Understanding Forage Needs of Miniature Horses

An equine nutritionist offers advice for determining Miniature Horses’ forage requirements.

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Miniature Horses eating hay in snow.
Most Miniature Horses only need about one flake of hay per day.| Haylie Kerstetter/TheHorse.com

Q: I have two Miniature Horses, and it’s a constant struggle to keep them at an appropriate weight. They currently live out 24/7 in a mostly dirt paddock with hay fed twice a day. I worry about them not having enough forage to keep their gut moving, but I also don’t want them to be severely overweight. How do I strike the right balance?

A:  It sounds like you are struggling with the reality that Miniature Horses tend to be easy keepers. Managing easy keepers is always a balancing act between restricting calorie intake while maximizing feed intake for gut health. In a study conducted by researchers from the University of Minnesota to create calculations to accurately determine actual and ideal body weights in horses, 20% of the adult and 2% of the juvenile Miniature Horses were considered to be overweight, with a body condition score of at least 7. All horses in this study were measured at various shows, so being overweight was not just an issue of inactive horses.

For all horses, regardless of size, it is ideal to feed them at least 1.5% of their body weight per day, preferably from forage. Feeding 1.5 to 2% is even better. The challenge with Miniature Horses and small ponies is this amount seems to be nothing, especially if you are also feeding larger horses. According to the American Miniature Horse Association, adult Miniature Horses weigh an average of 150 to 250 pounds. Assuming we have a Mini that weighs 200 pounds, this would mean feeding 3 to 4 pounds per day. For most two-string bales of hay, this is barely a flake, and for three-string bales it would be about two-thirds of a flake!

It is easy to fall into the trap of believing this cannot possibly be enough. However, if we take a mid-maturity grass hay and feed 4 pounds a day, it will provide roughly 3.3 Mcals of digestible energy. According to the National Research Council (NRC) Guidelines, a 200-pound horse with maintenance requirements (mature, not breeding, and doing no forced exercise) has a calorie requirement of 3 Mcals a day. So this seemingly small amount of hay not only meets the recommendations of feeding 1.5 to 2% of body weight per day as forage but also meets calorie requirements.  

Of course, it might be necessary to feed more if the Miniature Horse is in work or you’re feeding a lower nutritional value hay. Many activities can increase a Mini’s calories requirements, allowing for more feed intake. Outside of the more common pursuits such as driving, many people take their Miniature Horses running with them. One of my clients has two chestnuts and two black Miniature Horses and she takes them on walks—chestnuts one day, blacks the next—and has quite a following in her local community.

Provide feed in ways that will increase movement, such as placing the hay in slow-feed hay-nets and hanging them around the dirt lot. When space is limited, using moveable fencing to create a track system within the lot will also lead to increased movement.

Finding more mature hay with lower nutritional value means you can feed more of it. However, some Miniature Horses struggle with dental issues, so check with your veterinarian to make sure your horse can chew stemmier hay properly. You can also soak hay to remove some of the sugar content and potentially feed more hay as a result.

Because of the small amount of hay recommended for Miniature Horses, I strongly recommend weighing it before feeding, especially because it is so hard to accurately break flakes apart into the correct amount. If in a boarding situation where the staff are also feeding much larger horses, this can be a real challenge. See if you can pre-weigh filled hay-nets and leave them for the staff to hang so you can be sure your Minis are getting the correct amount.

Ultimately, all the same management tactics for larger easy keepers apply to Miniature Horses too. Hopefully, by doing the math and determining how much they really need and how little that is, you can feel less guilty about what you are feeding.

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Written by:

Clair Thunes, PhD, is an equine nutritionist who owns Clarity Equine Nutrition, based in Gilbert, Arizona. She works as a consultant with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses and provides services to select companies. As a nutritionist she works with all equids, from WEG competitors to Miniature donkeys and everything in between. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the U.K. Pony Club. Today, she serves as the district commissioner for the Salt River Pony Club.

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