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Nutritional Requirements - CRF Horse Nutrition Guide

Nutritional Requirements

CRF Horse Nutrition Guide
CRF Equine Research Trials

A balanced horse feeding program must supply nutrients needed for one or more of the following: maintenance, growth, reproduction, lactation, and work or physical activity.

Body Maintenance

The basic requirement for maintenance is defined as the feed needed to maintain normal body functions at rest. The amount of feed needed for body maintenance is related to the horse's weight. A large horse requires more feed to maintain its body weight than a small horse. In addition to maintenance, extra feed must be supplied to support activity.

Exercise and ambient temperature fluctuations will alter the amount of feed necessary to maintain body weight. Carbohydrates and fats are the prime energy sources in horse feed. Work increases the need for specific vitamins, minerals and amino acids (protein) so your horse to metabolize carbohydrates and fats. The amount of feed is dependent upon the level of activity as illustrated below in Table 1.

Table 1 —
Suggested Daily Feeding Levels for Maintenance,
Light, Moderate and Heavy Exercise1 (Per 100 lb. body weight)
Hay1 (lb)
Feed2 (lb)
Maintenance (minimum)
Examples: stall confinement, docile temperament
1 to 1½
¼ to ½
Maintenance (average)
Examples: moderate voluntary activity
1 to 1½
¼ to ½
Maintenance (elevated)
Examples: nervous temperament, high voluntary activity
1 to 1½
½ to ¾
Maintenance + Light Exercise
Examples: pleasure, occasional trail or show
1 to 2
½ to 1
Maintenance + Moderate Exercise
Examples: schooling, frequent show or trail, light training
1 to 2
½ to 1
Maintenance + Heavy Exercise
Examples: ranch work, polo, race training
1 to 2
1 to 1½
Maintenance + Intense Exercise
Examples: racing, endurance, 3-day eventing
1 to 1½
1 to 1½
1 Based on Nutrient Recommendations of Horses, 6th Revised Edition, 2007.
2 Formulated with adequate protein, minerals and vitamins to meet requirements when fed with hay.


A young, growing horse requires more protein (amino acids), minerals and vitamins per unit of body weight than does a mature horse. Muscle development also requires good quality protein. High quality, well-fortified feeds are necessary for proper development.

Creep feeding a nursing foal will provide extra nutrients to support growth, and it accustoms the foal to eating dry feed. Creep feed could be started at three to four days of age. This is another example where daily observation will help make good judgements. You may need to increase the creep feed to the foal based on what you see. For example: a foal nursing a good milking mare will not need as much creep feed as a foal nursing a poor milking mare. Appetite and consistency of manure are good indicators of the foal’s capacity to eat more feed. Avoid scouring, which may occur if too much creep feed is consumed. It is not recommended that intake of creep feed exceed 1.5 percent of body weight per day.

Approximately eight weeks after foaling, the mare's milks starts to decrease in quantity and quality. At the same time, the foal’s nutritional requirements continue to increase.

Foal feed that contains 14 to 18 percent protein (with balanced amino acids) and is fortified with minerals and vitamins, will allow proper muscle and bone development. By 12 months of age, you can safely lower the foal's ration a 12- to 15-percent protein content.

The recommended daily amount of feed and forage for a foal is shown below in Table 2. At two years of age, the horse can be fed as a mature horse as outlined in Table 1.

Table 2 —
Daily Feeding Guide for Growing Horses
(Reasonable amounts of feed to offer)
Body Weight (lb)
Foal Feed1 (lb)
Good Quality Hay2 (lb)
1 High-quality horse feeds fortified with adequate protein, minerals and vitamins are necessary for proper development.
2 Offer hay free choice. Amounts listed are expected consumption levels.

Testing Hay and Balancing Rations

Forages vary widely in nutritional values. Two variables have the greatest impact on quality—the type of forage (legume, small grain, etc.) and amount of degradation during storage. It is important that you know the quality of the hay you're feeding, as well as how to use this data to properly balance your horse's diet. After all, how can you determine how best to supplement if you don't know what your horse is getting in the first place?

It is important that you provide a representative hay sample for an accurate nutrient analysis. For instructions on how to properly sample hay for analysis, go to for directions or consult your local CRF member feed supplier or local Extension agent. Some CRF member horse feed suppliers will have a hay probe that can be used to sample your hay.

Once you have a complete analysis of your hay samples, your CRF feed provider or local Extension agent will help you determine how best to balance your horse's ration.

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