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To Grain or Not to Grain
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To Grain or Not to Grain

This blog post was prompted by two things: the shocking number of overweight and underworked horses I see on a daily basis and a recent experience at a feed store. While shopping around in our local farm store I overheard a lady and her friend discussing horse grain.

Based on the way the lady was speaking, I assume that the horse she was shopping for was her very first. Her friend was explaining that all horses need grain just like they need hay. The lady inquired, bring up the statement "But <horse's name> last owner said she's an easy keeper."

Who knows the full story behind the above circumstance but it did make me wonder how many people truly believe horses need grain simply because they are horses. I've never grained my past mares, but I likely would have with my APHA if I did higher intensity work with her. I consider graining a supplement to high quality hay, not necessarily a must for all horses.

All Horses Need Grain

I worked at a local stable that focuses on vaulting and general horsemanship. The owner had ALL of her 20+ horses on grain, regardless of their activity level. I would say 3/4 of her horses had never done any amount of work besides walk around in a pasture. Many of them were fat and sassy. The horses that did do work were heavily grained, though only two were worked more than twice a week.

Does anyone else find this very odd? The kicker was that the owner was financially in trouble yet she was throwing hundreds of bags of grain down horses that didn't need it.

All in all, I do NOT agree that the all horses require grain as a part of their diet. That being said, there are plenty of special circumstances such as horses doing high intensity work and senior horses that have a hard time keeping a healthy weight. The average horse, ridden maybe 2 or 3 times a week for a few hours, will probably not need to ever have grain in their diet.

A Word About Hay

One more common misconception about horse feed is what type of hay horses require. Similarly to grain, your average horse will do quite well on high-quality grass hay. Alfalfa is very high in protein, making this type of hay suitable for young horses and nursing mares opposed to your typical adult horse. Alfalfa mixes can be helpful if your horse isn't an easy keeper or needs a little energy. Keep in mind that protein is not an ideal energy booster for horses. It will work in a pinch, but high protein is best suited for nursing mares and adolescents due to its ability to repair structures within the body.

What Do You Feed?

Feel free to share what your horse's diet is and how often he/she is worked in the comments below. I would love to know your views on grain and whether it's a requirement for your average backyard horse.

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  1. liverspot
    Can't agree more. If I fed my mare hard feed in summer I'd probably kill her. As it is have to make sure she's not out on good grass and even then I have to limit her grazing at times. Even with that she tends to be overweight if she's not worked. Like you, I find that not many owners seem to have a sound understanding of nutrition. Voted!
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  2. autumnap
    autumnap
    Voted! Absolutely on the money! So many people insist of feeding hard feed when their horses really don't need it. A horse in light to moderate work can exist quite happily on good quality haylage, unless it's a breed that doesn't hold condition well in which case some supplementary feed may be required. x
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  3. PonyGirl
    PonyGirl
    I enjoyed your post very much. Besides type and frequency of work,I think that the amount and type of feed needed to supplement forage (if any) would depend on the nutrient content of the pasture and/or hay. Horses do need protein, but only as a small percentage of their diet. My horses do heavy work, but I only feed them relatively small amounts of grain. Their main source of food is pasture and/or a high quality grass hay. If they're working extra hard (I use them in my work), I will give them a flake of alfalfa a day. The only thing I might add is that some horses have thyroid problems which will tend to make them overweight, no matter what you feed. While the hypothyroidism is somewhat difficult to diagnose, the treatment is very inexpensive.
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  4. Stangsandpintos
    Stangsandpintos
    It drives me nuts when someone tells me my horses should get grain. Some even treat me like a villain for not overfeeding them. My boys don't get grain at all. They get quality hay/pasture, a mineral block and a plain white salt block and they both maintain their weight just fine. They even got a little too pudgy this winter. When they started to shed out I realized it wasn't all that hair that kept me from feeling their ribs. Thank-you for a great article. You have my vote!
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  5. pat holsbeke
    I too have seen grain fed twice a day to non working horses, even after one foundered! Try to tell these people they are hurting thier horses and they won't listen. My horses work and only get grain (2 cups) if they are going to work. I ride long distance and my horses will get fat on hay when they aren't working. Great post.
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  6. AverageJo Equine
    AverageJo Equine
    If you are feeding "grain" (oats, corn, barley etc) you arent getting any extra nutrients from your hay. Most hay has seed heads in it, which is the same as the "grains". So what are you giving your horse that is different than just more calories? Variety is much more important. Horses cannot survive on hay alone. That isnt all they eat in the wild, and it shouldnt be all they eat in their stall.
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