Best Feeding Practices for Draft Horses

Draft horses are the largest class of horses around the world. Established centuries ago, these horses were bred to do some of the most demanding jobs of the day. From pulling plows and heavy carts, to even occasionally being ridden, draft horses were critical to daily life for many people. Today, many of these large horses still work but are also shown in various competitions and are loved companions for many.

What is A Draft Horse?

Draft horses are characterized by height, up to 19 hands, and heavy with weights of up to 2000 pounds (900 kg). Since we required draft horses to do many hard jobs, they have been specially bred, thus, they are heavily muscled with strong hindquarters. A neat characteristic of draft horses is their long hairs on their lower limbs, which is called feathering.

You can find draft horses of many breeds across most of the world. Within North America, the most popular draft breeds are:

  • Belgian
  • Clydesdale
  • Friesian
  • Percheron
  • Shire
  • Suffolk

Draft horses are also called “cold blooded.” This does not refer to their actual blood temperatures, which is the same as any other type of horse, but rather refers to their calm and “cool” demeanor. They are truly gentle giants.

A Draft Horse’s Daily Nutrient Requirements

Most draft horses are considered easy keepers. This is due to their calmer behavior and also their heavy muscling. Generations of breeding have developed a heavily muscled horse made for heavy work requiring short bursts of energy. Thus, their muscle metabolism is slower when compared to traditional riding-type horses who were bred for endurance.

According to the National Research Council (2007), the daily energy requirements, at maintenance, for an average riding-type horse are 33.3 Cal per kilogram of body weight per day. However, research in draft horses has shown that value to be lower at 24.6 Cal per kilogram of body weight per day. This means, if draft horses are fed higher calorie diets, rather than utilizing the excess energy, they will store it as fat and put on extra body condition. This holds true for most of our horses labeled as “easy keepers”.

Besides calories, a draft horse’s daily nutrient requirements are generally similar to other horse types on a “per pound of body weight” basis. They require quality protein with the proper amino acid balance, vitamins and minerals.

Determining How Much to Feed a Draft Horse

Before forming a feeding plan, you will first need to determine your draft horse’s body condition score using the Henneke Body Condition Scoring system. The optimal score for a draft horse is similar to other horses with a range of 5 to 6.

Next, you need to estimate how much your draft horse weighs. The weight tapes and equations used for our riding-type horses is not as accurate for draft horses. However, the standard weight tape formulas can be used to get a rough estimate of your draft horse’s weight. To get an estimate, you can:

  • Have the horse stand on a flat surface.
  • Using a seamstress tape, or any flexible (cloth) tape measurer, measure in inches the heart girth of the horse, starting behind the withers and going around the barrel of the horse.
  • For the horse’s body length, start at the point of the shoulder and measure in inches down to the point of the buttocks.
  • You can then use the following formula to get a weight estimate: ((heart girth x heart girth) x body length ÷ 330 = body weight in pounds

The basic rule of any feeding plan is to always base the amount you feed on how much your horse weighs. This is no different for draft horses, where how much you feed is just scaled up compared to an average-sized horse. For example, the recommended amount of forage fed per day to any horse is 2.5% of their body weight per day. For example, if your draft horse weighs 1600 pounds (1600 x 2.5%), the recommended daily forage intake would be 40 pounds per day.

When it comes to horse feed, it is always recommended to follow the manufacturer’s feeding instructions. However, many manufacturers often do not list recommended feeding rates for draft horses. For example, with Essential K®, the listed feeding rate for an 1100 pound horse doing moderate work is 2.5 to 3 pounds per day. For a draft horse weighing an additional 500 pounds (1600 lb total), the recommended feeding rate would increase to 3.5 to 4 pounds per day. If in doubt, it is always recommended to contact the feed manufacturer directly to get the recommended feeding rate.

PSSM and How It Can Affect Draft Horse Nutrition

Some draft horses may experience PSSM (Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy), which is also known as “Tying-Up Disease.” PSSM causes horses to experience muscle tremors and stiffness; it can be very painful for the horse. The disease itself causes an abnormal accumulation of sugar (glycogen) in the muscles, which leads to muscle pain. These horses need diets lower than 20% NSC (non-structural carbohydrates). Thankfully, many quality horse feeds today are lower in NSC than in year’s past. For example, some Tribute® feeds appropriate for draft horses with PSSM include:


Overall, follow the same guidelines you would use with any other horse when forming a feeding plan for a draft horse. Keep in mind, draft horses generally require less calories in their diet as compared to riding-type horses under similar conditions. If you need any help or advice on developing a personalized feeding plan for your draft horse, please contact us!

Article By: Chris Mortensen, Ph.D.
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