NC COOPERATIVE EXTENSION: Is your horse getting what it needs?

Two horses graze on a farm in this undated file photo. (File photo)

Are your horse’s nutritional needs being met? How do you know? With the wide variety of hay and feed choices available, it is essential to understand what your horse needs nutritionally and that those needs are being met. This will help determine how much hay is needed throughout the year and if your horse needs grain to supplement the hay. 

Your horse’s body condition score (BCS) is one of the best indicators of its nutritional status. BCS is based on the degree of fat deposits in six areas of the body (neck, whithers, the spinous processes-part of back vertebrae that project upwards and the transverse process-the portion of vertebrae that project outward, tail head, ribs, and behind the shoulder). Horses are visually and physically (palpation) assessed and scored on a scale of 1 (extremely emaciated) to 9 (extremely obese) with a score of 5-6 being ideal.

Your horse’s nutritional requirements are based on their weight, age, workload, and metabolic efficiency. There are six essential nutrients: water, carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals. Dietary requirements can be found in a variety of publications, such as the National Research Council’s (NRC) Nutrient Requirements for Horses. 

Most rations are balanced based on the amount of digestive energy (Mcal) and crude protein in the feed and are calculated on a dry matter (DM) basis and then converted to an as-fed basis. All feedstuffs contain some moisture which affects the nutrient content. By removing the moisture, we are able to compare with nutritive value of different feedstuffs. A horse will have a dry matter intake of 2 to 3 percent of its body weight. 

We are going to determine how much bermudagrass hay we need to feed and if our hay is meeting the maintenance requirement of our 1,100-pound horse at rest. According to the NRC table, the horse needs 16.4 Mcal/day and 8% crude protein. The majority of the horse’s diet should be made up of forage so we will say it will eat 2.5% of its body weight in dry matter. Our hay is 94% dry matter, has 0.90 Mcal/lb, and 13% crude protein.

First, determine the amount of dry matter intake the horse needs.

1,100 lbs x 0.025 = 27.5 pounds of dry matter

Now determine if the hay will meet the horse’s energy needs.

27.5 lbs DM/day x 0.90 Mcal/lb = 24.75 Mcal/day

What about the crude protein needs?

According to the forage analysis report, the hay is 13% crude protein which meets the needs of most horses.

How much hay needs to be fed on a daily basis? 

27.5 lbs DM/0.94 = 29 pounds of hay needs to be fed each day

Based on our calculations, this hay will exceed your horse’s nutritional requirements. Because of this, you may be able to feed less hay per day. Monitoring the horse’s body condition score will help determine if you need to decrease the amount of hay you are feeding. 

If you are interested in getting your hay tested for its nutritional value, contact Liz Joseph at 910-875-3461 or You can also stop by the Hoke County Extension office Monday through Friday, 8:00 am – 5:00 pm at 645 East Palmer Street, Raeford, NC 28376. 

Liz Joseph, Livestock Agent 

NC Cooperative Extension, Hoke County Center