Things to Know about Horses and How to Take Care of Them

If you have never been around horses and don’t know they slightest thing about them this article is for you. Things to know about horses is broken down into the following sections:

  • Introduction
  • Digestive System
  • Comparison of Horses and Ruminant Stomachs
  • Growth
  • Reproduction
  • Lactation
  • Work
  • Things to know about Horses Feeding
  • Notes on Feeding Horses

Nutritional Disorders

  • Azoturia (Blackwater)
  • Colic
  • Founder (Laminitis)
  • Blister Beetle Poisoning (Cantharidin)
Things to Know about Horses

Introduction – Things to Know About Horses

Nowadays horses in the United States are raised for pleasure or work rather than for meat or milk. Consequently, management goals are somewhat different from most livestock species in that owners are more concerned with raising animals that can perform various athletic endeavors with competitive efficiency. The things to know about horses are broken down into 4 groups: growth, reproduction, lactation and work.

Things to Know about Horses – Digestive System

Horses have a functional cecum digestive system. They are classified as nonruminant herbivores. In this type of digestive system (horse, rabbit, guinea pig and hamster), the cecum and colon are extremely large and contain a large population of microorganisms which can digest fiber as well as synthesize a number of vitamins. Thus, from a practical feeding standpoint, these animals are between the monogastric or simple-stomached animals (pigs, humans) and the ruminants (cattle).

Comparison of Horses and Ruminant Stomachs

The nonruminant animal with a functional cecum and colon, such as the horse, is somewhat similar to the ruminant in that it uses a microbial population to digest fiber. But several differences between these types of digestive systems can be noted. Among them are the following:

  1. The ruminant stomach has four compartments; the horse stomach has one.
  2. The stomach capacity of the horse is much smaller – less than 5 gallons for the mature horse as compared to about 66 gallons for the mature cow. Because of its small stomach, feeding a horse too much roughage may cause impaction, followed by labored breathing and quick tiring. Actually, the horse’s stomach is designed for almost constant intake of small quantities of feed rather than large amounts at any one time.
  3. The cecum (the horse’s fermentation vat) and colon are located on the distal end of the gut, a fact of far more significance than their size. They follow the small intestine, with the result that the ingesta pass from the ileum directly to the cecum and then to the large intestine. By contrast, the anatomical arrangement of the cow is such that the ingesta pass from the rumen (the cow’s fermentation vat) through the other compartments of the stomach to the small intestine, then to the large intestine.
  4. At the time of feeding, the ingesta pass through the horse’s stomach very rapidly – so much so that the feed eaten at the beginning of the meal passes to the intestine before the last part of the meal is completed. Without feed, the horse’s stomach would empty completely in 24 hours, whereas it takes about 72 hours (three times as long) for the ruminant’s stomach to empty.

The anatomical and physiological differences in the horse are of great importance nutritionally for these reasons:

  1. There is less microbial activity in the horse than in the ruminant. As a result -The horse does not break down more than about 30% of the cellulose of feed, whereas the ruminant breaks down 60% to 70%. Hence, horses cannot handle as much roughage as ruminants. Therefore, higher-quality (lower-cellulose-content) forages should be fed to horses.b. The horse synthesizes only limited amounts of proteins, B vitamins and vitamin K. The ruminant synthesizes sizable quantities of these. Thus, the addition of B vitamins to the ration of the horse (along with vitamins A and D, which are dietary essentials and not synthesized in the digestive tract of any class of farm animals) is good insurance, especially when horses are under stress and high-quality feeds are not being fed.
  2. The efficiency for absorption of nutrients synthesized by the microorganisms in the cecum and colon is questioned, because the synthesis takes place after the most highly absorptive part of the digestive tract has been passed.

It follows that, in comparison with the cow, the horse should be fed less roughage, higher-quality proteins (and not nonprotein nitrogenous products such as urea) and added B vitamins and vitamin K. The nutritive requirements of the horse more nearly parallel those of the pig and human than of the cow.

Things to Know about Horses – Growth

Nutritional demands of immature horses for optimal growth follow general patterns similar to other livestock species. Of primary importance in feeding young foals is their limited digestive track capacity. Consider feeding concentrated diets of high quality to ensure intake of adequate quantities of required nutrients. Average birth weights of foals of light horse breeding run from 80 pounds to 100 pounds; average daily gains may be 2-2.5 pounds per day for very young foals maturing at 1,200 pounds body weight and may range down to 1.5 pounds per day for weanlings and .75 pounds per day and .40 pounds per day for yearlings and two-year-olds, respectively.

Mare’s milk contains about 19%-22% protein on a dry basis, and foals require a relatively high protein concentration in their diets (19%-22% preweaned, 16% weanling, 13%-14% yearling and 12% for two-year-olds). Studies of dietary amino acid requirements have indicated lysine as the most limiting amino acid in many foal diets. It appears that a minimum of .75% dietary lysine will support optimal growth in young horses.

Similar to their protein requirements, foals require higher dietary concentrations of digestible energy during the early growing period with a diminished concentration required as they become older. This is partially because of the increasing capacity of the digestive tract and the establishment of the active bacterial population in the lower gut of older foals.

Minerals of primary importance in foal nutrition are calcium (Ca) and phosphorus (P) because of their involvement in the growing of bones. Research has shown that foals require about 0.8% and 0.6% dietary Ca and P, respectively, with these values gradually declining with age. Ca and P fed in a 1.25-2:1 ratio will provide for optimum bone mineralization; extremely wide ratios (excessive amounts of P) are associated with abnormal bone development in foals. Additional mineral needs usually will be met by normal dietary feedstuffs or by inclusion of 0.25% trace-mineralized salt in the diet.
Vitamin D is frequently added to the foal diets because of its importance for absorption of dietary Ca. Other fat-soluble vitamins (A and E) also generally are added to foal rations. The mature horse is able to acquire much if its B-vitamin needs through microbial synthesis in the gut, but intestinal synthesis in the immature foal is not adequate to meet its dietary needs. Therefore, it is essential for young horses to receive dietary B-vitamin supplementation as well as vitamins A, D and E. In most situations, vitamin premixes or commercial vitamin supplements added to the diet will alleviate problems of vitamin deficiency.

Foals usually are not weaned until five to six months of age, but many managers have discovered that providing nursing foals with a high quality creep feed allows for less milk demand from the dam and greater opportunity for foals to grow to their genetic potential. In addition, creep-fed foals are less likely to be affected by the post-weaning slump observed in foals during the period of adapting from primarily a milk diet to a solid food diet.

Things to know about Horses – Reproduction

Reproduction efficiency in horses averages approximately 65%-70% nationally, a level considerably lower than that of other livestock species. This poor performance can be attributed to a variety of causes such as updating the breeding season because of establishment of mandatory January 1 birthdates by many breed registries and to poor breeding farm management.

In regard to management improvement, researchers have established that reproductive efficiency of mares and stallions can be improved by increasing their planes of nutrition beginning about 60-80 days before breeding. The flushing of breeding animals that have been maintained in a slightly thrifty wintering condition stimulates the mare’s reproductive system. Many times the additional nutrients are all that is required for the mare’s cycling pattern to become more regular and for normal ovulation to occur. Quite possibly, many wintering diets provide only for normal body maintenance, causing reproductive activity to remain somewhat dormant. Diet management (over-or-under feeding) before any flushing may reduce the beneficial effects of such a feeding program. In addition, it is known that more than 60% of the foal fetus is produced during the last 80-90 days of gestation; therefore, it is wise to increase a pregnant mare’s plane of nutrition to meet this increased demand. These feeding practices will help to ensure improved reproductive performance and production of foals by dams having adequate body reserves to meet the stresses of heavy lactation.

Things to Know About Horses – Lactation

As with most species the lactation period (three to six months) places the heaviest demands on a broodmare and results in a marked increase for nutritional requirements. Milk production by a 1,100-pound mare may range from 30 pounds per day early in the lactation period to peak production of 38 pounds per day a t two to three months. Mare’s milk generally is lower in fat, protein and ash (and higher in sugar) than cow’s milk. On a dry matter basis, mare’s milk averages about 61.5%, 22.0%, 13.1% and 3.8% sugar, protein, fat and ash, respectively.

Because the mare is producing large quantities of milk for an extended period, it is essential to increase her daily feed intake to about 17.5 pounds of DE, 1.2 pounds digestible protein, 30.8 grams Ca and 26.9 grams P to prevent her from drawing on her body stores to an excessive extent during lactation.

Things to Know About Horses – Work

Not everyone loves horses. But even then they can be used to work. In domestic livestock in the United States, athletic performance or work is one productive function that is rather unique to horses although this is not true in many undeveloped countries. Work by modern horses includes such things as carrying a rider for varying distances at various speeds over a variety of terrains. This includes such activities as racing, jumping, trail riding, cutting, rodeo events or ranch work.

Unfortunately, most equine nutritionists are forced to classify nutrient requirements for work into three categories: light, moderate and strenuous. These categories are relics from when work by draft horses was defined in terms of weight pulled for a given duration at a given speed (usually at a walk). Today, it is more difficult to establish a precise definition for work because most horses work for short periods with the degree of exertion ranging from mild activity to near exhaustion. The preceding problems have lent themselves to the development of horse feeding as an art, with scientific application being made only in very recent years.

Many voids exist in discussing the nutrients required by horses for work. The current energy, vitamin and mineral requirements for work need more further investigation. It is assumed that protein requirements increase with work, but, not to the same degree as other nutrients. In most cases the additional feed supplied to meet increased energy demands will contain adequate protein. Contrary to many beliefs, mature performance horses do not require high protein diets to function at optimum capacities.

Most B-vitamins are associated with energy metabolism; consequently, their requirement increases with increased energy consumption and use during work. The Oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood is important in conditioning a performance horse. Vitamin E and selenium have been associated with red blood cell fragility and muscle tissue capillary integrity. Because iron also is associated with red blood cell production, we should consider it in evaluating diets of performance horses.

There are a limited number of ways to evaluate the ability of a ration to provide adequate nutrients for strenuous athletic activity. Maintenance of body weight is an obvious positive sign and, since Oxygen-carrying capacity is vital, the packed cell volume and red blood cell count are reasonably good indicators of ration adequacy

In general terms, diets for working horses should provide for increased DE, vitamin and mineral concentrations with increased total daily protein, but not necessarily increased dietary protein concentration above that of maintenance.

Many times coming two-year olds are placed in training for the race track, show ring or other activities during the latter part of the yearling year. It is wise to ensure that young horses in this situation are fed not only fed to meet their requirements for maintenance and growth, but also fed to meet the additional nutrient needs for performing their required athletic functions. If these additional needs are not met, body development may be delayed or inhibited.

General Horse Feeding Rules

Among the things to know about horses, feeding is the most important. Feeding horses is both an art and a science. The art is knowing how to feed and how to take care of each horse’s individual requirements. The science is meeting the nutritive requirements with the right combination of ingredients.

  1. Avoid sudden changes in ration.
  2. Never feed moldy, musty, dusty or frozen feed.
  3. Feed regularly.
  4. Feed by feed weight, not by volume (coffee can, etc.).
  5. Look for problems at feeding time.
  6. Check the feces (color, odor, quantity, etc.).
  7. Keep feed and water containers clean.
  8. Do not overfeed.
  9. Force aggressive eaters to slow down.
  10. Exercise stalled horses daily.
  11. Avoid excessive exercise.
  12. Do not feed concentrates 1 hour before or within 1 hour after hard work.
  13. Feed horses as individuals.
  14. Gradually decrease the condition of horses that have been fitted for show or sale. Fat will cover up a multitude of sin in a horse.
  15. Prevent wood chewing. Boredom, lack of exercise, lack of adequate roughage or lack of phosphorus causes this habit.
  16. Make certain that the horse’s teeth are sound.
  17. When traveling, feed 1/2 normal feed of grain before loading for hauling. In transit, feed quality alfalfa (keeps bowels open and working). Provide plenty of clean fresh water. (Add molasses to water one week before hauling, continue during trip, no taste change in water during trip.)
  18. Mixing your own diets can get you into trouble.
  19. The two greatest enemies of horses are fat and rest!

Things to Know Bbout Horses – Nutritional Disorders

Azoturia (Blackwater)

Sudden exercise, following a day or two of rest during which time the horse has been on full feed, results in partial spasm or tie-up. Azoturia is caused by an abnormal amount of glycogen being stored in the muscle. As the glycogen breaks down, lactic acid is formed, it builds up in the muscle, causing severe muscle destruction and the release of myoglobin, which manifests itself as partial spasm or tie-up and wine-colored urine.
Symptoms usually develop 15 to 60 minutes after the beginning of exercise. Azoturia is characterized by profuse sweating, elevated temperature and pulse, wine-colored urine (caused by the release of myoglobin – the red pigment in muscle tissue), tight (cramping) and sore loin hindquarter muscles. They’re tied-up because of semi-paralysis. Other symptoms are stiff gait, reluctance to move because of pain and knuckling over of the hind pasterns. Finally, the animal may assume a sitting position and eventually fall prostrate on its side. The breath and urine may have a peculiar odor.

Treatment: Absolute rest and quiet. While awaiting the veterinarian, apply heated cloths, blankets or hot water bottles to the swollen and hardened muscles, but don’t try to move the horse. Don’t take the horse back to the barn. Keep it on its feet if possible, even if you have to use a sling. The veterinarian should determine treatment. In mild cases, treatment may consist of a tranquilizer or a sedative. In severe cases, the veterinarian may use muscle relaxers or sodium bicarbonate in solution to readjust the acid balance in the muscles.


Internal parasites are the number one cause of colic. Additional causes are improper feeding, working or watering. More than 70 different things can cause colic. Colic is the most common ailment among horses and is the leading cause of death. Livestock insurance companies report about one-third of all deaths of insured horses can be attributed to colic.

The main symptom is severe pain, usually in the abdomen. Depending on the type of colic, other symptoms are: the horse is looking at his belly, distended abdomen, increased intestinal rumbling, violent rolling and pawing, profuse sweating, constipation and refusal of feed and water.

Treatment: Call a veterinarian. To avoid danger of injury, place the animal in a large, well-bedded stable or take the animal for a slow walk. Do not give the horse any type of drug, unless so advised by the veterinarian when telephoned. Painkillers may cover up symptoms which are vital for the veterinarian in making an accurate diagnosis. Depending on the diagnosis, the veterinarian may use one or more of the following: sedatives, laxatives (such as mineral oil), drugs or surgery. The surgeon may avoid reoccurrence of twists and displacements of the horse’s colon by attaching it to the other organs or the abdominal wall, thereby deliberately creating adhesions which prevent further twisting.

Prevention: Proper feeding (including adequate roughage), working, watering and parasite control.

Founder (Laminitis)

A wide variety of causes has been recognized:

  1. Overeating and too rapid increase in the ration (grain founder)
  2. Digestive disturbances (enterotoxemia)
  3. Retained afterbirth (foal founder)
  4. Lush pastures (Grass founder)
  5. Concussion (road founder)

Symptoms include extreme pain, fever and reluctance to move. The animal appears to be walking on eggs. If neglected, it causes an acute or chronic degeneration of the joining of the sensitive and insensitive laminae of the foot; and, if the degeneration is severe, the coffin bone may rotate and come through the bottom of the foot.

Treatment: mineral oil, analgesics (pain killers), injectable antihistamines, antibiotics, sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), temporarily deadening the nerve supply to the feet, water soaks, wraps applied to the affected feet, cortisones, methionine.

Prevention: Avoid overeating, overdrinking (especially when hot), and inflammation of the uterus after parturition.

Blister Beetle Poisoning (Cantharidin)

The three-striped blister beetles are the source. They contain, in their tissues, the poisonous substance cantharidin. This poison is very irritating to the digestive tract and causes severe kidney damage. Adult blister beetles feed on the leaves of alfalfa. This habit, along with the tendency of adult beetles to swarm when feeding, results in the inclusion of beetles in bales of alfalfa. The problem of blister beetles in alfalfa hay has increased in recent years with the use of the hay conditioner or crimper, which prevents their escape at time of cutting.

Large doses may cause shock and death within a few hours. Smaller doses commonly produce depression, increase in respiratory and pulse rate, and muscle tremors. Animals demonstrate the symptoms of colic by lying down and rising with abdominal straining, discomfort and sweating. Horses that survive more than 24 hours may exhibit signs of frequent urinary straining while voiding only small amounts of urine. The urine may be blood tinged and contain blood clots. Frequently, affected horses immerse their lips and muzzle in water without drinking, trying to wash away the burning chemical. A positive diagnosis can be made by finding the beetles in alfalfa hay.

Treatment: No specific treatment is known. Supportive treatment includes the use of mineral oil or activated charcoal to protect the intestinal tract and prevent absorption of the cantharidin. Analgesics and steroids may be helpful in controlling pain and shock. Fluid therapy with balanced electrolyte solutions should also be instituted to combat dehydration and shock.

Prevention: Know your alfalfa supplier and ask what precautions were taken to avoid blister beetles in the hay. Inspect the hay (flake by flake) before feeding.

Notes on Feeding Horses 

  1. Pleasure Horses
    Light work 1-3 hours/day
    Moderate work 3-5 hours/day
    Hard work 5-8 hours/day
  2. Horses in training
    5-1.75 pound grain and .75-1.0 pound hay per 100 pound body weight.
  3. Daily crude protein requirement for 1100 pound horses.
    Maintenance 1.45 pounds
    Light work 1.80 pounds
    Moderate work 2.15 pounds
    Hard work 2.90 pounds
  4. Crude protein concentration of diet 11-14%
  5. Salt
    3 ounces/day
    33 pounds week
  6. Oats– leading U.S. feedstuff, bulky nature. Oats form a desirable loose mass in stomach, which prevents impaction.
  7. Linseed meal– palatable, high fat content, more gloss to hair coat, 35% crude protein. However, linseed meal is low in lysine and tryptophan.
  8. Daily Rations
    Mature idle horses 1.5-1.75 pound hay/100 pound body weight.
    Light horses at work
    Light work .5 pound grain, 1.25-1.5 pound hay/100 pound body weight
    Moderate work .75-1 pound grain, 1-1.25 pound hay/100 pound body weight
    Hard work 1.25 pound grain, 1-1.25 pound hay/100 pound body weight
  9. Simple diets for horses*
    A. Oats 70%      Corn 30%
  10. Oats 70%      Barley 30%
  11. Oats 55%      Corn 20%      Barley 20%      Linseed meal 5%

*All diets need to be supplemented with vitamins and minerals. Processing of feedstuffs is important as well. Steam flaking, rolling and crimping help to make feedstuff more digestible.

Things to Know about Horses was provided by Dr. Clint Depew, Horse Specialist, LSU AgCenter.