Feeding Frequency in Horses: How Many Meals is Enough?

Horses evolved to eat frequent, small roughage meals throughout the day, so why do we only feed them twice? Read more in The Horse‘s 2024 Preventive Care issue.
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Horses evolved to eat frequent, small roughage meals throughout the day, so why do we only feed them twice?

horses grazing in tall grass with mountains in background
Because horses evolved as grazing animals, their stomachs are very small, only holding 3-5 gallons. | iStock

Take a minute and picture horses in the not too distant past or in the wild today. They have no access to grain (concentrate) meals, and they graze for a substantial portion of the day. For managed horses, however, it is common to feed them two meals per day made up of a portion of concentrates and a serving of hay. Some of the more intensively managed horses have limited access to daily turnout and pasture, which means they might spend the bulk of their days in a stall without food between their meals.

“What we’ve done, without bad intention, is taken a continuous-feeding animal and turned them into meal-feeding animals,” explains Anthony Blikslager, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVS, professor of equine surgery and gastroenterology at North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, in Raleigh.

Even if those quality meals provide all the calories and nutrients a horse needs, they are not the healthiest option based on the horse’s gastrointestinal (GI) structure and function.

“How and when a horse is fed is just as important as what a horse is fed,” says Laurie Lawrence, PhD, professor in the department of animal and food sciences at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington. 

In this article we’ll review some of the basic features of the equine GI tract, describe why less frequent meal feeding can be detrimental to your horse’s health, and discuss alternative feeding management strategies.

The Gut: A Brief Overview

When on pasture, horses graze about 60% of their time, or 14 to 16 hours per day. This means horses continuously consume small amounts of forage, which provides a constant trickle of food to the stomach.

Because horses evolved as these grazing animals, their stomachs are quite small. The stomach only holds 3-5 gallons (18 liters), representing only 7-8% of the capacity of the entire digestive tract. Forage consumed during grazing moves relatively quickly through the stomach and small intestine to the hindgut (the cecum and large intestine), where bacteria and other microorganisms that make up the intestinal microbiome ferment it. Fermenting fibrous feeds is what provides horses with the bulk of their energy for bodily processes. 

Because fermentation is so important, perhaps it is not surprising that the hindgut is large compared to the stomach. The cecum has a capacity of 7-10 gallons (26-38 liters), while the large intestine holds a whopping 20 gallons (75 liters)

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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.

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Written by:

Stacey Oke, MSc, DVM, is a practicing veterinarian and freelance medical writer and editor. She is interested in both large and small animals, as well as complementary and alternative medicine. Since 2005, she’s worked as a research consultant for nutritional supplement companies, assisted physicians and veterinarians in publishing research articles and textbooks, and written for a number of educational magazines and websites.

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