Back to the Basics: The Importance of Forage in a Horse’s Diet

by Haley Ruffner
01 June 2022 | [email protected] | 307.205.6628


When we picture horses in their most natural state, we picture a herd roaming an open plain, wading through streams and traveling miles every day for fresh grass. While this model might still exist in some capacity for wild horses or people with large rotating pastures, the reality is that a horse’s natural grazing schedule has been disrupted via human intervention. Most people don’t have enough pasture to let their horses free graze 24/7, and this combined with the desire to protect horses from the elements and regulate their care has led many horse owners to stall their horses and feed more hay and grain. 

The transition of horses from being used as the sole vehicle for transportation and heavy farm work into performance horses or pets has had a significant effect on their dietary needs. According to Dr. Tom Lenz of AAEP, “One reason we are seeing more fat horses today is that horses evolved as free-roaming grazers on sparse pasture types…Once domesticated, horses served primarily as work animals, providing either transportation or draft power that required a tremendous amount of energy in the form of grain supplement. It was not uncommon for cavalry horses to be ridden 30 to 50 miles a day” (par. 4). Compare this with the average show horse today, (which might be ridden for an hour and a half daily at most) and the need for so much supplemental grain lessens tremendously, although the actual rations fed often don’t reflect that.  

This same article suggests that many of today’s horses, fortified with high-energy grains and supplements, are experiencing overnutrition. Dr. Moore-Colyer of AAEP says, “For the work they do, most horses can easily exist on a forage-only diet . . . If we didn’t feed concentrates, we wouldn’t have the equine metabolic disorders we see” (par. 6, 7). This idea is not a new one—it is also expressed in texts as old as The Gentleman’s New Jockey, a horse training and veterinary manual published in 1700. Although much less concise than Dr. Moore-Colyer’s assessment, it reads: 

“Moderation in Eating is another main cause of long Life, as immoderate eating is of a short one: For as excess in Eating, though the Provender be never so good and wholesome, obstructs good Digestion, and contracts crudities with a bad habit of Stomach.” 

“Provender” here refers mostly to grain and oat mixtures (often including bread, beer, and wine) for which several recipes are given in the text—the predecessors to modern condensed feeds. For as long as horse owners have been feeding grains, some have also recognized that forage must be the basis of a healthy equine diet. This is not to say that an easy keeper should be fed only straight alfalfa or pastured on rich grass, but with the many different types of hay available, it is possible to balance a horse’s nutritional needs with hay containing more fiber or nutrients where needed.  

As modern-day performance horses become increasingly refined and their training schedules intensify, many trainers have eliminated or at least limited turnout and grazing time as a means of more carefully controlling their horses’ movements and diets. The idea that the risk of a show horse hurting itself in turnout outweighs the mental and physical benefits of turnout has gained significant traction in recent decades, although many top trainers now are moving away from that model.  

In addition to the basics of nutrition, there has also been significant research on the importance of forage to horses’ gut health—their digestive systems are designed to graze around 16 hours per day, so when the basis of their diet is two meals of condensed feed daily, digestive problems arise. Ulcers can be caused by large gaps in a horse’s feeding schedule in which there is not enough food in their systems to neutralize stomach acid. AAEP recommends that horses be “allowed free-choice access to grass or hay” (McClure par. 10). 

Horses’ diets are a large indicator of overall welfare, and by replicating their natural feeding schedule as closely as we can via free-choice forage, we can ensure the best quality of life for them.



Haley Ruffner is a Sales Broker for Aden Brook and an accomplished writer on the topic of horses.



References and further reading: 

The Gentleman’s New Jockey: Or, Farrier’s Approved Guide edited by Haley Ruffner 


Works Cited and Further Reading:

Evers Conrad, Sarah. “Horse Feeding Basics,” The Horse, 13 Dec. 2019, 

McClure, Scott R, DVM. “Equine Gastric Ulcers: Special Care and Nutrition.” AAEP, 

Miller, Kim F. and Moore-Colyer, Meriel, DVM. “Understanding Hay Quality: Even ‘Good’ Hay can Have Bad Things in it.” AAEP,  

Lenz, Tom, DVM. “Obesity.” AAEP,  

Ralston, Sarah L, VMD, Ph.D. “Forage Substitutes for Horses.” Rutgers University, School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, 

Ruffner, Haley, editor. The Gentleman’s New Jockey: Or, Farrier’s Approved Guide. Whitlock Publishing, 2017.  

Thal, Doug, DVM, DABVP. “Managing During Drought.” AAEP,