The most COMMON deficiency in the equine diet

By: on Friday, October 30, 2015

Feature photo by MelJane Photography

We know good nutrition makes a significant impact on the health and performance of our horses.  Ensuring the horse has his nutrient requirements provided for is an important aspect of analyzing the diet and ensuring peak performance, but it’s only one part of the whole nourishment formula.

As an equine nutritionist and well-being coach helping women and horses to nourish and flourish, hands down the no 1 missing nutrient I come across is behavior…not allowing the horse to be a horse.

Nutrition problems are largely man-made problems, brought about by altering natural behavior

Millions of years of evolutionary pressure have made the horse a horse…of course! His impressive survival through some of the harshest extremes has given rise to hard-wired, innate behaviors that are highly-motivated, species-specific, and remain largely unchanged through domestication.

When we prevent the horse from performing these behaviors in his everyday life, such as through traditional feeding and housing practices, it causes stress.  If this stress continues over a prolonged period of time it has a detrimental impact on nutrition, wellness and resulting performance that will never be balanced out by a bag or a bucket.

So, let take a look at what our horses really NEED to keep them healthy, happy and performing at their best.

Forage Friendship Freedom

Given the evolutionary pressures place upon the horse, researchers have identified his primary behavioral needs to be eating, locomotion and social contact. Known from this point forward as the 3 F’s!

  1. FORAGE (eating)

horses in pasture Photo Credit Susan Rumble

Photo by Susan Rumble

The horse is an herbivorous hind-gut-fermenting, eating machine dedicating about 60-70% of his daily time budget to grazing a diverse array of fresh green stuff. His drive to eat is much akin to living everyday like it’s Thanksgiving or Christmas!

As a trickle feeder the horse relies on a constant flow of forage through his gastrointestinal tact (GI) and researchers have identified they eat to maintain a high gut fill. This aids in peristaltic movement of food through the tract and ensures his cecal fermentation vat is functioning correctly.

It’s important to remember that it’s not primarily the horse we are feeding. It’s the magnificent microbial population of bacteria, protozoa & fungi that in turn feed the horse. The healthier, happier we keep his resident micro-flora the healthier happier and well fed our horses are!

The horse is an herbivore and when it comes to gut health and well-being, there is NOTHING that can replace good quality forage available 24/7

Stomach acid is constantly secreted in the horse, unlike us where it starts up in the presence of food. He relies on saliva to help him buffer the stomach acid, and saliva is only produced when the horse chews. Forages require a lot more chewing than concentrates resulting in more saliva production and a better buffered tum!

Left without anything to munch on for even very short periods of time creates a stress response in the horse. Stress produces cortisol (as well as other stress hormones) which in turn raises insulin that can seriously derail hormone and metabolic processes. Insulin also tells the body to hold onto fat as the horse perceives a food shortage that puts him into starvation mode.  This is why restricting forage for overweight horses actually makes the problem worse.

Within about two hours of forage deprivation, the stomach becomes acidic enough to cause physical discomfort and sets the scene for health issues such as gastric ulceration, colic, unwanted behaviors and impaired performance. This is further compounded when he’s required to exercise.

Constant access to high fiber forages is not only important for proper functioning and digestion of foods it’s also critical for nourishing his mind

  1. FRIENDSHIP (Social contact)

As prey animals, horses get by with a lot of help from their friends! They form very strong bonds, often lasting a lifetime, and have quite the elaborate friends and family social network. Mares and stallions maintain long term relations and along with other siblings and peer groups, play an important role in the social and nutritional development of foals.

Gestural communications between horses is complex and subtle. They remain in constant visual contact with each other sending non-verbal messages back and forth.  Having herd mates around has numerous benefits including safety from predators, sourcing and selecting food, play-mates, reproduction, grooming, rest and REM sleep, thermoregulation and keeping the bugs at bay.

Horses NEED other horses

happpy horses photo by Susan Rumble

Photo by Susan Rumble

Neuroscientist Professor Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University cites social isolation as one of the greatest causes of stress to social animals. When we restrict the horse from being with other herd members, for example in individual stables/stalls/turnout, he is much more likely to become succumb to stress-related illnesses and develop stereotypic coping behaviors. Restricting the horse from forming social bonds in a stable herd has serious implications to his health and wellbeing, performance and overall welfare.


  1. FREEDOM (Movement or Locomotion)

The horse is a prey animal and with no other form of defense, such as horns, he relies primarily on flight mechanism for survival.  Every fiber of his body is primed to get-him-the-heck-out-of-here! His whole physiology and psychology is exquisitely evolved to live on the open range and his innate intelligence is constantly telling him to put as much space between himself and any threat…perceived or real.

Horses are nomadic in nature, wandering on average 20-30 miles per day and have been recorded as roaming up to 100 miles in their free-ranging state!  Compare this to horses in the domestic setting where Australian researchers recorded 4.5 miles of travel in 40 acre paddock and only 0.6 miles day for stalled horses turned out in an exercise paddock.

Restricting movement and the ability to choose to perform normal behaviors is a significant health and welfare concern

While movement is primarily motivated by protection and resources – food, water, mates, shelter etc., studies have shown it protects against lameness by improving bone, tendon and muscle structure as well as keeping joints lubed. Movement also keeps the digestive system flowing and metabolic issues at bay, the respiratory system clear and well-oxygenated mind and body that lives in a state of contentment.



Deepening our appreciation of the true nature of horses helps connect us to what they really need and how we can better provide for that in our world. Starting with the 3 F’s provides a solid foundation from which to design feeding, management and training strategies for ALL of our horses, whether for performance or pleasure. Focusing on free-choice forage based diets; group housing with open pasture systems; plenty of movement and allowing the horse to be a horse will support him in fulfilling his performance potential and ensure his health and welfare are top priority.


Further reading:

Hampson, B.A. and Pollitt, C.C. (2008) GPS tracking of domestic horses. Australian Equine Science Symposium. Gold Coast, Australia.

Jensen, P, Toates, FM. (1993) Who needs behavioural needs? Motivational aspects of the needs of animals. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 37, 161-181.

Getty JM (2010). Feed your horse like a horse. USA: Dog Ear Publishing

McGreevy, P (2012) Equine Behaviour. A guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists. 2nd ed. London: Saunders Elsevier.

Mills, DS, McDonnell SM (2005). The Domestic Horse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.The Domestic Horse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sapolsky, RM (2004). Why zebras don’t get ulcers. 3rd ed. New York: Holt Paperbacks.

Sondergaard, E, Jensen, MB, Nicol CJ. (2011). Motivation for social contact in horses measured by operant conditioning. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 132 (0), 131-137.Motivation for social contact in horses measured by operant conditioning. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 132 (0), 131-137


About the Author:

Jayne Roberts
Jayne Roberts is an Equine Scientist, Holistic Horse Chef, Well-being Educator, Speaker, Author and life-long horse woman who wants to create a world where we’re all one big healthy happy herd. She combines over four decades of equine industry experience, research and qualifications to help women and horses nourish and flourish. As an international equine expert, Jayne coaches clients around the world and has played a pivotal role in the development and management of several equine enterprises in the UK, USA and Australia. Jayne holds an MSc (Distinction) & BSc (Honours) in Equine Science and is a Certified Holistic Management Practitioner. (photo credit MelJanePhotography)


  1. Chloe Bailey says:

    It’s amazing how simple this philosophy is and yet even in this day and age we still somehow manage to get it wrong sometimes. Great article, thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks Chloe…simple is the new black 😉

  2. donna says:

    Interesting article

  3. Shane says:

    I didn’t want the article to finish… I had a stallion who I sold recently to a top dressage home he was stabled all year aound but lived out in the summer all day and had unlimited hay. I wish i got a donky or a pony playmate for him as I think he would of liked that. But they will be a next time I’m sure. Great read thank you

    1. What a lovely comment, thanks for sharing! I’m glad you enjoyed it and there’s always a next time 🙂

  4. Carley says:

    Very interesting read but my question is how do you keep an overweight Welsh sec a with ems and cushings like this and keep the weight off ? Also a 24 year old ex show pony that has had laminitis in the past ( not with me ) and cushings like this and keep him healthy?

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