Feeding the Young Horse in Training

Young horses in work have different nutritional needs than their adult counterparts.

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young horse in training
Making sure young horses in work have their nutritional needs met is essential for their continued growth and performance. | Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Feeding young horses differs from feeding adult performance horses for several reasons. This class of horse must consume nutrients for maintenance, growth, and work (training and performance). Typically, nutrient requirements are at the highest levels for young horses in training.

Weight and Body Condition

Monitoring weight and body condition is an important part of caring for young horses in training. We need to ensure they’re not carrying too much weight for their developing skeleton, which can predispose them to developmental disorders. Many feed companies have portable scales and will bring them to your farm to accurately weigh your horses regularly, which can be a valuable tool for growing horses. The company’s nutritionist can also explain how to monitor weight and body condition to ensure your young horse is growing at an appropriate rate without compromising skeletal development.

Feeding for Growth and Work

Young horses usually need more “energy,” or calories, than their adult counterparts. These calories not only support maintenance and growth but also the level of training. According to the 2007 Nutrient Requirements of Horses, both long yearlings and 2-year-olds in training require 1.2 Mcal (megacalories) per pound of diet. As a comparison, an adult horse not in work only requires, on average, 0.9 Mcal per pound of diet, and an adult horse in moderate work (including roping, reining, cutting, and jumping) requires, on average, 1.2 Mcal per pound.

Indicators a horse is not receiving adequate calories can include reduced performance and undesired weight loss. In the case of young horses, it could also include slower-than-expected growth. You might find you have to adjust the amount of feed and forage to meet caloric requirements, as grain has higher caloric content per pound than forage. A qualified nutritionist can help you assess caloric intake and determine if you need to make changes for your young horse.

Protein Importance

Protein intake is also crucial for young horses. The protein should come from high-quality sources, and in many cases protein quality is more important than quantity. Protein alone is not an efficient calorie source, as it’s more inefficient to digest than carbohydrates and fats. For a protein to be considered high-quality, we are looking for levels of essential amino acids involved in muscle development and repair: lysine, threonine, and methionine. It might be helpful to look at protein intake on a pounds-per-day basis instead of percentage. For example, a long yearling not in training needs about 1.7 pounds of good-quality protein per day, but if the same yearling is in training, protein requirements increase to 2 pounds per day. Again, a nutritionist can help you determine the best feed for your growing and exercising horse.

Mineral Balance

Young horses need calcium and phosphorus for proper skeletal development in a ratio of 2 parts calcium to 1 part phosphorus. The skeletal system itself has this same ratio of 2:1, and if the diet is out of balance, developmental and skeletal strength issues can occur. Other minerals, including magnesium, potassium, sodium, and chloride are also important for skeletal development and muscle function. Some of these minerals are lost in sweat, so it is important to make sure young horses in work are getting adequate amounts.

Take-Home Message

Feeding the young horse in training warrants extra considerations compared to feeding adult working horses. It is essential to ensure their nutritional requirements are being met for both growth and performance. Working with a qualified nutritionist or veterinarian can help you assess growth rate, condition, and performance of your young horse and keep him on a healthy track.


Written by:

Janice L. Holland, PhD, is an Associate Professor and Director of Equine Studies at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. A graduate of both Penn State and Virginia Tech, her equine interests include nutrition and behavior, as well as amateur photography. When not involved in horse activities she enjoys spending time outdoors enjoying nature.

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