Evaluating Energy Needs Before Feeding Your Horse Grain

We’ll give you the straight scoop on grain

Grain being poured into a horse's feed bucket
Updated February 13, 2024

How Much Grain Should I Feed My Horse?

Many horse owners think the only question to ask about grain is, "how much?" But you should start with the more basic question, "does my horse need grain at all?" Asking these kinds of questions can help you design your horse's ideal diet by:

  1. Making sure your horse has all the nutrients he needs to look and feel his best.
  2. Providing enough energy (calories) for your horse to maintain a healthy body condition and support his level of work while avoiding problems associated with feeding grain unnecessarily.

The Role of Grain in Your Horse’s Diet

Forage should be the foundation of your horse’s diet as it’s an ideal feed source for keeping his digestive tract happy and healthy, and it provides the bulk of his required nutrition. For many horses, appropriate servings of pasture and/or hay throughout the day are more than enough to sustain a healthy body condition.

So where does grain come in? Traditionally, whole cereal grains such as oats, corn, and barley were fed to racehorses, draft horses, and other horses working for a living to help them meet their energy needs.

A forage-only diet may not be calorie-dense enough for working horses (and pregnant or lactating mares) to maintain optimal weight. Especially if they’re only fed 2% of body weight in good quality forage. For example, a lactating mare would need to consume 30 lbs of high-quality grass hay with 11% protein. This is not impossible, but many hays do not quite measure up.

As horses evolved into the athletes we know today, more and more barns started to move away from whole cereal grains and started feeding commercial, "fortified" grains like pellets and sweet feeds. These fortified grains were developed by feed companies and are made up of a combination of cereal grains with additional protein, vitamins, and minerals, to complement a hay-only diet.

While this was a sound idea, the trouble is that these important nutrients are directly tied to considerable calories in the grain. Which means you can't increase or decrease one without increasing or decreasing the other. As a result, in order to have a full serving of nutrients your horse must also take in the full serving of calories, which many do not need.

Only certain nutrients, not all, are required to be listed on the guaranteed analysis. However, all of the ingredients are listed in order by weight (the highest content listed first) on the ingredient statement. Further, while fortified grains may be fairly well balanced themselves, unfortunately, they do nothing to address imbalances in the forage.

3 Reasons to Think Before You Scoop

1. Keep Score — Why Weight Matters

A person's hands feeling the topline of an overweight horse.

Given the rise in popularity of fortified grains and the challenging correlation between nutrients and calories, it's not surprising studies have found that 50% of horses and ponies are overweight [1].

A chubby pony is often thought of as being adorable, but unfortunately being overweight comes with risks and health concerns like laminitis, insulin resistance, and Equine Metabolic Syndrome. Being too thin is also unhealthy for horses and ponies.

But who decides whether a horse is too plump, skinny, or just right? You can, thanks to the Henneke Body Condition Scoring Scale. This 1-9 scale provides a standard scoring system for veterinarians, nutritionists, horse owners, and riders to use when evaluating a horse’s fat cover. Check out our step-by-step instructions on how to body condition score your horse.

2. Provide an Ideal Omega 3 to 6 Ratio

Additionally troublesome is the fact that whole grains and most commercial feeds are much higher in omega 6 fatty acids than omega 3 fatty acids. While both are essential in the diet, omega 6s are generally considered pro-inflammatory, whereas omega 3s support anti-inflammatory reactions.

Horses were built to thrive on fresh grasses which have more omega 3s than 6s. But by the time grass is cut, dried, baled, and stored, the hay contains little to no omega 3s. Consequently, high grain diets can result in a chronic pro-inflammatory state, contributing to stress on cells throughout the body.

3. Keep Gut Health a Top Priority

Lastly, and perhaps most concerning of all, is the fact that diets with a large quantity of grains have been associated with an increased risk of both colic [2] and gastric ulcers [3]. It’s recommended to feed the minimum amount of grain necessary to maintain your horse’s weight and energy levels. Keep in mind, for many horses that’s no grain at all.

Key Takeaways

Bran mash being poured into a horse's feed tub
  1. Body condition scoring is a critical first step to understanding if grain is right for your horse.
  2. Because grain is calorie-dense and rich in pro-inflammatory omega 6s, it’s wise to feed the minimum amount of grain needed to maintain weight and energy (which may be none at all).

If thinking about reducing or eliminating your horse’s grain makes you concerned about him missing out on key proteins, vitamins, and minerals, it’s a valid concern. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to fill that nutrient gap without filling up on unwanted calories.

Additional Horse Owner Resources

Evidence-Based References

  1. Kosolofski HR, Gow SP, Robinson KA. Prevalence of obesity in the equine population of Saskatoon and surrounding area. Can Vet J. 2017 Sep;58(9):967-970. PMID: 28878421; PMCID: PMC5556474.
  2. Vokes J, Lovett A, Sykes B. Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome: An Update on Current Knowledge. Animals (Basel). 2023 Apr 5;13(7):1261. doi: 10.3390/ani13071261. PMID: 37048517; PMCID: PMC10093336.
  3. Pagan, J. D., Lawrence, T. S., & Lawrence, L. Feeding protected sodium bicarbonate attenuates hindgut acidosis in horses fed a high-grain ration. Proceedings of the 53rd Annual Convention of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, Orlando, Florida, USA, 1-5 December, 2007., 530–533.

SmartPak strongly encourages you to consult your veterinarian regarding specific questions about your horse's health. This information is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease, and is purely educational.