In the last year, over six thousand horse owners from all over North America used Mad Barn to analyze their horses’ diets.
We looked at diets for weanlings, broodmares, pasture pets, prize-winning racehorses, the odd mule, and everything in between.
We learned a lot from examining those feeding programs and hearing about horse owner’s common questions and concerns. For example, 38% of horse owners indicated that they were concerned about their horse’s hoof and joint health.
From your submissions, we have identified some big trends in feeding practices as well as simple ways to improve equine well-being through nutrition and management.
We also discovered some fun facts in the process:
- The most common horse name among our sample set was Willow
- The average horse age was 12.5 years old
- The most common breed was Quarter Horses (26%), followed by Thoroughbreds (18%)
- More diets were submitted on behalf of male horses (55%) compared to female horses (45%)
More importantly, we looked at the expected nutrient requirements for horses based on their physiological status, weight and activity level. Then we compared that with how well their daily rations were meeting their individual nutrient needs.
We found that the vast majority of diets provide too much energy, protein and iron while providing not enough of certain minerals, such as sodium, as well as antioxidants, such as selenium and vitamin E.
When horses exceed their energy requirements, it leads to weight gain and higher risk of metabolic dysfunction and laminitis. Diets with deficiencies in key vitamins and minerals can also negatively affect health.
Fortunately, it has never been easier to design a balanced feeding program for your horse that provides the optimal energy while meeting nutrient needs. If you haven’t already, analyze your horse’s diet online and our equine nutritionists can help you formulate the right daily ration for your horse for free.
Currently, there are large gaps in the research available on the nutritional needs of horses. This is because horses receive far less research funding than other species. Mad Barn has received grant funding from Canadian national granting bodies for our equine research program at the University of Guelph.
How We Analyze your Horse’s Diet
We take a precision nutrition approach to designing your horse’s feeding plan. This means we look at everything you are currently feeding and quantify nutrient values so you clearly see what is, and isn’t, in the diet.
Then we look at some basic facts about your horse including their:
- Body weight
- Body condition
- Activity level
- Breeding status
- Health needs
We then use nutritional modelling to predict your horse’s individual needs and to suggest target inclusion values for various macronutrients (fat, carbohydrates, protein) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).
From there, we can make adjustments to your horse’s diet to ensure they are receiving optimal and balanced amounts of required nutrients. Balance is an important concept in equine nutrition, particularly when dealing with minerals.
Not only is it important to consume adequate amounts of specific minerals, but it is also critical to keep appropriate ratios between certain minerals to meet your horse’s needs.
You’ll receive reports from our nutritionists showing in-depth analysis of your horse’s current diet as well as an optimized diet with proposed feeds that match your horse’s needs.
Our nutritionists are horse owners too and they know how important it is to keep your horse’s feeding program simple and cost-effective, while choosing feeds that are convenient to source in your area.
Mad Barn’s Feed Formulation Tool
We do all of this with our feed formulation tool, Mad Barn Feed, which uses the latest scientific consensus to calculate how much of each nutrient your horse needs. This tool is free and can be accessed by anyone online.
After you’ve submitted a diet evaluation form, our nutritionists create a profile for your horse in our formulation program and input the relevant information.
Forage is the foundation of the typical equine diet, so this is where we start. Knowing the nutritional composition of your horse’s hay allows us to make the most accurate dietary asssessment.
If you have a hay analysis from a lab, our nutritionists can help you interpret this information to build a feeding program around your forage or recommend alternative hays to use.
We also have a large library of forage samples from different geographic regions. So even if you don’t have a hay sample, we can use reference values to approximate the nutrient composition and quality of your horse’s forage.
Then, we look at any commercial feeds, concentrates or supplements in your horse’s diet to understand their impact on overall nutrient levels.
Our open access feed bank provides data on over 2,500 feeds and supplements that are commonly found in the equine diet. This makes it easy to do the calculations required to formulate a balanced diet.
Our feed bank also allows you to compare different feed products and find the one that matches your horse’s needs.
But you don’t have to do any of this alone. Our nutritionists can answer any questions you might have and can help you build the optimal feeding plan for your horse. And our nutritionists are always free to use.
Put precision nutrition to work for your horse and start to analyze your horse’s diet now.
Equine Demographics and Care Needs
In 2021, Mad Barn’s team of equine nutritionists looked at rations for horses of all ages, physiological states and sizes. We designed diets for newly weaned foals learning to be independent all the way up to senior horses with no teeth and multiple interacting health concerns.
This gave us unparalleled insight into feeding practices for all different types of equines and a huge data bank of case studies to rely on when dietary recommendations.
Of the diets we analyzed, approximately 16% of horses were over 20 years of age and 6% were less than 2 years of age.
The oldest horse was 42 years old, and still in great health! We also formulated a diet for a donkey born in 1975.
The average age of horses in our sample set was 12.5 years old, which would be considered a mature adult horse. Once horses hit 20 years of age, they are generally considered senior.
In our sample set, almost half the horses were described as normal weight, while approximately one-third of horses were considered above normal weight. Twenty-two percent were reported as under normal weight.
This is similar to what is reported in body condition research on the general horse population. One study reported that around 40% of horses and ponies are over-conditioned or overweight. 
Figure 1: Percent of horses within each body condition category
Horses that are not at ideal body condition are at higher risk of health issues. For example, over-conditioned horses are more likely to develop metabolic dysfunction and laminitis.
Conversely, underweight horses might be suffering from nutritional deficiencies or have underlying gut health issues that affect their ability to gain weight.
We recommend body condition scoring your horse on a regular basis to track any changes and to make informed decisions about what to feed your horse.
Health Concerns of Horses
Most horses have aspects of their health that need special attention when formulating a diet, such as mood balance, gut issues, or metabolic concerns.
Of the 6,515 horses that we received data on, 38% listed joint and/or hoof health issues and 10% listed respiratory concerns.
The vast majority (85.8%) of horses had at least one concern, as reported by horse owners.
Luckily, many of the common concerns can be improved by sound nutrition and thoughtful management practices.
Figure 2: Percent of horses with health concerns as reported by horse owners
The most common combination of concerns was hoof, joint and topline issues. This was followed by digestion, hoof and joint health concerns.
A high prevalence of these concerns was also reported in scientific studies of the horse population. For example, 85% of horses exhibit hoof issues and 13% have laminitis. 
There are many factors that can lead to these common issues including:
- Farriery and veterinary care
Throughout a horse’s lifetime, diet and management needs change considerably. Having an ongoing relationship with an equine nutritionist, vet and farrier can help you navigate changing needs to proactively prevent health issues.
Analysis of Equine Feeding Programs
What does the typical equine ration look like? No two horses are identical and the same goes for feeding plans.
There is meaningful variation between forages, feeds, and additives used by horse owners across North America. That makes it difficult to come up with any sort of standardized or typical diet.
However, from diving into the data that we received from horse owners, we can identify several significant trends in the inclusion levels for certain macro- and micro-nutrients that make up the equine diet.
When we looked at the submitted feeding programs relative to individual nutrient requirements, we found that most horse diets are:
- Oversupplying energy (84.5% were above requirement)
- Oversupplying protein (97.9% were above requirement)
- Oversupplying iron (99.5% were above requirement)
- Undersupplying electrolytes, such as sodium (70.9% were under requirement)
- Undersupplying key antioxidants such as selenium (49.3% were under requirement) and vitamin E (57% were under requirement)
Figure 3: Percent requirement of energy (DE), crude protein (CP) and nutrients in a 200-diet subset
In Figure 3, the red line indicates 100% of the dietary requirement for each nutrient. Each circle represents the nutrient value for a single diet in the sample set.
The chart shows that nutrients such as sodium and B-vitamins are usually undersupplied (deficient). In contrast, potassium and iron are most often oversupplied.
Consequences for Equine Well-Being
We all want to give our horses an appropriate, balanced diet that supports their optimal health. This data suggests that the typical horse could use some help to bring their feeding program into alignment with predicted nutrient requirements.
In particular, the caloric density of the typical equine diet needs to be reduced while nutrient density needs to be increased to ensure vitamins and minerals are adequately supplied.
As mentioned earlier, diets that provide too much energy can lead to weight gain, chronic inflammation and associated metabolic problems.
Feeding too much protein can also contribute to weight issues, metabolic dysfunction and increased strain on the kidneys. There are also environmental concerns because excess protein is broken down and secreted as nitrogen in urine.
Not feeding enough trace minerals such as zinc, copper, and selenium can have subtle effects on your horse to start with. But over time, these low-grade deficiencies can contribute to bigger problems for skin and coat quality, performance and immune function.
Chronic low intake of vitamins and minerals often first manifests as poor hoof quality. But other common problems related to joint and gut health may also be caused by imbalanced diets.
The Best Way to Feed your Horse
Thankfully, research tells us a lot about how to best feed your horse. We know that feeding too much starch can result in hindgut issues and that too much sugar in the diet increases the risk of laminitis.
We know that horses need 20mg of biotin per day to ensure proper hoof growth and that most horses require vitamin E supplementation because this vitamin rapidly degrades when fresh grass is cut to make hay.
Below, we will discuss other research-backed feeding practices that can help to support your horse’s well-being.
One of the key principles for supporting your horse’s health is feeding a forage-first diet. Horses evolved to spend up to 18 hours of the day grazing and their digestive tract is designed to handle a nearly continuous intake of high-fibre feed.
Under modern management practices, some horses go a long duration without access to hay or pasture leading to periods of fasting where the stomach is empty.
The horse’s stomach – which constantly produces acid – is not designed for intermittent feeding. Horses that are fed only a few large spaced-out meals per day can experience digestive issues, such as gastric ulcers.
Intermittent feeding often goes hand-in-hand with the use of complete feeds or concentrates. Many of these commercial feeds provide a majority of energy from grains and other ingredients high in non-structural carbohydrates, or NSC (sugar and starch).
High grain diets can disrupt the delicate balance of the hindgut microbiome. These diets are also linked to “hot” behaviour in the horse.
Ideally, horses should be provided with free-choice hay and low-NSC feeds. It is important to select a hay that matches your horse’s energy and protein needs.
For example, an easy keeper with equine metabolic syndrome should be on a low-quality hay that will not supply excess calories, even when fed ad libitum.
On the other hand, growing, lactating, gestating and high-performing horses require higher quality hay with increased energy density. These horses might also need extra protein or calories from sources such as beet pulp, legume hay and/or oil.
Forage alone will not meet your horse’s vitamin and mineral requirements.
Some nutrients – such as potassium – are adequately supplied by hay and pasture. Other nutrients – such as the trace minerals zinc and copper – are rarely supplied in adequate amounts by forage.
Vitamins and minerals play essential roles in many important metabolic reactions. When these nutrients are not provided in adequate amounts, certain biological processes will be limited, and your horse’s health will be impaired.
For example, calcium is necessary to build strong bones and magnesium is needed for nerve transmission.
Significant research in horses has been conducted to understand how much of certain vitamins and minerals they need to avoid signs of deficiency.
Common signs of a nutrient deficiency or imbalance include:
- Changes in mood, appetite and stamina
- Dull coat
- Poor hoof quality
- Loss of topline or weak topline
- Muscle soreness
- Poor mobility
- Abnormal growth and development
- Slow recovery from exercise or illness
If your horse is displaying any of these signs, look to their diet for answers.
Supporting Gut Health
Gut health problems – such as dysbiosis, ulcers, and colic – are common in horses. 60-90% of horses are believed to suffer from stomach ulcers.
Gastrointestinal issues may result in weight loss, irritability, girthiness, diarrhea, free fecal water syndrome, poor digestion and weakness.
The best way to support your horse’s gut health is to provide fibre-rich forages that promote hindgut fermentation. Avoid high-starch feeds that can contribute to gut problems.
For horses that need additional energy, there are several gut-friendly options to add protein and calories to the diet. These include ground flax, forage cubes, beet pulp, and oils.
To help maintain gut health, several digestive supplements have demonstrated efficacy in research studies. Probiotics, prebiotics and yeast are some examples of research-backed ingredients.
Many equine health concerns are improved by feeding a balanced diet, but management practices can also make a big impact.
Below are some common issues affecting equine well-being and examples of management changes that horse owners can implement.
- Respiratory issues: Provide as much turnout as possible, reduce exposure to airborne particles by using dust-free bedding, soaking hay and using haynets
- Anxiousness and mood: Provide turnout with suitable companions, address any sources of pain, evaluate your training program
- Digestive issues: Use appropriate deworming practices, reduce or eliminate sources of stress, have regular dental and health checks by a veterinarian, provide constant access to water
- Weak topline: Evaluate saddle fit, assess metabolic health, use resistance training exercises such as pole or hill work
- Hoof health: Ensure their environment is not too dry or too wet, use a well-trained farrier on a 4-6 week interval
- Joint health: Provide adequate turnout, use a training program appropriate for your horse’s age and condition
- Poor body condition: Monitor social standing as well as access to feed and water, evaluate health issues, deworming protocols and environmental factors such as blanketing
- Metabolic syndrome and overconditioning: Soak the hay to reduce sugar content, use slow-feeder hay nets, increase exercise to improve insulin sensitivity
- Stereotypic behaviours: Provide plenty of turnout and socialization, reduce stress and boredom, address underlying health concerns
Our nutritionists can help you identify both diet and management factors that could be affecting your horse’s health.
You can submit your horse’s diet for evaluation online and we can help you come up with the best feeding program for their needs.
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- Jaqueth, A.L. et al. Characterization of the Prevalence and Management of Over-Conditioned Ponies and Horses in Maryland. J Equine Vet Sci. 2018.
- Holzhauer, M. et al. Cross-sectional study of the prevalence of and risk factors for hoof disorders in horses in The Netherlands. Prev Vet Med. 2017.
- Patterson-Kane, J.C. et al. Paradigm shifts in understanding equine laminitis. Vet J. 2018.
Absolutely loved your article even though I scrolled through it quickly. Anyone reading this would be astonished because that is just not my style but I am so tired of reading articles on nutrition that are incorrect and downright dangerous and clearly done by either rookies or academic centers pushing folks to publish some thing they have a little experience with. Could I please connect with you at a greater level? Most interesting or two things I’d like to talk about. One I am still seeing published today which is the push for ridiculously over educated nutritionist FK library pushing supplements and concentrates to broodmares and foals. You go to one lecture hall and they’re talking about how to feed babies and broodmares and you go next-door and they’ll have a lecture on how all these additional concentrates cause the orthopedic anomalies we see and what’s worse is the clinicians have no clue. Something else I’d love for you to look at is as a veterinarian clinician and writer, we so often get called out to talk about a horses behavioral problems and of course we often or I go to the diet. Owner swear on Bibles they get or give no snacks no additives no nothing but one quick trip to their feed room and you see nothing but a wall of supplements and even more interesting was watching one pull out a fanny pack full of calf manna that she fed handful by handful to her BLM horse as she groomed him complaining about his high energy level and problems. I contacted the folks at Purina about their great products but a Normas product line that does nothing but confuse people and when I tried to write a response to another article in the local journal got nasty replies from a lawyer for “bashing“ the author when I was trying to explain that not even as a veterinarian can deal with the hind gut biome and zillions of small but important issues that is again I as a veterinarian can’t deal with. We’ve got to keep it simple and yours has been the most beautifully written article I have yet to see and I’d love to simply add some thoughts. Hi on my list is letting people know how many things sabotage the thyroid, including and especially all of the NSAIDs we give and what we need to do about that