Welfare of horses: the need for a suitable diet

Advice on providing a suitable diet for horses, including information on body condition scoring.

Feed for horses

Horses are naturally grazers, they eat little and often. Their natural diet is mainly grass, which has high roughage content. Horses should be provided with a predominantly fibre-based diet, either grass, hay, haylage or a hay replacement in order to mimic their natural feeding pattern as closely as possible.

Horses should be fed a suitable diet that reflects their needs and consideration should be given to the age, type, weight, condition, health and level of work of the individual. Feeding requirements will also vary depending on the time of year and weather conditions.

All conserved forage (hay or haylage) should be good quality. It should be clean (free from soil, debris and poisonous plants), smell fresh and be visibly free from mould and dust. Feeding forage at floor level is good for a horse's respiratory health, provided the underlying ground is kept reasonably clean.

Good quality grazing may be adequate for the intake of roughage and minerals. If grazing is inadequate, extra feeding may be required. Horses that are prone to laminitis (inflammation of the sensitive plates of tissue in a horse's hoof, usually causing lameness) may need their grazing restricted at certain times of the year. Discuss this issue with a vet if you have any concerns.

Concentrates

The quantity of concentrates fed to a horse as extra feed as well as any roughage (for example, grazing, hay or similar fodder) should be no more than that necessary to provide the required energy for the type and quantity of exercise performed.

Feeding too many concentrates can contribute to health problems such as gastrointestinal upset and laminitis. The daily concentrate ration should be spread over at least two meals a day.

Horses should not be fed immediately before or following strenuous exercise as this can lead to gastrointestinal upset.

Storage of horse-feed

Feed should be stored in vermin-proof containers and carefully handled to prevent spoiling and to make sure the quality of feed is maintained. Feed containers and utensils should be kept clean to discourage rodents. Contaminated, mouldy or stale leftover food and forage should not be fed to the horse and should be removed daily. Each feed should be well mixed and freshly prepared.

Where loose horses are fed in groups there should be one feeder per horse plus an extra feeding point. Two horses’ lengths should be allowed between feeders to minimise the risk of injury to horses through competition for food. In certain situations it may be necessary to feed individual horses separately to make sure they receive adequate food.

Body condition/ weight 

The weight and condition of every horse should be monitored regularly to avoid welfare problems. Feeding should be adjusted to maintain a stable, ideal body condition score. Feeding requirements will vary depending on age, breed and exercise regime.

Obesity is as serious a welfare concern as under-feeding, because it can lead to many health-related problems. You should contact your vet or equine nutritionist if you need to discuss the dietary requirements of your horse. Obesity and over-eating are major causes of laminitis.

Horses that are overweight are at a high risk of developing laminitis. Laminitis may also be associated with eating excess amounts of lush grass. Grazing may need to be restricted at certain times of the year to reduce this risk.

Laminitis can also be seen in horses which are not overweight (for example. associated with excess concentrate feeding or illness). Once a horse or pony has had laminitis it tends to be at an increased risk regardless of body condition and close attention should be paid to their diet. If you have any concerns you should contact your vet.

Obesity in donkeys can cause significant metabolic problems as well as those referred to above. Care should be taken to make sure that donkeys do not become overweight.

A sudden change in appetite, or decrease in weight, can be a sign of ill-health and you should pay close attention to whether your horse is showing any other signs of illness. Your vet should be consulted if you have any concerns.

A horse’s nutritional requirements will vary through its life and foals, pregnant mares and elderly horses in particular have special dietary requirements.

Access to forage 

Horses should have almost constant access to forage (grass, hay or haylage) during their non-exercise hours. If a horse is stabled for long periods, forage should be provided at regular intervals to try to mimic the natural grazing pattern of horses. Any diet changes (increase in volume, change in feed or hay) should be made gradually. Sudden changes can lead to gastrointestinal upsets including colic and diarrhoea and should be avoided.

You should contact your vet or equine nutritionist if you need to discuss the dietary requirements of your horse.

Water for horses

When stabled or at grass horses should have continuous access to a clean supply of fresh water.

Body condition scoring for horses

Condition scoring Pelvis Back and ribs Neck
0 Very Poor Angular, skin tight. Very sunken rump. Deep cavity under tail. Skin tight over ribs. Very prominent and sharp backbone. Marked ewe neck. Narrow and slack at base.
1 Poor Prominent pelvis and croup. Sunken rump but skin supple. Deep cavity under tail. Ribs easily visible. Prominent backbone with sunken skin on either side. Ewe neck, narrow and slack base.
2 Moderate Rump flat either side of back bone. Croup well defined, some fat. Slight cavity under tail. Ribs just visible. Backbone covered but spines can be felt. Narrow but firm.
3 Good Covered by fat and rounded. No gutter. Pelvis easily felt. Ribs just covered and easily felt. No gutter along the back. Backbone well covered but spines can be felt. No crest (except for stallions) firm neck.
4 Fat Gutter to roof of tail. Pelvis covered by fat. Need firm pressure to feel. Ribs well covered - need pressure to feel. Slight crest. Wide and firm.
5 Very fat Deep gutter to root of tail. Skin distended. Pelvis buried, cannot be felt. Ribs buried, cannot be felt. Deep gutter along back. Back broad and flat. Marked crest very wide and firm. Fold of fat.

To get a body score, score the pelvis first, then adjust by half a point if it differs by one point or more to the back or neck.

Body condition scoring for donkeys

C/S Neck and shoulders Withers Ribs and belly Back and loins Hind quarters
1 Poor Neck thin, all bones easily felt. Neck meets shoulder abruptly, shoulder bones easily felt, angular. Dorsal spine of withers prominent and easily felt. Ribs can be seen from a distance and felt with ease. Belly tucked up. Backbone prominent, can feel dorsal and transverse processes easily. Hip bones visible and felt easily (hock and pin bones). Little muscle cover. May be cavity under tail.
2 Moderate Some muscle development overlying bones. Slight step where neck meets shoulders Some cover over dorsal withers Spinous processes felt but not prominent Ribs not visible but can be felt with ease. Dorsal and transverse processes felt with light pressure. Poor muscle development either side midline. Poor muscle cover on hindquarters, hip bones felt with ease.
3 Ideal Good muscle development, bones felt under light cover of muscle/fat. Neck flows smoothly into shoulder, which is rounded. Good cover of muscle/fat over dorsal spinous processes, withers flow smooth into back. Ribs just covered by light layer of fat/muscle, ribs can be felt with light pressure. Belly firm with good muscle tone and flattish outline. Cannot feel individual spinous or transverse processes. Muscle development either side of midline is good. Good muscle cover in hindquarters, hip bones rounded in appearance, can be felt with light pressure.
4 Fat Neck thick, crest hard shoulder covered in even fat layer. Withers broad bones felt with firm pressure. Ribs dorsally only felt with firm pressure, ventral ribs may be felt more easily. Overdeveloped belly. Can only feel dorsal and transverse processes with firm pressure. Slight crease along midline. Hindquarters rounded, bones felt only with firm pressure. Fat deposits evenly placed
5 Obese Neck thick, crest bulging with fat and may fall to one side. Shoulder rounded and bulging with fat. Withers broad, unable to feel bones. Large, often uneven fat deposits covering dorsal and possible ventral aspect of ribs. Ribs not palpable. Belly pendulous in depth and width Back broad, unable to feel spinous or transverse processes. Deep crease along midline bulging fat either side. Cannot feel hip bones, fat may overhang either side of tail head, fat often uneven and bulging.

Half scores can be assigned where donkeys fall between scores. Aged donkeys can be hard to condition score due to lack of muscle bulk and tone giving thin appearance dorsally with dropped belly ventrally, while overall condition may be reasonable.

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