Feeding horses while camping

Q.We’re planning to take our horses on overnight riding trips for the first time this summer. What recommendations do you have for feeding horses when you’re camping in the wilderness?

—Via e-mail

A.When riding in the wilderness, you need to consider:

  • Federal and local regulations for taking hay and feed into public lands;
  • How much feed you horse will need;
  • That your horse will be under extra stress during travel and exertion;
  • Your horse’s salt, electrolyte, and water needs; and
  • Adapting to a different feeding schedule while away from home.

Protecting Public Lands From Noxious Weeds

Our public lands are threatened by nonnative plant species brought in through various means, such as migrating wildlife, clothing, vehicles, and livestock. Such plants find an environment where typically no natural means exist to keep them in check and, as a result, many thousands of acres can become impacted. As such, state and federal public land management agencies spend considerable time and money trying to eradicate these noxious weeds through various means such as chemical herbicides or physically removing them. It’s no surprise then that some agencies require horse owners riding and camping in public lands to pack and use certified weed-free feed as a means of reducing the introduction of noxious weed seeds.

When planning to go camping with your horse on publicly managed land, find out ahead of time whether restrictions apply in that area. You do not want to find out on arrival that the feed you’ve brought with you isn’t allowed. Note: Under the U.S. Wilderness Act of 1964, lands designated as “wilderness areas” automatically require weed free feed to be fed.

If some or all of the areas you’re visiting require weed-free feed, you’ll need to do some homework. Ideally you’ll find a weed-free version of the forage you currently feed your horse so no major dietary changes are required. You might also be able to find certified weed-free hay. Try searching online for “certified weed-free hay,” plus the name of your state or county.

Some states or county agricultural commissions keep a list of hay that they have certified as free of weeds. This means that the hay contains none of the noxious weeds as designated by that state or county. Farmers have to harvest hay from an inspected field within a set time period post-inspection to ensure that no weeds have since grown. Keep in mind that hay certified in one area might not pass muster in another, because different areas consider different weeds to be noxious. Certified weed-free compression bales (tightly baled hay meant for shipping) are available, which can be handy if you’re going on an extended trip, because they take up less space. Don’t be fooled by their small size however: They weigh just the same as a full-size bale!

If you can’t find hay bales, then hay pellets are an option. In fact, in some areas pellets are required. To be weed-free pellets must have been processed at a high enough temperature and ground to a fine enough particle size that no weed seed would be able to survive and germinate. For this reason cubes are typically not acceptable—they’re not processed at a high enough temperature and the particles have not been ground to a fine enough size. Try to find a pelleted version of the same type of hay your horse normally receives (e.g., Timothy pellets if you feed Timothy hay) to reduce dietary changes and their impact on horses’ digestive tracts.

Regardless of whether the pellets are the same type of hay you normally feed your horse, you should give your horse a transition period between his current and new forage and feed. Slowly introduce the hay or hay pellet you will be feeding over a period of seven to 10 days prior to your trip.

How Much Feed and Forage to Take With You

How much to take with you depends on a number of factors, most notably whether grazing is option. If you horse can graze for several hours a day on good quality grass, this might significantly reduce the amount of other forage needed. However, be cautious if your horse does not typically have access to pasture at home, because its sudden introduction could lead to gastrointestinal distress, diarrhea, and colic. It’s better to play it safe and limit grass intake and rely on the forage you are bringing, or try to introduce pasture before embarking on your trip.

Pellets are more digestible than hay and, therefore, horses tend to get by on slightly less weight of pellets than they would if fed the same type of forage as long-stem hay. Weigh the amount of hay you’re feeding at home each day and plan to bring the same amount of pounds or kilograms as pellets multiplied by the number of days you will be traveling. Running out of feed is never good, so err on the side of bringing enough for one or two extra days, just in case. The same would apply for hay, too—bring extra!

The Stress of Travel and Riding

Having extra with you will also allow you to increase intake if you notice that your horse is dropping weight. Horses can find being away from home stressful, especially if living in close quarters with unfamiliar horses. It can also be easy to get carried away when riding in a group of friends and do more work with your horse than they’re conditioned for. Horses will often exert themselves more in a group than they would on their own.   Be realistic of how fit your horse is and how much you are asking them to do.

Salt and Electrolytes

Make sure that you provide a salt source at night so your horse can replenish electrolytes lost in sweat. If the weather is hot and the riding days are long it might be hard for him to get enough from a block. Instead, consider feeding loose salt in a pan or adding 1 tablespoon per 500 pounds body weight to your horse’s feed. I recommend doing this 365 days of the year but at the very least start a week before you leave to insure electrolyte levels are built up before your trip and then maintain through your trip and for a few days once home.

Electrolyte products can also be useful to have on hand as they can be more palatable than large quantities of salt and are formulated to replace sweat losses. Avoid products with dextrose (a fancy way of saying sugar) as the first ingredient and look for gram quantities of sodium and chloride. Feed the electrolyte according to the directions in addition to daily salt. Having a paste electrolyte in your saddle bag on long hot ride days is wise, especially if you will be working your horse hard and possibly above his comfort zone. The paste can be easily administered while on the trail one to two hours into your ride. This should encourage your horse to keep drinking.


Drinking is vitally important to avoid dehydration, fatigue, and colic. Let your horse drink on the trail from clean water sources whenever possible. Consider bringing at least 5 gallons of water with you from home to mix with water at your campsite to ease the transition to unfamiliar water. If you are concerned about water intake, soak hay and/or add water to pellets and other feed.

Do not go overboard with electrolytes and if you horse doesn’t drink after administration, and be cautious about giving more as this could lead to a more severe dehydration. Ask your veterinarian in advance to teach you how to identify dehydration and what steps to take if you are concerned. Bonus tip: While you are at it, ask your vet what first aid supplies they recommend that you have on hand at your camp ground and whether any additional vaccinations are warranted.

Feeding Schedule

Finally, remember that while you might be on vacation and want to sleep in, your horse will appreciate being on as close a schedule to at home as possible. Perhaps take turns with others in your group to feed if you want to sleep in. Similarly, at night, if you want to turn in early make sure someone is willing to do late night checks before bed.

Take-Home Message

Horse camping can be an amazing way to experience the wonders of the back country with your horse. With a little forward planning and common sense you will both have a great time while leaving as small a hoof print behind you as possible.