The natural food for horses is grass and the natural way of taking it is by grazing. In countries with an equitable climate and an evenly distributed high rainfall, resting horses can be kept on grass alone without any additional food. Where the quality of the natural grazing is poor by the general standards of temperate regions, the grass is only capable of supplying the needs of local hardy breeds throughout the year. Highly bred horses can only be supported for limited periods during the rainy season. At this time of the year, when grass is immature, it is highly nutritious. However, as the season advances, it rapidly becomes fibrous and its food value declines to a very low level. By March- April it provides little more than bulk roughage upon which a Thoroughbred will lose weight unless given other food. Hardy types of horses and ponies, however, can survive on this sort of roughage, although usually with considerable loss of condition during winter.

There is great variation between individuals of all types and breeds of both horses and ponies, in their ability to utilise rough grazing and to survive on it. Presumably this is due to variation in the efficiency of digestion, particularly bacterial digestion of cellulose in the colon and caecum. The term ‘good-doer’ or ‘bad-doer’ is ubiquitously applied to such individual animals and one has to take particular account of these individual peculiarities when assessing the appropriate rations to give them.

The regime of leaving resting horses and ponies entirely at grass is often practiced when ample grazing is available, (especially vlei grazing), and there is no objection to loss of condition which can be recovered during the following rainy season. Under such conditions, approximately 1/2 to 3/4 ha of upland (summer grazing), and the same area of vlei (winter grazing) would be needed per 600kg horse and pro rata for smaller ponies.

Where better quality pasture is available, such as planted grazing paddocks of Stargrass (Cynodon dactylon) or Rhodes Grass (Chloris gayana), preferably with some legume mixed in, much more can be obtained from grazing in terms of valuable ‘keep’. Higher class animals can acquire a greater proportion of their needs from grazing. If the pasture can be fertilized, irrigated and properly managed, of course the maximum benefit of all can be gained and grazing can be maintained throughout the year. However the costs of doing this have to

be weighed against the alternative costs of providing other sorts of food to secure the plane of nutrition which is desired or considered necessary.

The foregoing remarks apply to horses which are not being worked. Where horses or ponies are being put regularly to work, some form of concentrated food is needed in addition to grazing. In this case, and if only natural rough grazing is available, the latter is of such low feeding value for nine months of the year that it is commonly considered as only a discountable supplement to the horse’s main ration which is hand fed in the stable. Such rations are dealt with in the next section.


When considering the feeding of working horses it is important to identify exactly what we are feeding them for and what result we want to get out of them. We are not trying to fatten them as is usually the case with pigs or beef cattle. We are feeding them in order that they may be useful for work. We want them to be in good condition, neither too fat nor too thin, with enough reserve of energy to respond quickly and willingly to our demands for action but not so much that we are unable to control them. This ideal balance can only be obtained by the essential combination and inter-relation of the quantity, sort and concentration of the feed given and the amount of work, schooling and exercise which is applied This relationship between feed and work is the most important principle to be borne in mind in deciding how much and what sort of feed to give a horse.

Different sorts of feed and combinations of feeds have different effects upon the fatness and condition of a horse and also on the response of the animal in terms of activity. The main source of energy in a horse’s feed is in the form of starch which is chiefly derived from cereal grains. There is a tendency for starchy foods such as maize meal to result in the laying down of fat rather than providing immediately available energy. However this varies considerably between individual horses and with the condition of the horse at the time of the feed. A horse which is already in good condition will respond to additional starch, usually by getting too fat. But a horse in very lean condition will manifest an increased energy reserve immediately. If the amount of extra starch given is too much the horse may become unmanageable.

Other foods of a less starch nature, which also supply energy but do not have a tendency to be stored as fat, are much favoured for steaming up a horse’s activity, particularly where the body condition is already satisfactory. These foods are usually high in protein, such as beans (hence the saying ‘full of beans’) and the oilseed cakes and meals. Another reason for favouring high quantities of protein is that the body is able to process a surplus of nitrogenous products by breaking them down and storing them in their livers and muscles until needed for energy. Starch on the other  hand, is digested down to glucose which if supplied in surplus, is principally stored as fat. The latter may in fact be regarded as the long term storage of energy and glycogen, the short term.


In the calculation of rations for working horses, one can start with the basic requirements of the animal in relation to maintenance and the amount of work expected to be done. This can be calculated in terms of the quantity of protein and energy which the animal needs. Always remember that allowance has to be made for the considerations mentioned in the preceding paragraph, and also, possibly for providing any desired improvement or reduction in the fatness or condition of the animal. Consequently, the accurate calculation of protein and energy requirements is only a starting point and a guideline in deciding how much food to give. Little research work appears to have been done on the physiological nutritive requirements of horses, possibly because their feeding is to  some extent a matter of subjective judgement, experience and knowledge of the individual animal. However, such information available is given in Table 1. Energy requirements are shown in terms of TDN (Total Digestible Nutrients), which is the American conventional system commonly used in Central African countries, and possibly more appropriate for a horse than the alternative starch equivalent or metabolisable energy systems. It is emphasised that these indicated requirements refer to the total daily food intake including hay and grazing.

Table 2 shows the composition of some of the foods commonly used for feeding horses and which are sometimes available. The protein content of each ingredient or feed is shown first as digestible protein, which is the protein that the animal can make use of; and crude protein, which is the total

nitrogenous matter expressed as though it were composed entirely of protein (which it is not always). The use of these tables in the calculation of rations can best be described by examples. Tables 1 and 2 found at the end of the lecture.


A 550 kg horse is at light work, receives negligible grazing on bare pasture and ¼ bale (5kg) of rather poor quality hay; available concentrated foods are maize meal, wheat bran and soya bean oil meal. What basic guideline ration would the horse be expected to need?

Taking the mean of the figures in Table 1:

Total daily food needed is                                                     8.8 kg

Therefore the ration needs to be                   8.8 – 5 = 3.8 kg

Again from Table 1:

The mean total requirement of DP and TDN is:

  • DP 0.45 kg
    • TDN 5.3 kg

The ration needs to contain that which is not in the hay:

The hay contains:

From Table 2:

5 kg at 2% DP         = 0.1 kg

5 kg at 45% TDN = 2.25 kg

Therefore the ration should contain:

0.45 – 0.1 DP      = 0.35 kg

5.3 – 2.25 TDN   = 3.05 kg

And therefore should be:

0.1/3.8 = 9.2% DP and 2.25/3.8 = 80.3% TDN

Assume to start with that ration which may be made with a mixture of maize and bran without having to use any soya. Using the square method (3) and taking the indicated values in Table 2.

The square method is an easy way of calculating the relative weights of two ingredients of known composition which must be mixed together to give a desired percentage of an essential nutrient in the mixture.

  • A1 is the % nutrient in ingredient 1 and
    • A2 is the % nutrient in ingredient 2 and
    • M is the % nutrient desired in the mixture

In the figure:

The difference between A1 and M is carried to the opposite corner, B2 The difference between A2 and M is carried to the opposite corner B1 Where B1 = the relative weight of ingredient 1, which must be mixed with

B2 = the relative weight of ingredient 2 to give a mixture of the desired composition of M% nutrient. And consequently the mixture will be         B1         X 100% ingredient 1


In the case of DP:

In the case of TDN

Therefore this mix would be:

Maize 13.4 x 100/15.6 = 86% and Bran 2.2 x 100/15.6= 14%

Clearly a mixture of maize and bran cannot satisfy the DP and the TDN requirement, at one and the same time, and we therefore need a material- rather protein higher in than just bran by itself, to add to the maize. So try a mixture of 75% bran and 25% soya which can then be used as a higher protein ingredient to add to the maize.

75kg Wheat Bran contains: 75 X 0.133 = 9.97 kg DP

75 X 0.669 = 52.42 kg TDN

25 kg Soyabean oil meal contains:

25 X 0.42 = 10.5 kg DP

25 X 0.781 = 19.52 kg TDN

The bran/soya mixture will therefore be:

  • % DP and 69.7% TDN

Again using the square method

In this case of DP:

Therefore this mix would be:

Maize 11.3 x 100/13.6 = 83% and Bran/soya mix 17%

In the case of TDN:

Therefore this mix would be:

Maize 13.4 X 100/12.8 = 82.8% and Bran/soya mix 17.2%

Thus this mixture in fact satisfies both the DP and the TDN requirements. If the right proportion of bran and soya had not been chosen the first time, of course further trials would have to be made. It is possible to build an algebraic function that would give the precise answer without any trial and error process, but for the non-mathematical mind this method is easier to understand and is the one generally used.

The final ration mixture, so far not yet corrected for fibre is:

  • Maize = 83%
    • Wheat Bran = 12.75%
    • Soya oil meal = 4.25%

It is now necessary to check the fibre intake. For its total food intake a horse needs fibre equivalent to 17 – 30% of the dry matter consumed (i.e. similar to what it would be if grass alone were eaten

which is animal’s natural food). If it is less than 17% the digestion cannot work properly and if more than 30% the horse cannot eat enough to get sufficient nourishment.

From Table 2:

The concentrate ration contains per 100 kg 024 X 83           = 1.992

0.1 X 12.75     = 1.275

0.059 X 4.25   = 0.251

= 3.518% Fibre

And the hay at 35%

= (0.03518 x 3.8) + (0.35 x 5)/8.8 X 100 = 21.4% Fibre

Thus, there is adequate fibre in the total feed intake. However the concentrate ration as it stands so far is only 3,5% fibre and contains 83% maize meal; this means that it will be very heavy and pasty, and it will require more fibre in it to lighten it and make it more edible. Therefore, take about 1 kg of the 5 kg hay ration, mill it or chaff it and add it to the concentrate feed. The latter then becomes:

0.3518 x 3.8 + 0.35 x 1 x 100 / 4.8 = 10.1% Fibre

0.092 x 3.8 + 0.02 x 1 x 100 / 4.8= 7.7% DP = 11.6% CP

0.802 x 3.8 + 0.45 x 1 x 100 / 4.8 = 72.9% TDN

The addition does not alter the daily total nutrient intake since the hay fed separately is now only 4 kg.

It may be noted that the analysis of the concentrate/chaff ration is very similar to that of oats or Horse Ration (NF) shown in Table 2, either of which could be used, if available, in place of the home mixed feed, without a mixture of chaff and at a rate of 4.8 kg per day in conjunction with 4 kg hay.

The feed should be given in three separate meals of about 1.5 to 1.75kg and the material wetted to a crumbly consistency immediately before feeding.

It now remains to correct the ration for any possible deficiencies of micro-ingredients. If the hay fed is very poor with no green in it and if the pasture is completely bare, the main deficiency will be vitamin A. Horses require 20 – 30 mg of carotene (the precursor of vitamin A) per 100 kg live weight This is normally well provided if the animal is getting even a little green grazing or if the hay is not completely brown. However, should this be the case, and the horse is getting no green feed at all,  the best way of adding carotene to the ration is by replacing 0.25kg of the chaff in the ration by

  • kg Lucerne meal (artificially dried), or by just adding it if chaff is not used. This is equivalent to replacing 5 of the 21% chaff in the final mix with lucerne meal, and will not significantly unbalance the ration. The addition of this small amount of lucerne will have a very beneficial effect on the well- being of the horse, in addition to supplying the (possibly) required carotene.

Of mineral requirements, salt is the most important and 50 gm per day is the normal allowance if no salt lick is provided, equivalent to the addition of 1% salt in the final ration mix. Since 40% of the horse’s total feed is in the form of cereal grain, the ratio of calcium: phosphorous may be slight unbalanced; it is desirable (but not essential) to correct this with the addition of 1/3% limestone flour to the final ration mix.

The final ration mixture is therefore:

  • Maize Meal                                    64.8%
  • Wheat Bran                                    10.0%
  • Soyabean oil meal                       3.3%
  • Lucerne meal                                 5.2%
  • Chaffed veld hay                          15.4%
  • Salt                                                    1.0%
  • Limestone flour                            0.3%

Example 2

A horse of 450 kg liveweight is being used for medium work including cross-country events for which it is needed to be kept in high condition. Good to medium veld hay, wheat bran, Horse Ration* and Horse Feed* are available; green grazing is also available but this can be ignored.

What feeding is recommended?

(* = ready mixed feed from a feed company)

The horse’s basic requirements from Table 1 are: (mean values)

Total food
Digestible Protein
8.9 kg
0.45 kg
5.4 kg  

However a higher than basic physiological requirement of protein must be fed in order to satisfy the requirement of high condition.

Assume for a start that 3 kg of hay assessed as 2.5% DP and 48% TDN is fed:

0.025 X 3 = 0.075 kg DP

0.48 X 3 = 1.44 kg TDN

Therefore the balance to be supplied by the concentrate ration is:

0.375 kg DP

3.96 kg TDN

4 kg Horse Feed would give (from Table2)

0.117 X 4 = 0.468 kg DP

0.72 X 4 = 2.88 kg TDN

Therefore the balance still to be provided is 1.9 kg of food containing:

1.08 kg TDN

  1. kg Wheat bran would give:

0.133 X 1.5 = 0.2 kg DP 0.669 X 1.5 = 1.00 kg TDN

The whole balance feeding then becomes:

  DP kgTDN kgFibre kg
Horse Feed (NF)4.0kg0.4682.880.40
Wheat bran1.5kg0.2001.000.15

Thus the fibre intake is adequate in the total feed and in the concentrate ration it is 10% which is also satisfactory.

Note that the total protein intake is 0,753 kg against the physiological requirement of 0,45 kg, but this is intentional and it is necessary to provide some of the energy requirement in the form of protein in order to maintain the desired high degree of activity.

In this case there is no need to add any micro-ingredients as sufficient amounts are included in the manufactured Horse Feed and vitamin A will be obtained from the green grazing in sufficient quantity.

Table 1: Feeding Standards for Resting and Working Horses

   Air dry food kgDry Matter (DM) kgRequired DP kgRequired TDN kg
Horses and ponies resting    
Liveweight-300kg 3.8-4.53.3-
350kg 4.6-5.24.0-
450kg 5.4-6.74.7-5.80.323.3-4.0
550kg 6.8-7.54.9-6.50.364.0-4.5
650kg 7.1-8.06.2-7.00.414.1-5.1
750kg 7.8-9.26.8-8.00.454.6-5.6
Horses and ponies light work    
Liveweight-300kg 4.6-5.84.0-
350kg 5.9-7.15.1-6.20.323.5-4.3
450kg 6.8-8.45.9-7.30.363.5-4.3
550kg 7.9-9.76.9-8.40.454.7-5.8
650kg 8.5-10.87.7-9.40.505.3-6.5
750kg 9.8-12.08.5-10.40.555.9-7.2
Horses and ponies medium work    
Liveweight-300kg 5.4-6.34.7-5.50.364.0-5.0
350kg 6.8-8.05.9-7.10.455.0-6.1
450kg 7.9-9.86.9-8.50.505.9-7.3
550kg 9.1-11.17.9-9.70.596.8-8.4
650kg 10.2-12.58.9-10.90.687.7-9.4
750kg 11.3-15.09.8-13.10.738.5-10.4
Horses and ponies heavy work    
Liveweight-300kg 6.2-7.75.4-6.70.364.0-5.0
350kg 7.8-9.56.8-8.30.455.0-6.1
450kg 9.2-11.48.0-9.90.505.9-7.3
550kg 10.6-13.09.2-11.30.596.8-8.4
650kg 12.0-14.610.4-12.70.687.7-9.4
750kg 13.1-16.011.4-13.90.738.5-10.4

Source-Morrison Feedinq Standards, Cornell Univ. 1961

Table 2: Composition of Some Common Horse Feeds and Feed Ingredients

Dry Roughages:      
Cow pea hay9012.318.651.423.32.6
Cow pea straw922.06.838.344.51.2
Cottonseed hulls9103.842.745.00.9
Dolichos lablab hay909.614.850.733.61.4
Groundnut hay916.910.658.423.85.1
Groundnut haulm904.710.039.734.23.2
Lucerne, dried, meal9214.720.
Lucerne hay9110.915.350.728.61.9
Maize stover912.15.951.930.81.6
Millet straw901.53.842.237.51.6
Mapier grass hay893.88.245.434.01.8
Oat hay884.98.247.328.12.7
Oat straw900.74.144.836.32.2
Pasture grass hay:      
early cut907.911.656.428.02.5
poor weathered900.23.341.334.11.8
Rhodes grass hey892.65.751.431.7?
Sainfoin hay847.510.549.019.72.6
Forghum stover751.23.544.033.21.7
Soya bean hay889.814.648.628.12.9
Soya bean straw891.13.938.641.21.2
Wheat hay930.33.940.637.03.9
Wheat straw939.516.456.227.53.1
Veld Hey:      
Teff hay      
(Eragrostis teff)934.78.256.731.5/

All figures shown in this table are percentages of the air dry food; to obtain percentages on a Dry Matter Basis for comparison of relative food value, the figures should be multiplied by:  100      


DM= Dry Matter; DP= Digestible Protein; CP= Crude Protein; TDN = Total Digestible Nutrients

Table 2 Continued

 DM %DP %CP %TDN %Fibre %oil %
Green Roughages      
and Succulents      
Early bloom22.53.64.614.35.80.7
Past bloom29.32.73.614.611.90.7
Yaize, medium, tassel15.
Pasture grass, av.
Rhodes grass25.31.11.815.19,.50.4
Soya forage24.
Star grass25.02.02.815.06.40.5
Cassava chips940.12.875.05.00.5
Cotonseed oil meal (2)9133.341.665.210.72.0
solvent extr.9333.341.671.710.76.0
Hominy chop897.
Groundnut oil meal:      
solvent extr.9238.042.766.217.01.9
linseed oil meal9130.635.
Maize meal886.
Maize corn & cob meal865.47.473.28.03.2
Maize bran905.69.869.48.97.4
Rice grain896.07.970.29.01.8
Rice bran918.412.467.411.613.6
Rice Bran, oil extrd.919.714.355.312.03.1
Rice Polishings909.712.881.52.713.4
Sesame oil meal9439.443.371.36.29.0

Must not be used in horse rations at more than 5%.

Table 2 Continued

 DM %DP %CP %TDN %Fibe %Oil %
Concentrates (cont).      
Sorghum grain908.410.879.92.32.8
Soyabean oil meal:      
solvent extr.9042.045.776.15.91.3
Sunflower oil meal:      
solvent extr.9445.049.570.85.42.9
Wheat bran9013.316.466.910.04.5
Horse Bran (NF) (3)907.310.
Horse Ration (NF)909.
Horse Feed (NF) meal9011.716.
or cubes