, age, workload, and overall health. As a general guideline, horses should consume approximately 1.5-2.5% of their body weight in forage daily. This means a 1,000-pound horse should ideally consume 15-25 pounds of forage per day. It is important to monitor their body condition and adjust the quantity accordingly to maintain a healthy weight.

Choosing the right type of hay

Selecting the right type of hay for your horse is essential to meet their nutritional needs. There are various types of hay available, including grass hay, legume hay, and mixed hay. Each type of hay has its specific nutritional composition, which can influence your horse’s diet and health.

Grass hay, such as timothy or orchard grass, is lower in protein and energy content than legume hay. It is suitable for horses that require a lower-calorie diet or those prone to weight gain. Legume hay, such as alfalfa or clover, is higher in protein and energy content and may be beneficial for horses with higher energy requirements, such as performance horses or broodmares.

When selecting hay, consider factors such as your horse’s age, workload, body condition, and any dietary restrictions. Have the hay analyzed for nutrient content to ensure it meets your horse’s specific nutritional needs. Providing high-quality, clean hay that is free from mold, dust, and weeds is crucial for maintaining your horse’s health and preventing respiratory issues.

Ask the Equine Nutritionist - Should I continue to feed grain to my new horse?

Grain vs Forage-Based Diets

Feed conversion efficiency

One significant factor to consider when comparing grain and forage-based diets is feed conversion efficiency. Feed conversion efficiency refers to the horse’s ability to convert feed into usable energy. In general, horses have a higher feed conversion efficiency when digesting forages compared to grains.

The process of digesting forages requires more chewing and saliva production, which aids in proper digestion and supports gut health. On the other hand, grains are more efficiently digested in the small intestine, providing a quicker source of energy. However, a diet solely based on grains may lead to digestive disturbances, such as hindgut acidosis or colic.

Ultimately, a combination of high-quality forage and controlled amounts of grains, if necessary, can provide the right balance of nutrients and energy for horses with various energy requirements.

Digestion and gut health

A forage-based diet plays a crucial role in maintaining a healthy digestive system and gut health. Forages are high in fiber, which provides bulk to the diet and promotes gut motility. The fermentation of fiber in the hindgut produces volatile fatty acids, which provide a source of energy for the horse.

Grain-based diets, on the other hand, are typically higher in starch and lower in fiber content. Rapid fermentation of starch in the small intestine can result in a decrease in pH and an increase in lactic acid production. This disruption in the gut environment can lead to digestive disturbances and increase the risk of conditions such as colic and laminitis.

Balancing the intake of forage and grains ensures a more stable gut environment, promotes healthy digestion, and reduces the risk of digestive issues. It is essential to consider each horse’s specific needs and monitor their response to the diet regularly.

Impact on energy levels and performance

The type of diet a horse consumes can significantly impact their energy levels and overall performance. Forage-based diets provide a slow and steady release of energy, which is essential for horses engaged in tasks that require endurance. The fibrous nature of forages supports sustainable energy levels, reducing the risk of sudden energy fluctuations or “hot” behavior.

Grain-based diets, on the other hand, can provide a quick source of energy due to their higher starch content. This can be beneficial for horses with high energy requirements, such as performance horses or those undergoing intense training or competition. However, it is important to carefully manage the amount and timing of grain feedings to prevent excessive energy spikes, digestive disturbances, and behavioral issues.

Ultimately, the type of diet chosen should be based on the individual horse’s energy requirements, workload, and overall health. A balance of forage and grains, if necessary, can help maintain optimal energy levels and enhance performance.

Importance of Proper Body Condition

Understanding horse body condition scores

Assessing a horse’s body condition is an important part of monitoring their overall health. Body condition scores (BCS) are a measurement system used to evaluate a horse’s weight and body fat distribution. BCS provides a numerical value, usually ranging from 1 to 9, to indicate the horse’s body condition.

A BCS of 1 indicates severe emaciation, while a BCS of 9 represents extreme obesity. The ideal range for most horses is usually between 4 and 6, where they display adequate muscle coverage and a healthy fat layer over their ribs and tailhead.

Correlation between body condition and diet

A horse’s body condition is influenced by various factors, with diet being one of the most significant. A well-balanced diet that meets the horse’s energy requirements can help them maintain an ideal body condition. If a horse is underweight or lacking muscle mass, adjusting their diet to provide adequate calories and nutrients can help them reach a healthier body condition.

Similarly, if a horse is overweight or obese, managing their diet to restrict calorie intake and encourage weight loss is essential. Reducing the intake of high-energy feeds and promoting increased exercise can help horses shed excess weight and achieve a healthier body condition.

It is important to regularly assess and monitor your horse’s body condition, adjusting their diet as needed. Consulting with professionals such as veterinarians or equine nutritionists can provide valuable guidance in managing your horse’s diet to maintain an optimal body condition.

Recognizing signs of poor body condition

Being able to recognize signs of poor body condition in your horse is essential for prompt intervention. Some common indicators of poor body condition include prominent ribs, a visible spine, a sunken or hollow appearance around the withers and tailhead, and a lack of muscle tone.

Horses with poor body condition may exhibit a decline in overall performance, fatigue, a dull or lackluster coat, and a weakened immune system. They may also be more susceptible to illness or injury. Monitoring your horse’s body condition regularly and identifying any deviations from the ideal range will help you address potential nutritional deficiencies or imbalances promptly.

If you notice your horse’s body condition deteriorating or have concerns about their weight or muscle development, consult with a veterinarian or equine nutritionist. They can help identify any underlying health issues, assess your horse’s diet, and develop a plan to improve their body condition and overall well-being.

Ask the Equine Nutritionist - Should I continue to feed grain to my new horse?

Impact of Workload on Nutrition Needs

Workload categories and nutrition

The workload a horse is subjected to directly affects their nutritional needs. Horses engaged in different levels of activity require specific dietary considerations to meet their energy requirements. Understanding the different workload categories and their corresponding nutritional needs is essential for optimizing a horse’s performance and maintaining their overall health.

Light workload: Horses in light work, such as those used for recreational riding or light exercise, require a diet that provides the necessary energy for their activity level without excess weight gain. A forage-based diet supplemented with a balanced concentrate feed is generally sufficient for horses in this category.

Moderate workload: Horses involved in moderate work, such as those used for dressage, trail riding, or eventing, require a diet that provides increased energy to support their activity level. A combination of quality forage, appropriate amounts of concentrates, and possibly some additional fats or oils can provide the necessary energy for horses in this category.

Heavy workload: Horses with a heavy workload, such as those used for racing, jumping, or intense competitive events, require a diet that provides significant energy to meet the demands of their activity. A balanced diet that incorporates higher levels of concentrates, including grains, is necessary to provide the additional calories needed for horses in this category. It is essential to closely monitor the horse’s body condition and adjust the diet accordingly to ensure optimal performance and prevent weight loss or gain.

Adjusting diet with changing workload

As a horse’s workload changes, their nutritional needs will also change. It is important to adapt their diet accordingly to ensure optimal health and performance. When transitioning a horse to a higher workload, gradually increase their feed intake to provide the additional energy required.

A combination of high-quality forage and carefully selected concentrates should be used to meet the horse’s increased energy demands. Monitoring their response to the adjusted diet, including body condition, energy levels, and performance, will help determine if further adjustments are necessary.

Conversely, if a horse’s workload decreases, their calorie intake may need to be reduced to prevent weight gain. Reducing the amount of concentrates or adjusting the forage-to-concentrate ratio can help achieve a balance between energy intake and expenditure.

Consulting with professionals such as veterinarians, equine nutritionists, or experienced trainers can provide valuable guidance when adjusting your horse’s diet to accommodate changing workloads. Regular monitoring and adjustments ensure that your horse remains in optimal condition and can perform to the best of their abilities.

Particular needs of high-performance horses

High-performance horses, such as those participating in intense athletic events or competitions, require special attention to their nutritional needs. These horses have increased energy requirements and must maintain peak physical condition to handle the demands placed upon them.

To meet the specific needs of high-performance horses, a carefully formulated diet is essential. This typically includes a mix of high-quality forage, specially formulated concentrates, and appropriate supplements to address individual requirements.

The diet should provide the necessary calories to fuel the horse’s intense physical activity, as well as the essential nutrients to support muscle development, promote recovery, and maintain overall health. Maintaining proper hydration levels is also crucial, as the increased workload can result in significant fluid loss and electrolyte imbalances.

High-performance horses often require individualized nutrition plans, tailored to their specific breed, activity level, and metabolism. Consulting with a knowledgeable equine nutritionist or veterinarian who specializes in high-performance horses is recommended to develop a comprehensive diet plan that meets the unique needs of these athletes.

Dietary Supplementation and Its Importance

Significance of copper and zinc

Copper and zinc are essential minerals that play crucial roles in a horse’s overall health and performance. These minerals are necessary for various metabolic functions, including enzyme activation, immune function, hoof health, and proper growth and development.

Copper is involved in the formation of connective tissues and plays a role in collagen synthesis, which is essential for healthy skin, tendons, ligaments, and joints. It also contributes to the formation of red blood cells, aiding in oxygen transport and energy production.

Zinc is involved in processes such as protein synthesis, wound healing, and maintaining a healthy immune system. It is particularly important for hoof health, as it supports the formation and integrity of the hoof wall.

Supplementing a horse’s diet with appropriate levels of copper and zinc can help ensure they receive adequate amounts of these essential minerals. However, it is important to consult with a professional such as an equine nutritionist or veterinarian to determine the appropriate dosage and select high-quality supplements.

Impact of dietary supplements on health

Dietary supplements can play a significant role in supporting a horse’s health, particularly when their diet may be lacking certain nutrients or during periods of increased stress or activity. Supplements can help address nutritional deficiencies, support immune function, promote joint health, enhance coat and hoof condition, and improve overall well-being.

Supplements such as vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fatty acids, and probiotics can provide essential nutrients that may be lacking in the horse’s basic diet. When considering dietary supplements, it is essential to choose reputable products from trusted manufacturers to ensure quality and safety. Consulting with professionals, such as equine nutritionists or veterinarians, can provide valuable guidance in selecting the most appropriate supplements for your horse’s specific needs.

It is important to note that supplements should not replace a balanced diet but rather complement it. A well-balanced diet that meets the horse’s basic nutritional requirements should be the foundation, and supplements can be used to address specific needs or enhance their overall health.

Choosing the right dietary supplement

When selecting dietary supplements for your horse, it is crucial to consider their specific nutritional needs and any underlying health conditions. Consulting with professionals such as equine nutritionists or veterinarians can help determine which supplements may benefit your horse based on their individual requirements.

It is essential to choose high-quality supplements from reputable manufacturers. Look for products that have undergone rigorous testing and meet established quality control standards. Checking for third-party certifications or seals of approval can provide assurance of the supplement’s quality and effectiveness.

Additionally, consider the form and palatability of the supplement. Some horses may be picky eaters or have specific dietary restrictions, so it is important to choose a supplement that your horse will readily consume. Discussing dietary supplement options with professionals and seeking recommendations from other horse owners can help you make an informed decision.

It is important to remember that dietary supplements should be used as part of a comprehensive and well-balanced diet. They should not be relied upon solely or used as a quick fix for inadequate nutrition. Monitoring your horse’s response to supplements and regularly assessing their overall health and performance will help gauge their effectiveness and ensure they are receiving optimal nutrition.

Ask the Equine Nutritionist - Should I continue to feed grain to my new horse?

Role of Veterinary Consultation in Horse Nutrition

When to involve a vet in your horse’s nutrition

Consulting with a veterinarian in your horse’s nutrition is highly recommended, particularly when addressing specific health concerns or making significant dietary changes. Vets are trained professionals who can provide valuable guidance and scientific knowledge to help ensure your horse’s nutritional needs are met.

Some instances where involving a vet in your horse’s nutrition may be necessary include:

  1. When a horse has underlying health conditions or specific dietary restrictions, such as metabolic disorders or allergies.
  2. When developing a nutritional plan for horses with high energy requirements or those engaged in intense activity or competitions.
  3. When encountering digestive issues, weight problems, or changes in body condition.
  4. When transitioning to a new feeding regime, including introducing grains or switching to a forage-based diet.
  5. When concerns arise about a horse’s overall health, performance, or behavior that may be influenced by their diet.

A veterinarian can conduct thorough health assessments, perform diagnostic tests, and offer professional advice tailored to your horse’s individual needs. They can help identify underlying health issues, determine appropriate dietary adjustments, and monitor your horse’s response to dietary changes over time.

Identifying underlying health issues

Nutrition and overall health are closely intertwined. A horse’s diet directly influences their overall well-being, and underlying health issues can affect their ability to properly utilize and process nutrients. Identifying and addressing underlying health issues is crucial for ensuring optimal nutrition and preventing potential health complications.

A veterinarian’s expertise is invaluable when it comes to identifying underlying health issues that may impact a horse’s nutrition. Routine health check-ups, including physical examinations, blood work, and diagnostic imaging, can help detect any underlying conditions or imbalances. These tests can provide insights into a horse’s metabolic function, organ health, immune system, and nutrient absorption.

By addressing health issues promptly and adjusting the diet accordingly, you can mitigate potential complications and support your horse’s overall well-being through optimal nutrition.

Regular health check-ups for better nutrition planning

Regular health check-ups conducted by a veterinarian are essential for better nutrition planning. These check-ups assess the horse’s overall health, body condition, and nutritional requirements. By monitoring their health regularly, you can detect any changes or potential issues early and make timely adjustments to their diet.

Regular health check-ups also provide an opportunity to discuss any concerns, dietary changes, or performance goals with your veterinarian. They can provide specific nutritional advice tailored to your horse’s individual needs and make appropriate recommendations for supplements, feed adjustments, or additional diagnostic testing if necessary.

Collaborating with a veterinarian in your horse’s nutrition planning ensures a comprehensive and individualized approach to their care. Regular monitoring of their health, along with professional guidance, helps optimize their nutrition for improved overall health and performance.


Adopting a holistic approach to horse nutrition is essential for maintaining your horse’s overall health and well-being. Understanding the essentials of horse nutrition, such as the role of forage, balanced diets, and dietary supplements, allows you to provide optimal care for your equine companion.

Consideration should be given to their specific nutritional needs based on factors such as age, workload, body condition, and underlying health conditions. Regular assessments, including body condition scoring, monitoring energy levels, and consulting with professionals, can help ensure your horse receives the necessary nutrients in the right amounts.

Remember that each horse is unique, and their nutritional requirements may vary. Consulting with professionals such as veterinarians, equine nutritionists, or experienced equestrians can provide valuable guidance throughout your horse’s nutritional journey.

By maintaining a well-balanced diet, providing quality forage, and monitoring your horse’s health and body condition, you can help them thrive and achieve optimal health and performance. With proper nutrition and care, your horse will be a happy and healthy companion for years to come.

Ask the Equine Nutritionist - Should I continue to feed grain to my new horse?