Barefoot Horse - diet

  • Feral horses will travel 20 miles per day
  • Horses can survive in areas too tough for sheep and cows
  • Change in diet can lead to lactic acid build up
  • Lactic acid build up can lead to laminitis
  • Many commercial feeds are high in carbohydrates
  • Owners need to consider the genetic heritage of their horses

Horses have evolved to survive in a harsh plains environment.  Horses living feral or wild will travel an average of 20 miles every day searching out a wide variety of plant foods, most high in fibre and low in calories.

Horses can survive and thrive in areas too tough for sheep or cows, because the microbes in the cecum are so efficient at converting tough plant fibres into materials the horse can use. 

The cecum is part of the large intestine or hindgut. It is a fermentation vat and contains billions of bacteria and protozoa.  These microbes break down insoluble carbohydrates (fibre) and allow the horse to derive energy from a food source that would otherwise be indigestible.

The microbes are somewhat specific as to what they digest.  A drastic change in diet or the arrival of non-structural carbohydrates disrupts the balance of bacteria and protozoa. Excessive fermentation occurs - producing lactic acid. This acidic environment kills large numbers of beneficial bacteria.

This is the first stage on the road to laminitis. The exact biochemistry of the next stages in laminitis are still being debated and researched.  But really all we need to know as horse owners is that if you manage your horse's diet to minimise the soluble carbohydrates reaching the cecum you are on the road to minimising the most common causal factor of laminitis. (Be aware that grains and most commercially manufactured feeds are high in soluble carbohydrates and that there are other situations that can create an acidic environment in the cecum in addition to overfeeding soluble carbohydrates.)

So when we feed our horses we should put their digestive heritage to the fore. It will be better for the horse and cheaper too.

Base Diet

  • Low starch / low sugar, long fibre foliage
  • Chewing is good!
  • Don't restrict foraging
  • Soak your hay

Feed your horse plenty of low sugar/starch long fibre forage (long fibre means pasture or hay, not chaffs).  Chew time is important to the horse's psychological as well as physiological health.

If your forage is truly low in sugar/starch then you shouldn't need to restrict it.  Restricting access to forage increases the risk of other health problems, including gastric ulcers and colic.

If you have a fatty, laminitic, cushings or insulin resistant horse be prepared to soak your hay.

In the bucket

Most horses do not need extra energy from hard feed, but they might need access to a good quality mineral/vitamin supplement as modern leys (pasture/hay) can be deficient. The quantities suggested below will need to be adjusted according to each horse's individual needs.

Average pony/light horse

  • 100g unmolassed sugar beet – Dodson & Horrell Kwik Beet is 3% sugar
  • Mineral/vitamin mix
  • Extra magnesium if needed (Calcined Magnesite is cheap and effective)

As above but needing more condition or hoof quality a bit poor

  • 100g micronised linseed Charnwood Milling

Treats, nibbles and flavour

  • Don't give a metabolically sensitive horse treats
  • Avoid sugar based treats
  • Horsey herbs are good

If you have a metabolically sensitive horse it is better to avoid treats.  For any horse I would recommend avoid feeding any sugar based products, for example the ones that hang in balls and holders in the stable.

If you have to feed your horse treats, try feeding a handful of horse appropriate dried herbs instead.  Healthy, tasty and you can have fun finding out which ones your horse likes best.

I add a range of dried herbs to my horse's bucket feed because it helped her kick her sugar cravings and is a good cover for wormers and the like.

Basic structure of equine gut

Barefoot Horse hoof care and trimming - Horse digestive tract diagram

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8 October 2022
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