The History of Equine Nutrition

Horses were first thought to be domesticated roughly 6,000 years ago in Eurasia. We aren’t exactly certain of what people fed horses right around this time. Yet, we can probably assume it was a forage-based diet, much like our horses today. Excitingly, there are ancient written accounts on what horses were fed in the last few thousand years, and it gives us an opportunity to compare it to today’s scientifically based feeding strategies. 

What Were Ancient Horses Fed?

Through ancient writings, we can piece together a picture of what ancient horses were fed thousands of years ago. Documents from the ancient Greek and Roman period of history, roughly 2000-2500 years ago, paints a picture of a horse’s diet being carefully managed, including the type of forage species, grain or fodder that was fed. All of this gives evidence that the study and passage of knowledge on equine nutrition was important to multiple societies over the millennia.

Earliest written records highlight the importance of quality forage for horses. For example, the famous Greek philosopher, Aristotle, in the 4th Century B.C.E. stated that “young, green pasture that is forming seed is good for the condition of a horse’s coat, but when the grass has stiff awns, it is not so good.” This means that Aristotle knew that young and growing forage was better for horses, as compared to more mature forages. More writings from Aristotle and other ancient Greek writers mentioned that alfalfa was a superior forage for horses. This was after it was introduced to Greece by the Persians in the 5th Century B.C.E.

The study of ancient horse owners gets really interesting as it relates to the types of grains, or fodder, they fed their horses. There is evidence that even 2500 years ago, owners were aware of the benefits and pitfalls when giving supplemental feeds.

First, ancient horse owners were quite aware that horses at differing levels of work required different levels of supplemental feed, like grain. In the 5th Century B.C.E., one writer noted that, “you must see horses get enough food to stand hard work.” In another instance in the 2nd Century C.E., a writer noted that one calvary officer fed his horse only chaff (chopped straw) and when he went to battle, the horse quickly broke down, inferring that a poor diet led to poor performance.

The type of grain or fodder that the ancients fed varied on location and availability. In many corners of the Mediterranean and Europe, barley was noted by Roman authors as often being the grain of choice for horses. Interestingly, oats are rarely mentioned in ancient writings, but first make their appearance in Roman documents around 100 C.E. This is because oats did not become widely available until they were introduced via the Near East.  

All in all, this would indicate that even ancient horse owners had a level of sophistication and knowledge of how and what to feed their horses, which carries on to this day.

How Equine Nutrition Has Changed Over the Last Century

While information on how to feed horses has been passed on from generation to generation over many millennia, it is not until the last 100 years that our understanding of equine nutrition has exploded. The biggest change has been in our understanding of WHY or what we feed and how it impacts our horses.

At the turn of the 20th century in 1900, horses were about at their peak around the world. They were the primary mode of transportation for nearly every society around the planet, as well as critical for farm work. Automobiles and tractors would not surpass horses as the primary mode of transportation, or as work machines, for a couple more decades.

Surprisingly, what horses were fed in 1900 did not differ too much from what was fed nearly 2500 years ago. Again, much of what was fed was dependent on what was available for that area. Horses were fed alfalfa, loose grass hays, barley, oats, corn, and other grains. In addition, fodder in the form of boiled vegetables was often fed. The question then becomes, what changed?

As automobiles and tractors replaced horses in the United States, the overall horse population fell from a high of ~21 million in 1920 to about 4.5 million in 1960. Thus, for those 40 years, horses were lost and forgotten in many segments of society. However, as disposable wealth became more available in the post-war years, people rediscovered their love for horses. Today, there are nearly 10 million horses throughout the United States, with many owned for pleasure riding and other activities.

With the rediscovery of horses in the 1960s came a focused interest in the equine sciences. Equine nutrition became a primary area of study for many scientists, as well as focused interest in equine medicine. Prior to 1960, scientific articles and studies in horses were nearly absent. However, since 1960, and especially with an explosion in the 1980s, there are now thousands and thousands of scientific articles on all topics related to equine health and nutrition.

This research has not only benefited horses and their health, but it has also unlocked many secrets of how and what to feed horses. Feeding horses is truly a focused science with hundreds of studies being conducted all over the world. We can honestly say that today it has never been better to be a horse!


Donaghy, T. (2012). Feeding the Ancient Horse. Journal of the Veterinary Historical Society. 16:302-24.

Harris, P. (1998). Developments in equine nutrition: comparing the beginning and end of this century. Journal of Nutrition. 128:2698S-703S.

Article By: Chris Mortensen, Ph.D.
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