The Complete Guide to Balancing Your Horse's Diet: From Pasture to Stable

Discover the essentials of equine nutrition with our comprehensive guide, "The Complete Guide to Balancing Your Horse's Diet: From Pasture to Stable." Learn how to tailor your horse's diet to its unique needs, whether grazing outdoors or residing indoors, ensuring optimal health and performance.

At Carrollton Equine, we understand that the cornerstone of a healthy horse is a balanced diet tailored to its individual needs. Whether your horse spends its days grazing in the pasture or residing in the stable, each setting presents unique nutritional requirements. 

This guide provides everything you need to know to ensure your horse not only survives but thrives.

Basics of Equine Nutrition

A horse’s diet is more than just food; it’s the foundation of its overall health and performance. The key nutrients that every horse needs include carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals:

  • Carbohydrates are a primary energy source, found abundantly in grasses and hay.
  • Proteins are crucial for muscle maintenance and growth, especially important in young and active horses.
  • Fats provide a dense source of energy and help in the absorption of certain vitamins.
  • Vitamins and minerals are essential for a range of bodily functions, from bone health to nerve function.

Understanding these nutrients and their roles will help you make informed decisions about what to feed your horse to maintain its health.

Forage First

Forage, such as hay and grass, should be the bedrock of your horse's diet. It's not only a natural source of essential nutrients but also critical for proper digestive function. When evaluating forage:

  • Quality is key: Look for forage that is clean, dry, and free of molds and excess dust.
  • Variety matters: Providing a mixture of grasses can help meet your horse’s nutritional needs.
  • Quantity depends on need: Generally, horses should consume at least 1% of their body weight in forage daily.

Forage not only fills the stomach but also helps keep the intestinal health in check, preventing issues such as ulcers or colic.

Grains and Concentrates

While forage should dominate the diet, grains and concentrates can be beneficial for certain horses, including those with high energy demands or those needing specific nutritional support. However, these should be added cautiously:

  • Introduce slowly: Sudden changes can disrupt gut bacteria and lead to digestive upset.
  • Monitor closely: Adjust portions based on energy expenditure and body condition.
  • Choose wisely: Opt for high-quality commercial feeds that guarantee a balanced nutrient composition.

Special Needs

Dietary needs can vary significantly based on a horse's age, activity level, and health status:

  • Young and growing horses need more protein and calories to support their development.
  • Performance horses require diets adjusted for their increased energy output.
  • Senior horses often benefit from easier-to-digest options, possibly with added joint support.

For horses with specific conditions like pregnancy or metabolic issues, consult a nutritionist for a customized feeding plan.

Water: The Essence of Life

Hydration is a fundamental aspect of horse care, yet it is often one of the most neglected. Water is as crucial to a horse’s diet as any feed because it supports almost every physiological process, including digestion, nutrient absorption, and temperature regulation. Ensuring that your horse has continuous access to fresh, clean water is a simple yet effective way to promote its overall health and prevent a range of potential health issues.

Importance of Hydration

Water helps to digest and transport nutrients, regulate body temperature, lubricate joints, and facilitate the elimination of waste products. Without sufficient water intake, horses can quickly become dehydrated, particularly in hot weather or when exercising. Dehydration in horses can lead to lethargy, dry gums, elevated heart rates, and in severe cases, organ failure.

Common Water Requirements

The average horse drinks 10 to 15 gallons of water per day, but this can vary widely depending on the weather, the horse's activity level, and its diet. Horses consuming dry feed like hay may need more water than those grazing on lush, moisture-rich grass. Additionally, lactating mares and working horses often have higher water requirements due to increased body demands.

Monitoring Hydration Levels

To monitor your horse's hydration, regularly check the elasticity of its skin and the moisture level of its gums. A well-hydrated horse will have supple skin that quickly snaps back when pinched and moist, slick gums. Another method to assess hydration is observing the capillary refill time by pressing a finger against the gum line; color should return within two seconds.

Ensuring Quality Water Supply

Always provide a clean, uncontaminated source of water. Regularly clean water troughs and buckets to prevent the build-up of algae and bacteria, which can deter horses from drinking and potentially cause health problems. During winter, ensure that water sources do not freeze over, possibly by using water heaters, and check them multiple times a day.

Adjustments for Weather and Conditions

In hot climates or during strenuous activity, horses may need additional water and electrolytes to replace what they lose through sweat. In contrast, in colder weather, while horses might drink less, their requirement for water remains critical to help process dry feeds and maintain body heat through digestion.


Understanding and implementing the right nutrition for your horse can seem daunting, but it's essential for its health and happiness. At Carrollton Equine, we are dedicated to assisting you in this crucial aspect of horse care. We encourage you to schedule a nutritional evaluation with us, where we can help tailor a diet plan that fits your horse’s individual needs perfectly.

For more information or to book an appointment, visit our website or contact us directly. Let us help you ensure that your horse is receiving the best possible care, from pasture to stable.

About The Author

Nicole Kelleher

DVM, CVA, VSMT  |  Owner & Equine Veterinarian

Nicole graduated from The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2014. Since then she has continued to further her education by becoming a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist graduating from the Chi Institute in 2017. She then attended the Healing Oasis school to graduate with her degree in Veterinary Spinal Manipulative Therapy (VSMT) in 2021. Dr. Kelleher regularly sees clients utilizing Shenanigans Stables to perform lameness evaluations and treat patients with both acupuncture and VSMT allowing for an integrative approach to the equine athlete.

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