Feeding horses – or how to keep your expensive investment in horseflesh alive.

This guest post is by Victoria S and entry in our non-fiction writing contest .

Horses are herbivores. There are isolated examples of horses eating meat in extreme situations, but 99.9% of the time, horses will not eat meat. (Horses will eat meat more often if it’s part of something else – I used to feed left over tuna salad sandwiches to one horse I rode a lot – he liked them so much that he’d snatch them out of my hands if I got close to him with one…)

Unlike cows, horses do not have multiple stomachs. They don’t “chew the cud” as the Bible puts it. Along with this, they have relatively inefficient digestive systems. They don’t break their food down nearly as well as cows do. While this is good for the smelliness of their manure – it doesn’t stink nearly as bad as cow manure nor does it remain stinky nearly as long as cow manure – it’s bad in terms of actually feeding the horse because they can’t eat feed that’s even the slightest bit off and they do best when they are allowed to feed on forage non-stop. Note, however, that horses should never ever be fed unlimited rich foods such as grains or other high protein or fat feeds. Horses will get very sick if they are allowed to overeat anything but grass or hay, and even there it is possible for a horse to get too fat while on rich grass or rich hay.

Horses also do not do well if their feeding schedule is abruptly changed. When switching feeds or feeding times, its best to do so slowly and gradually. It is possible to switch quickly, depending on your horses, but it may make them ill or more prone to illnesses and disorders.

Horses need forage, and the more often during they day they can forage, the better. Grain, while needed for horses working hard, is not required for horses not being stressed. Geldings that aren’t being worked can often get by with good pasture or good hay during the summer. Mares that are nursing, young horses still growing, breeding stallions, and working horses, however, will need more forage as well as supplementary grain or similar. In winter, most horses benefit from being given some supplementary grain to help them keep warm in the cold, and of course the above categories of horses will need even more.

Horses, because they aren’t ruminants like cattle, get the most from their feed when they are either fed continuously or fed often throughout the day. (There is a reason I keep repeating this – it’s so very different than how we feed most of our pets that it is hard to overemphasize it) It is better to break a horse’s feed ration into three or four smaller feedings than feed them one or twice a day. Of course, this is subject to common sense – if you’re pasturing a horse and you are giving them just a small amount of grain … giving them that grain once a day is going to be fine. Working horses, such as those plowing, should be fed at least three times a day, and four would be better. You’d do best to feed a plow horse hay free choice through the night, then feed them a grain ration about an hour before starting work, give them hay and grain during the lunch break, and then grain them again before turning them out for the night.

Keep in mind that horses should not be fed grain and then immediately worked right after eating rich food. A half hour to hour break between grain and work is best. There is no such worry with hay, unless it is particularly rich.

Pasture is the best way to feed horses efficiently and safely. The act of grazing keeps a horse more fit than if they are standing around eating hay and grass is full of nutrition that horses need. Unfortunately, good pasture isn’t always available. Horses also won’t eat a lot of things that grow in pastures – they will avoid a lot of things that cows or sheep or goats would eat, for example. They also don’t like to eat the grass that grows where they crap – often a herd will pick one section of the pasture to do most of their “business” in. One way to deal with this problem is to periodically harrow/plow/turn over the bathroom section of your pasture.

Another concern with pasture is the accumulation of parasites on the grass. Many of the worms that infest horses are spread through the herd eating grass that is infected with eggs that arrived in manure from those same horses. There are several ways to handle this problem, one of which is a good worming program with wormers. If the SHTF, however, wormers will be much more difficult to find, so older methods will need to be used. These include pasture rotation with one section of pasture being used while two or three other sections lie fallow. Another method is to plow under the whole pasture periodically. You can combine these two if you have enough space – by dividing your pasture into sections and plowing one section, letting the next grow up, and grazing the third (or fourth). Plowing under a pasture also helps with weed control.

A word about grasses for pastures – most locations have their own “best” grasses to grow for pasture. Check with your county extension agent before SHTF to determine what’s best and acquire some. Even if you don’t have horses now, if you have a retreat property or you plan to bug in on some land, it wouldn’t hurt to get the information and have it in case of need. Another important point, however, is that if you have any plans whatsoever of raising horses, you do not want any variety of fescue grass in your pasture. Fescue itself isn’t dangerous to horses, but there is a fungus that exists on some fescues that is dangerous to pregnant mares and young foals. You can read more about it at http://www.ansci.cornell.edu/plants/toxicagents/fesalk.html

Good quality grass hay is the next best choice after pasture for feeding horses. The usual variety and the one commonly preferred is timothy. Often you’ll find it grown with clover to make mixed hay. Alfalfa hay can also be fed, but grass hay is less likely to make a horse “hot” (hyperactive), especially if the horse isn’t being worked much. In general, the richer the hay in proteins, the more it will make the horse hot. Keep in mind fescue issues also with your hay.

One word about clover – horses usually love the stuff, but it can make some horses drool. There isn’t anything dangerous about this, but it can be kind of offputting to some folks to have their horse drooling like the village idiot, so some folks avoid clover for that reason. Yes, a horse subject to clover drools will REALLY drool.

Another concern with hay is that unlike cattle, horses need high quality hay. They cannot tolerate moldy hay – it will often make them quite sick. Make sure any hay you purchase is “horse quality”. Although you can feed silage/haylage (fermented hay/green stuff) to horses, it has to be carefully done because of the risk of botulism and other problems. Generally, it’s safest to not feed silage/haylage to horses.

Grain is usually fed to working horses to provide extra energy. Traditionally horses have been fed oats in the U.S. – usually mixed with molasses and perhaps cracked corn to provide extra energy with the molasses helping keep grain dust down. However, there are a number of other grain and feed options possible.

Oats are a good feed partly because they store well and they grown in many different climates. They can be fed rolled, crimped or as whole oats. Hulled oats are slightly preferred for young horses.

Barley has many of the same benefits as oats, and also makes a good feed for horses. Its best to feed barley either steam rolled or ground up coarsely.

Corn can be fed to horses, but it should not be the only grain fed, as it is deficient in some minerals. It can also make some horses a bit hotter than might be desirable. It can be fed on the cob, shelled, cracked, as meal, or flaked. Be careful not to feed moldy corn to horses.

Wheat is usually only fed to horses in the form of wheat bran, and not as the main grain. A bran mash acts as a laxative for horses.

In addition to these grains, you can also feed horses some other farm by-products. Linseed meal, soybean meal, cottonseed meal, rapeseed/canola meal, sunflower meal, and beet pulp are commonly fed to horses to supplement feed. In a pinch, these could substitute for regular grain rations in the short term, but I would not want to rely on them.

Horses also can be fed treats. The traditional ones are carrots or apples, but horses will often eat a wide variety of foods as treats. Melons can be fed to horses, as well as beets or sugar beets. One thing to be careful of when feeding treats is the danger of choking – all treats should be in small pieces that prevent the horse from choking on them. The best way is to slice them into thin strips rather than chunks. Other root vegetables, such as parsnips, rutabagas, turnips and fully ripe potatoes can be used as treats and as supplements in the winter months when green grass is unavailable. Green potatoes should be avoided, as some horses do not react well to them. Here at our place, we often feed the horses the weeds, grasses and other trimmings from our garden. The horses get the thinned carrots and beets from our plantings as well as all the weeds (except those poisonous to them) from the garden. They also like any thinned bean plants.

Do not feed buckwheat to horses, as it can be poisonous. Other things to avoid are green onions, tomatoes (plants and fruit), and cucumber and melon vines and leaves.

On the subject of poisonous things for horses, here is a good starting point http://www.ansci.cornell.edu/plants/php/plants.php?action=display&ispecies=horses The most important things to avoid are onions, the leaves of many maple trees, jimsonweed, poinsettias, St Johns Wort, the leaves and seeds of cherries, rhubarb, sorghum and milo plants, and black walnut trees. Especially important is to avoid using walnut shavings in stalls as bedding – it can cause serious injuries from the toxicity.

Another concern with horses and grains is that you cannot change their feeding schedule or amounts quickly. Most horses need time to adjust to a new feed amount or to a change of feed. While it is possible to change quickly in emergencies, it’s always better to not stress the horse by quick shifts in grain amounts. Luckily, you can always increase hay and/or forage amounts without much trouble.

Horses also need minerals, salt, and water. Trace minerals are usually handled through the grain supplements and through mineral blocks. Mineral blocks also have the advantage of feeding salt in with the minerals. My main problem with mineral blocks is that one of our mares thinks they are candy and she will literally stand over one and eat it in a matter of two or three days. Most horses can be allowed free choice on mineral blocks… this is the only horse I’ve ever met that thought they were candy!

Water – the best solution is free access to water. Horses generally require 10 to 12 gallons apiece per day. Obviously, you cannot possibly store enough water for any number of horses for longer than a few days. One important concern is that a hot, sweaty horse not be allowed to drink until it has cooled off. Horses will get seriously ill if they are allowed to drink too much while hot – and too much is measured often in pints or less. The best solution is to cool the horse off before allowing access to water.

The exact amounts to feed horses and when are a bit beyond this sort of essay, but I can suggest a few books that will be helpful.

“The Whole Horse Catalog” by Price and others. This is an excellent overview to horse ownership and various topics. It was revised for 1998, and should only be purchased in the 1998 edition.

“Horses for Dummies” by Pavia and others. Again, a bit simplistic, but accurate and helpful.

I also like the book “Horses and Tack” by Ensminger, although it’s a bit pricier and more detailed than a beginner may need. It’s an excellent reference book to owning horses, however, and if you can get the revised version, it’s an excellent book for your survival bookshelf.

Other books, which I’ve not looked at, include “The Horse Nutrition Handbook” and “The Horse Nutrition Bible”. The advantage of the two works above is that you can use them for more than just horse nutrition; they cover the basics of horses in all aspects.

A more advanced book – “A Natural Approach to Horse Management” by Susan McBane might be useful to have in a SHTF situation. I have it, and it’s very thought provoking on how to better manage horses to fit with their natural lifestyle. Any older manuals on keeping horses from before the replacement of horses by tractors on farms would be handy in a grid down situation.

As for us, we plan to feed oats if the SHTF. I have oat seed stockpiled for planting as well as some forage crop seeds. We plan to try to keep a years worth of oats in storage (we’re no where near that right now, but … we’re working on it) to help feed and we have enough open land around us that with care, we should be able to pasture on neighbors land, using solar powered portable fencing (and guards if needed). Oats have the advantage of being food we humans can also eat, and they store much longer than the commercial horse feeds.

I also plan to grown several of the root vegetables, with the advantage that you can feed the greens to the horses also. My horses love the beet greens that I give them. They also love to get all the weeds (minus any jimsonweed, obviously) from weeding the garden.

For feeding horses in bad situations, the following sites might be useful:



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About M.D. Creekmore

M.D. Creekmore is the owner and editor of TheSurvivalistBlog.net. He is the author of four prepper related books and is regarded as one of the nations top survival and emergency preparedness experts. Read more about him here.


  1. Tactical G-Ma says:

    Victoria S.,
    Wow. I am not a horse person altho neighbors are. This article has given me great insight into their care. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. If things go bad I might have to help tend to them someday.

  2. Great article!

    One way to minimise a horse fod requirements is to have miniature horses, they can not work as hard but can carry more than a human can and two of them can pull a cart very effectively. when out grazing they only need the length of their lead rope and can be moved around very easily.

    • Our mini can pull two adults in her cart.

      Good article to let folks know that unlike other livestock (goats, cattle) or pets (dogs, cats), horses are a bit more delicate and their care takes a little more thought and preparation.

  3. I’d add, “be prepared to pay cash upfront”. Most of the farners I know won’t accept cheques or wait for payment. Everybodies gotten stuck once.

  4. My grandfather and great-grandfather grew and cured their own tobacco to give to their work horses to keep them wormed. One leaf per horse per day with their hay, and it worked.

  5. Wow, you gave somegreat info. Most of it I had never heard before. Thank you!

  6. A good article with accurate information that I can verify from the farm. Compared to cattle, horses are much harder to look after and more delicate.

    Our neighbours had 2 horses that got out of the field and into one of the barley grain bins and ate their fill. One died and the second one was never good again so it got sold – my friend’s grandpa said that barley was “too hot” for the horses, so only feed a bit.

    The only other thing I noticed you might want to expand upon is the weather factors of horses. They can’t survive the winter like cattle or damp/cold, so you have to be careful with their shelter during the winter in cold regions, especially in the spring months where the snow is melting and refreezing.

  7. I have been told to never give grass clippings from your lawn mower to your horses as they are not chewed properly and can “ball up” in the stomach and cause colic. Is this true? I have caught one of our mares chomping on a pile of clippings and it took some doing to keep her away from them until they got removed.

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