What do horses eat in the wild

The 5 biggest misconceptions about horse feeding

Don't we all want a healthy horse? A horse that is not too fat and not too thin, has a good mineral balance and metabolism? A horse that is satisfied and walks through life with us without problems or stomach ulcers and other diseases? Do you also think that your horse just needs 24 hours of hay and a nice open stable and you have such a healthy horse? If you do all of this, is everything correct in terms of “good feeding” and “healthy husbandry”?

These are just two of the big mistakes in horse feeding. The guest author Janet tells you in the article what she thinks of these 5 misconceptions and explains her approach to a species-appropriate diet for horses.

Proper horse feeding

Because we love experts and cannot be experts in everything, we hand over the floor to the horse feed specialist Janet Metz. Janet has a blog on appropriate horse feeding and provides feed advice for horse owners who want to know what needs their horse has.

You can find out more about it HERE

It has the motto: "Horse health is no accident“And deals holistically with the healthy horse - from feeding to movement to keeping. She also gives feed advice for horse people and their horses.

You can read more about Janet HERE on her holistic horse health blog janet-metz.de read up

Now I will hand over to Janet - and her guest article on "The 5 Biggest Mistakes in Horse Feeding".

For those in a hurry, we have summarized the biggest errors in our downloadable PDF as a factsheet. Feel free to download it and share it.

Just click with the right mouse button on the picture and download:

The 5 biggest misconceptions about horse feeding

Horse feeding is an issue that horse owners can put a lot of strain on and cause a lot of worries. On the other hand, feeding is also underestimated by many. Feeding is a fundamental factor for the health of your horse.

You have probably already dealt intensively with the topic of horse feeding.

  • How did you do with that?
  • Were you smarter afterwards than before?

You were probably very confused and didn't know any more than you did before. Because in horse feeding, if you ask 10 people you will get 15 opinions.

Many people who deal with the topic of feeding are more confused afterwards than before. I can tell you a thing or two about it myself, because I used to feel no different. The almost exploding feed industry with thousands of promises doesn't make it any easier for us.

What is right? What wrong?

One says so, the other says like this:

  • But what is actually right or wrong?
  • Is there any right or wrong at all?
  • What does your horse really need to stay healthy and how do we harm it?

As an independent horse nutritionist with 25 years of horse experience, including 14 years in horse keeping, I have made it my mission to bring clarity to the horse feeding chaos for you. For me, facts count - not assertions.

The 5 biggest mistakes

That is why I am now going to tell you the 5 biggest mistakes in horse feeding that I come across again and again, and describe what is behind them and why these points are errors. Because only if you know the WHY, you can better understand how you can feed your horse in a species-appropriate way.

Mistake number 1: Horses are steppe animals and therefore need a lot of grazing!

It is not that easy! 

  1. Our German cow grass pastures have little in common with the steppe
  2. That horses are steppe animals is only partly true.

Horses come from very different regions of the world and by no means just from the steppe. The original primitive horse was once a forest dweller and leaf eater. In the course of evolution it developed into a wild pony and lived in tundras or steppes. Their good feed conversion and their ability to store fat ensured their survival in barren areas until around 1000 years ago. This sturdy wild pony from back then was a horse with a stick measure of 120 to 130 cm.

We still find these fat-storing properties in some robust horse breeds today.

But our modern breeding horses no longer have much to do with it and have a completely different need.

So you can see that different types of horses emerged from the wild ponies of that time with different needs and different diets.

If you want species-appropriate husbandry and needs-based feeding, it is important to know about the different types of horses.

  • A pony, for example, has to be looked after and fed differently than a warmblood
  • Nowadays, this is also the biggest problem of the often motley mixed group housing
  • The distinction between the individual horse types is a very important factor in keeping the horse healthy

If you want to differentiate roughly, you can differentiate between north and south horses:

  1. Northern horsesare easy-to-feed, fat-storing breedswho are mainly at home in barren areas and therefore were able to survive well even with poor fodder.
  2. Southern horses are poor-fed horses, which mainly includes our bred warm-blooded and thoroughbred animals, but also particularly powerful cold-blooded animals such as a Shire or Pecheron.

The problem: The Arabs or Spaniards are also very easy-to-feed horses and are therefore purely of the "northern horse" type - even if they do not come from the north.

FACT: The healthy and needs-based diet therefore depends on the basic type of horse and should always be the most basic starting point for the optimal keeping and feeding of the individual horse.

While horse types from the steppe tend to find green vegetation periods and thus more nutritious greenery in winter, ponies from barren, cold areas have to be able to get by with the lignified remaining grasses in winter.

The Arabs, on the other hand, have even more difficult conditions in the desert and only occasionally find lush green vegetation in river valleys or oases.

So it happens that different types of horses have different nutritional needs and rhythms. The available food always runs in phases for the horse types, regardless of the area. We, on the other hand, often feed our horses the same way all year round.

But they all have in common that plants are their most important source of energy.

A horse has a high need for woodchip which is often not sufficiently covered on lush green pastures. This results in oversupply on the one hand and malnutrition on the other, with all its health consequences. Unfortunately, this is part of everyday life in German horse stables. Our German vegetation period with fat cow grasses is not really species-appropriate for any type of horse. A feeding management adapted to the horse type is therefore essential.

Misconception number 2: Ad libitum feeding is best for the horse!

I'll ask you a question that you can think about:

Have our horses become healthier since the trend is towards ad libitum feeding? 

In any case, in the 90s horses did not have as much to do with diseases of affluence as they do today. All of this has increased more and more since the beginning of the 2000s.

  • On the one hand, our German meadows have become more and more substantial over the years due to the dairy industry.
  • On the other hand, there is more and more feeding. A problem that, in addition to the fear of taking too long breaks, cannot be completely ignored.

Good feeding management adapted to the horse type is a crucial factor.

So no variant is in itself better or worse!

Good feeding is based on needs

The best feeding is feeding that provides the horse with sufficient amounts of all the nutrients it needs.

We have very rich meadows and therefore rather rich hay from these meadows. It has been proven that a horse can easily eat twice what it needs if we leave it at leisure. In the wild somewhere in a barren area that was absolutely necessary and had to be eaten a lot more in order to get the daily requirement at all. In our part of the world, it doesn't always work that easy.

For some types of horses it is by no means natural to always have a full and richly green food supply available. Regardless of which region the horse originally comes from. There were always bad growing seasons when the horse had to draw on its reserves. This is of course for the metabolism and therefore perfectly fine.

With us, on the other hand, the horses leave the winter just as fat as they went in. An unnatural burden on the metabolism. In horses that even gain weight over the winter, the risk of laminitis increases dramatically in the next spring. Feeding therefore includes providing hay for more than 24 hours. It also takes a lot of good and thoughtful management.

Another problem with ad libitum feeding is the quality of the feed. It goes without saying that the hay, as the number 1 basic feed, should always be of the best quality. However, reality shows that this is a very difficult topic in the horse world and cannot always be implemented. In principle, hay brings with it certain harmful germs. The quality also depends on environmental influences, which we cannot always influence.

With the increased hay feeding nowadays (in many stables it has almost doubled), the amount of mold, yeast and bacteria that are ingested by the horses also increases.

Hay is often contaminated from poor storage or processing. We do not see many fungi and germs with the naked eye at all. So it often happens that liver problems, faecal water and respiratory diseases are triggered by well-intentioned, generous hay feeding.

The more we exceed the daily dry matter requirement through high amounts of hay, the more the trace element requirement increases.

Large amounts of hay often lead to calcium oversupply, which inhibits the absorption of other important minerals. What can only be tolerated if there is no lack of trace elements.

However, many horses are undersupplied with minerals and trace elements. The lack of a horse that is already undersupplied is exacerbated by increasing the amount of roughage in excess of its needs.

It is therefore important to know the needs of your horse in order to be able to meet them appropriately. It is not only the condition of the horse's feed that counts, but also that it gets all the nutrients it needs. Over-supply should be avoided in the long term as well as undersupply.

Mistake number 3: Just don't take a break from eating!

The horse is a constant eater, there is no doubt about that. Nonetheless, this topic is often misunderstood. With regard to the food breaks, I see an increasing hysteria. In doing so, I find that the real problems are often completely different.

The fear of possible stomach ulcers due to long breaks from eating is great. As a result, people prefer to stuff their horses full of hay for 24 hours. In addition, grazing and straw. Of course, there is also a little something to add to the feeding trough.

In fact, many horses tend to suffer from an oversupply of feed and the resulting problems much more often than from the feeding breaks. Horses get overfed and fat. Fat horses get metabolic problems and diseases of affluence. The consequences of these diseases of affluence are often fatal.

Don't get me wrong: a stomach ulcer is a painful thing and of course we don't want it to happen. Even so, laminitis, or some other protracted metabolic disease that the horse will not get rid of for the rest of its life, is just as tragic, if not more tragic.

The truth is: being overweight carries more risks for the horse than being underweight.

There are also other causes of stomach ulcers, such as incorrect feeding management or stress.

Stress, in particular, is all too often overlooked. There are too many poorly put together group poses.

The solution for an inharmonious herd cannot be that we simply stuff the horses with 24 hours of hay in abundance and distract them with food.

Many of our horses are simply brought up to be hungry because of our very rich, protein and sugar-rich feed:

  • The metabolism has to struggle with the constant flood of sugar
  • the natural gnawing brake and the horse's feeling of satiety are disappearing more and more
  • A catastrophic situation that cannot be solved with more hay and will only build up more and more

Often the overfed horses are usually undersupplied with minerals and trace elements at the same time. The abundance only drives them further into want and the problem keeps getting worse. A balanced relationship is important!

The metabolism compensates until it finally derails. So the problem is not the too long break from eating, but a poor feeding, posture and movement framework that needs to be optimized.

A needs-based and well-balanced mineralized horse can cope well with eating breaks.

Error number 4: My horse is in the open stable - it can move on its own and has everything it needs

Feeding, keeping and exercise are inseparable for keeping the horse healthy.

The easy-to-feed robust horse breeds in particular need to be moved more urgently. Northern horses that originally come from cold, barren areas are energy savers. This behavior was necessary for survival. They do not move more than necessary, even when they are kept open. And unfortunately it is often not really necessary for the domesticated horse to move.

In freedom they had to move around more to find enough food. With us, the horses no longer have to move much for this. Unfortunately, especially among recreational riders, who often keep robust horse breeds in open stables, there is a misconception that they do not need to be moved urgently. The horse can finally move freely in the open stable.

A mistake that unfortunately many horses have to pay for with their health in the long term:

  • In our care, the horses not only no longer have to move for food, but they also no longer have to flee because there are no natural enemies.
  • They were also bred more and more for performance through breeding. We humans have made tough, frugal and robust workhorses out of horses.
  • Horses have contributed a great deal to human evolution. Today we only keep horses for leisure purposes. But we can't just put these workhorses aside, just take them out every now and then for a cozy round and assume that they already move around voluntarily enough in the open stable.

This is a problem that the northern horse breeds in particular have to suffer from today, and that is why I am taking the issue of exercise outside with a bit of emphasis. Because there are just too many horses out there with affluent diseases.

Exercise keeps the metabolism active and the horse healthy: Not only strength and stamina need to be trained. Metabolism too!

Movement gets it going, so it can utilize nutrients better and drain waste materials out of the body more quickly. A sluggish metabolism cannot do this so well.

A horse that is regularly exercised and sometimes sweats removes pollutants from the body much more easily. In fact, regular exercise and sweating can better compensate for a non-optimal feed quality. It's a natural detox process.

Unfortunately, the growing desire for harmony with the horse means that they are even less moved, let alone worked.

The result:Horses are downright broken, the metabolism is sluggish and the diseases of affluence are widespread.

In fact, the metabolism can be influenced much more by exercise than by feeding. Meaningful and, above all, sufficient exercise has a positive influence on many metabolic processes in the body.

Even half an hour's trot a day can significantly reduce insulin resistance, which is often responsible for metabolic problems, within a week. No food in the world could achieve that. That is why feeding, keeping and exercise are inseparable for a holistically healthy horse and they all play an equally important role when it comes to horse feeding.

Mistake number 5: Feeding additional feed is pointless - wild horses have survived even without mineral feed

In the wild, the horse could find everything it needed in a much larger space. Today, however, our horses live very limited and are fed with grass from areas that are overgrown on one side.

Feeding only hay is anyway a very one-sided horse nutrition. Horses also need wild herbs, woods, bark, twigs and leaves that grow according to the season. Depending on the vegetation phase or season, they had nutrient-rich, softer green or woody, overgrown grasses, bushes and roots in their natural habitat. Remember mistake 1 with the different types of horses and their different needs.

  • In addition, the soil is becoming more and more depleted. With regard to horses, this is no different than with humans and has long been no secret.
  • Our meadows have been exploited by the dairy industry and have only become richer thanks to turbo grass.
  • The grasses have a lot of energy, protein and sugar but unfortunately often very few minerals and trace elements.
  • For example, we often search in vain for sulfur, selenium, iodine, zinc, copper and manganese or are only available in very small quantities.
  • However, it is precisely these minerals that are responsible for a number of our affluent diseases with which we are struggling today.

A targeted mineral supplement is therefore inevitable if the horse is to stay healthy for a long time! The already mentioned, often poor hay quality also has an influence.

The blood count alone is not enough in a horse

Even if the blood count is still okay, that is no proof that everything is going right.

Very few deficiencies can be recognized immediately via a blood count.

A blood count is a snapshot of the moment the blood is taken. However, the body also has to compensate for any malnutrition in order to keep the processes running. He can do that for a while. Sometimes even a surprisingly long time. That is every body's survival strategy.

As long as the body compensates well, the blood will look normal. Because he compensates. Only when he can no longer do that will something show up in the blood. But we shouldn't let it get that far. A blood count shows how things are going with our horse at that moment. However, it does not show us when malnutrition is already taking place, which can have dire consequences.

So it is a big fallacy based on a blood count that it is okay to automatically conclude that feeding is it too! We want to make sure that our horse stays healthy. However, this is only possible with checking whether the requirements of the individual horse are all covered with our feeding.

Sick from improper diet - horse feeding

Today there are so many horses with diffuse and unspecific clinical pictures. And when we do a blood count, it usually happens when the horse already has symptoms:

  • Skin fungi
  • Eczema
  • Muck
  • Allergies
  • itching
  • brittle hooves
  • Fecal water
  • Cough and much more

Then the vet comes and leaves a syringe here and an ointment or powder there. We research our fingers sore for home remedies and experience reports to somehow explain and alleviate the horse's symptoms.

But all of this is often nothing else: It is symptomatic treatment and not combating the causes!

If you start to examine the feeding of such horses more closely, you can often see very quickly where the real causes are. This is a crucial piece of the puzzle that is often forgotten.

The body is able to compensate for malnutrition for a long time, but at some point it can no longer and symptoms appear. It also happens that many horses, for example, only suddenly develop eczema or laminitis when they are 10 years of age or older. Because the body was able to compensate before and the barrel is now overflowing.

Supplementary feeding is by no means pointless as long as you know the individual needs of the horse and specifically unmask and cover nutrient gaps. It is pointless if we only feed some remedies on suspicion, which in the best case do not help - in the worst case even cause damage because we unconsciously oversupply some minerals. Because in the end, oversupply is just as harmful as undersupply.

Conclusion on healthy horse feeding

Feeding is a complex topic and the individual feeding of a horse always depends on its own individual framework conditions. In order to be able to really adapt the feeding to the horse, all individual framework conditions must always be taken into account.

There is no such thing as THE bad posture or the bad feeding.

There is only poor management of the individual feeding-posture exercise framework! No matter what type of posture. Optimizing is always possible.

You can learn to feed healthily like any other area of ​​the horse. You can also find out about books, specialist articles and other platforms in order to find the best individual path for your horse.