Evaluating Horse Diets: What to Know

Two equine nutrition specialists discuss deconstructing a horse’s diet to ensure he’s getting what he needs to thrive. Read more in the December 2022 issue of The Horse.

old horse grazing on pasture
Evaluating forage intake when a horse is on pasture can be challenging. Some estimates suggest a horse can ingest the equivalent of 1 to 3 pounds of hay during one hour of grazing on lush pasture. | iStock

Nutritional evaluations take the guesswork out of whether your horse consumes a balanced diet

Your horse has a shiny coat and has never had issues maintaining weight. The 2-year-old in the next stall is growing steadily into the reining prospect of her owner’s dreams. And the barrel racer across the barn aisle performs well and always recovers from competition quickly.

It’d be easy to assume each of these horses is fueled by a well-balanced nutritional plan, but making assumptions in the diet department can have serious consequences. That’s where nutritional evaluations—making sure the diet is supplying all the necessary nutrients—are key to keeping horses healthy.

We consulted two equine nutrition specialists to learn what you need to know about deconstructing a horse’s diet to ensure he’s getting what he needs to thrive.

Do All Horses Need Nutritional Evaluations?

“A nutritional evaluation can determine if a horse needs additional nutrients or if some nutrients are in excess of needs,” says Laurie Lawrence, PhD, a professor of equine nutrition at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington. “With that knowledge, the owner can make adjustments to the amount or type of feeds that are in the ration.”

All horses benefit from occasional nutritional evaluations and resulting ration adjustments. But, our sources agree, certain equine classes—including those with health problems or that are competing, growing, or breeding—should have their diets assessed and balanced on a more regular basis.

Take the growing horse, for instance. “Most of us want to develop a horse into an athlete, or at least something that’s going to be healthy and have longevity,” says Brian Nielsen, PhD, MS, PAS, Dipl. ACAN, a professor of equine nutrition and exercise physiology at Michigan State University, in East Lansing. “To do that you have to be certain you’re feeding the appropriate nutrition.”

It’s not just ensuring the horse is consuming enough calories. Growing horses need a specific mix and quantity of nutrients in their diets to ensure their bodies grow and develop

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We at The Horse work to provide you with the latest and most reliable news and information on equine health, care, management, and welfare through our magazine and TheHorse.com. Our explanatory journalism provides an understandable resource on important and sometimes complex health issues. Your subscription will help The Horse continue to offer this vital resource to horse owners of all breeds, disciplines, and experience levels.


Written by:

Erica Larson, former news editor for The Horse, holds a degree in journalism with an external specialty in equine science from Michigan State University in East Lansing. A Massachusetts native, she grew up in the saddle and has dabbled in a variety of disciplines including foxhunting, saddle seat, and mounted games. Currently, Erica competes in eventing with her OTTB, Dorado.

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