Feeding your horse at set intervals is a critical aspect of nutritional management. Typically, most horse owners feed their animals twice daily: once in the morning and once in the late afternoon or evening. This has more to do with convenience for us, rather than what is best for the horse.

For example, it would be quite labor intensive to feed a horse 3, 4 or even 5 times a day. This can even be extended to feeding them as early in the day as possible, for example waking up and feeding them at 5AM. Still, feeding practices for your horse should be strategized to be what is best for the animal, even if it requires extra effort on the owner’s part.

It cannot be understated that any feeding plan needs to be based on the horse’s physiology, then on your individual horse’s needs. Horses have evolved to be grazers. This means they consistently graze throughout the day, which provides feed, typically small amounts of grass or legume plants, into the digestive tract. It can be helpful to think of the horse’s digestive tract as an assembly line. It is designed so feedstuff is constantly in motion, from the mouth to the rectum. As the food passes, it is broken down and the nutrients are absorbed until it is excreted as feces.

One interesting aspect of the horse’s digestive tract is its constant secretion of stomach acid and even bile. Bile is produced by the liver and its primary purpose is to aid in the digestion of fats. Interestingly, unlike us or other mammals, horses do not have a gall bladder. The purpose of the gall bladder is to store bile and release it after a meal. With horses, bile is constantly being secreted into the intestinal tract.

Behavioral research studies show horses in a natural setting or on pasture spend around 70% of the day and night grazing. That is almost 17 hours each day spent eating small meals. This leads to the question of what are the optimal times to feed your horse? First, this will depend on the feedstuff. If your horse is being maintained on pasture, they will fall into a natural grazing pattern and will consume small meals throughout the day.

If your horse is being fed hay during the typical twice per day schedule, the feed would be divided evenly between possibly 7AM and 7PM. Assuming it takes the horse about 2 hours to consume their food, they would be fasting for as much as 10 hours in between meals. Issues such as gastric ulcers and colic arise when horses fast for too long of a period. This has led to many suggestions from equine nutritional experts to feed a horse at least three times per day. Some even go as far as suggesting feeding a horse four to five times per day, such as a 6AM, noon, 6PM, midnight schedule. However, this is very labor intensive and not a usual practice. Thus, many are switching to a much more manageable three times per day feed schedule.

Feeding a horse three times per day would cut down the fasting time dramatically for the animal. For example, a practicable 6AM, noon, and 6PM feeding schedule would reduce fasting to a few hours during the day. However, overnight the horse would be fasting for an approximate 10 hours. Not ideal. So, some suggest spreading out the feedings even more to reduce a horse’s fast to less than 8 hours. For example, feeding at 5AM, 1PM and 9PM.
There are strategies still being investigated for extending a horse’s time spent eating forage and that is the use of hay nets. In a recent article, we discussed the positives and potential negative aspects of using hay nets, which can be accessed HERE. The major benefit of using these are that it extends the hours a horse will consume its forage, mimicking their more natural eating behaviors of small meals throughout the day. It is also believed to be important in decreasing vices such as cribbing or wood chewing, which typically arise in stalled horses out of boredom.
When it comes to the concentrate (or grain) being fed to a horse, the rule of thumb is, again, to feed it twice per day, minimum. Like forage, ideally the concentrate would be spread out over three to five times per day. It is also a standard to never feed more than five pounds of concentrate at any single feeding. This is to prevent digestive disturbances like colic or laminitis.

In summary, the horse is designed to consume small meals throughout the day. It is also suggested:

  • The absolute minimum is to feed your horse at least twice per day, evenly dividing their meals and times they are fed
  • The optimal feeding schedule for a horse would be meals three to five times per day
  • The use of hay nets has the benefit of stretching out the time a horse spends eating, thus the animal would spend less time fasting or lessen the development of boredom behaviors, like wood chewing or cribbing
  • Concentrates should never be fed at rates higher than 5 lb per meal

If you have any questions about your animal, feel free to reach out to us HERE in developing a sound feeding strategy plan for your horse.

Chris J. Mortensen, Ph.D.