Horses mostly eat hay, grass, and grain. But just like humans, horses’ diets have variation- and some horses like unusual treats! Horses are herbivores. While omnivores (that’s us!) eat a variety of foods from different food groups, horses eat only plants and plant-based foods.
You probably found this article out of curiosity about what horses eat, in fact, it’s one of the most common questions from people who haven’t spent a lot of time around horses. I can’t tell you how many times I have answered the question “what do horses eat?” From both kids and adults. The opportunity to participate in public events and breed demonstrations with my rare Bashkir Curly Horses, as well as coaching adult beginner riders, has given me a unique opportunity to field simple horse questions like what horses eat, what to wear when you go horseback riding, or how horses sleep at night.
In this article, I review a standard diet for horses as well, typical meals, and a list of treats that horses like to eat.
Caution: Never feed a horse that isn’t yours. While it’s fun to think about what horses eat, you should never feed a horse unless you have permission from the horse’s owner. There are two reasons for this rule:
1. Horses can’t see their mouths very well, and human fingers placed near their mouth may feel a lot like carrots. A bite from a horse can be severe and very painful.
2. Some horses have a restricted diet. Just like humans, some horses are extremely sensitive to certain foods or food groups. Handing grass to a horse in a dirt lot may seem like a kind thing to feed the horse, but if the horse suffers from a condition that make it sensitive to the sugar in grass, your treat could cause the horse to have painful inflammation or other health problems.
An introduction to what horses eat:
Although horses enjoy snacks and treats, 99% of a horse’s diet should be made up of grass, hay (dried grass), and grains (grass seeds). Some horses also eat a commercially prepared pelleted feed. Pelleted feeds made for horses to eat usually contain mostly plant matter but also have vitamins, minerals, extra protein, and sometimes added sugars.
Although this diet may seem very limited, grass and hay contain plenty of energy for most horses to thrive and grow.
What horses eat for breakfast.
For breakfast, most horse farms feed horses that live in stalls a measure of grain or oats and 1-2 flakes of hay. (Flakes are compressed portions of dried grass contained within a hay bale). Horses that live outside in a pasture usually graze on and off through the night, so these horses will usually only eat grass for breakfast. Some horses who live outside with access to grass will also have grain and hay for breakfast since both grain and certain varieties of hay can supplement what horses eat in a way that provides different nutrients than the grass available in their pasture.
In the winter, both horses living in a stall and horses living outdoors will be fed hay for breakfast- although some outdoor horses will have 27/7 access to hay to eat.
What horses eat for lunch
At lunchtime, most horses do not eat a meal. Generally, horses are either fed twice a day (this is mostly true for horses kept indoors in stalls or in outdoor dirt “dry lots”) or have access to food 24/7 (this is mostly true for horses kept outside in a grassy pasture or in an enclosure with a giant bale of hay).
What horses eat for dinner
Dinner is generally the largest meal that horses eat- though on many farms it will be the same size portion as breakfast.
For dinner, most horses are fed the same food they ate for breakfast: which is usually a measure of grain or oats and a few flakes of hay. Some mares that are nursing foals or horses that are being ridden a lot may eat fortified pelleted horse feed for dinner for extra calories that supply the energy they need.
Horses that are outdoors and able to graze 24/7 won’t have a dinner meal because they eat on and off throughout the day.
Can horses live with only grass to eat?
While not all grasses are equal when it comes to nutrition, grazing on a healthy pasture with cultivated or mixed grasses provides sufficient calories and nutrition for most horses. Horses that are burning a lot of calories each day due to being ridden often or raising a foal may need additional food, but for average horses kept for casual riding, grass provides sufficient nutrition during the summer months.
Best Treat Ideas for Horses
Remember: only feed horses treats with the owner’s permission, and only in small quantities. Too much of a new food can cause a stomach ache in horses- and for horses, digestion problems can rapidly escalate to an often-fatal condition called colic.
🟢 Good Horse Treats:
- Low-sugar commercially prepared horse-treats
- Small amounts of premium hay or sweetfeed
🟡 OK horse treats (in moderation):
- 🥕 Carrots
- 🍉 watermelon
- 🍎 apples
- 🌹 Rose hips
- 🍐 pear
- 🥚 turnips
- 🍌 bananas
- 🍓 strawberries
🟠 Horse Treats that are OK Occasionally:
- Ginger snaps
- peanut butter crackers
- hard candy (like toffee or peppermints)
🛑🤚 8 Foods to Never Feed a Horses
When our curly horse breeding program was active, I also grew a large garden on the fenceline shared with a horse pasture. Until we installed electric fencing, it was a regular occurrence to find just about all our garden vegetables nibbled down to the dirt early in the season. Through being vigilant during those gardening experiences, I learned that there are some foods horses should never eat- even “healthy vegetables” like tomato, potato, and habanero pepper (or, really, any type of pepper). Here are a few other foods horses should not have:
- 🥑 Avocados
- 🍑 Stonefruits
- 🌿cuttings from yew trees
- 🍁 Dry/Wilted Red Maples Leaves
- 🌳 Cauliflower, Cabbage, Broccoli
- 🥔 Potatoes
- 🥬 Rhubarb
- 🥩 Meat & Meat Byproducts
Frequently Asked Questions about Horse Food and Treats
Do horses like carrots?
Yes, horses like carrots! Carrots can be a good horse treat in small amounts. Feeding carrots to horses isn’t always a good idea, though, because carrots have a high amount of sugar that isn’t good for horses, even though horses like carrots.
Research sources used for this article:
- Oregon Veterinary Medical Association. 10 Plants Toxic to Horses/ https://oregonvma.org/care-health/equine/10-plants-toxic-horses