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Dietary Principles

A happy pony on a large grass free track

PHOTOGRAPH by Cathy Dee for Calm Healthy Horses

Customize Access to Grass

Some grass (eg grass grown on unfertile land which we would call ‘good’ grass) is better for horses than other grass (eg fertilized dairy grass which we would call ‘bad’ grass).

‘Good’ grass for horses is ‘low nutrient density’ because they eat all day, deriving a little bit of nutrition from a lot of mouthfuls. Whilst there is merit in the idea of organically tending the soil so you grow ‘healthy’ grass, what can happens is that you end up with PROLIFIC high nutrient density grass and you can’t let your horse on it 24/7 anyway!

Some horses can handle ‘bad’ grass (until their system finally gets overwhelmed) while other horses whose system is already overwhelmed cannot even handle ‘good’ grass!

It is a gross misconception that we are advising horses shouldn’t have any grass at all. Of course this is not true.

Horses evolved to eat grass – but they were never meant to be CONFINED BEHIND FENCES consuming REGROWTH grass, let alone fertilized, so called ‘improved’ grasses and legumes like clover and lucerne!

How much grass you can allow your horse to graze depends on the following…

  • The sort of issues you are having – the more serious the issue, (Laminitis, head flicking, dangerous behaviour - see Health Check -the less grass your horse can have UNTIL they are back to normal.

  • The sort of grass you have got

  • The stage of growth of the grass

  • The sort of facilities you have access to

  • Climate and season

In other words there are many variables to take into account. You will soon get to know what suits your horse in your location and how to adjust according to the weather and the season.

Once you become familiar with the signs listed on the Checklist you will make adjustments sooner so the serious issues won’t develop.

If it is your own property, investing some resources into a good ‘Dry Lot’ makes keeping horses comparatively easy as you have a means of controlling grass intake.

If your horse has serious issues then removing them from grass completely is the fastest way to drop potassium intake down to normal.

You will need to plan well ahead and it is ALWAYS good to have plenty of hay in the shed!

Wild horse habitat could not be more different from our lush green pastures!

Photo Credit J T Humphrey
Wild Horse habitat - a very different scenario from our average horse grazing!

* Grow Good Grass for Horses

If only we had access to vast acreages of semi-arid grass lands!


Of course the vast majority of horse owners do not have enough land to grow such wonderful native grass and therefore the thinking is to  increase the yield on the small acreage they have for their horses.

Strategies that focus on increasing yield unfortunately do not produce grass conducive to achieving a calm, healthy horse.

It is not about YIELD.

A farmer wants to grow as much grass as possible because it is the cheapest way to feed livestock that are only expected to live for a few years.

However, when you own a horse it becomes a very expensive exercise when you are constantly dealing with one issue after another, buying new saddles, not making progress or being unable to ride at all because the horse isn’t ‘right’!

Horses have the opposite requirements to production livestock because they thrive on LOW NUTRIENT DENSITY forage that has grown more slowly, rather than high nutrient density grass grown at speed for the purpose of fattening livestock and producing vast quantities of milk.

Your horse will thrive with low nutrient density grasses because you can ADD nutrients to a hard-feed to keep them calm and healthy. Even oxalate grasses like Kikuyu and Setaria are fine because it is just a case of ADDING a good calcium supplement like XtraCal.

It is much more of a challenge to try to live with rye grass and clover which has been fertilized with Potash (potassium)/NPK/urea because you cannot SUBTRACT the problematic minerals from their diet.

It’s too late, they have consumed them and whilst  the horse has the ability to excrete the excess potassium and nitrates and metabolise the high sugars,  it is a constant stress to his system and eventually he is overwhelmed.

Yes it is worth getting the soil tested if it is your own property and you want to keep horses long term. Then you can address any gross deficiencies and assess whether lime would be beneficial.

The exception is selenium.

It is best with horses, to leave the soil deficient in selenium and add it daily to feeds by way of supplementation.

Don’t let anybody talk you into applying commercial fertilisers, especially those mentioned because YOU CAN NEVER UNDO IT once it is done. Your riding could be ruined for years to come!

PIC: (below) Spot the difference – Dairy grass vs high fibre horse grass

Dairy Grass
Cathy's horses on rough old grass - perfect grazing.

How much HAY to feed?

When horses are confined to a dry lot or a track, or have run out of grass to eat because it has been nibbled down to nothing, you need to make sure they have continuous access to forage in the form of hay. If you go out there in the morning and there is not a skerrick left then best to give them more!

Continuous access not only keeps horses contented, it ensures the ‘chew time’ necessary to precisely buffer the stomach acids and prevent ulcers forming.

Plus it supplies the fibre needed to feed the flora in the hind-gut. Billions of micro-organisms who thrive on the comparatively low nitrogen, low potassium, low sugar and starch, coarse, fibrous material that makes up mature grass or hay.

For a horse, chewing is part of his ‘psyche’ – all is well with his life when he is chewing fibrous plants!

Short grass of any species or description, green or brown, doesn’t provide the necessary chew time and neither does it provide sufficient fibre to feed the flora and then the flora can’t feed the horse.

If there isn’t enough fibre in the fermentation vats of the hind-gut, no heat is produced by this process and there is no fuel to fire their internal heater to keep them warm over winter!

The ‘slice in the morning and 2 slices at night’ regime is simply not enough to keep the hind-gut flora nourished, not to mention it increases the likelihood of stomach ulcers developing. A person can buy a lot of hay with the money spent on ulcer treatments.

For some horses it is a balancing act to supply continuous hay without weight-gain, especially those horses who hardly take a break from it! Fixing this requires a ‘reverse psychology’ type of approach. These horses have become obsessive gorgers because their internal metabolic processes have adjusted/adapted to not having enough!

The way to return your horse’s metabolism to normal is to make sure he never runs out! Once he realises there is ALWAYS hay there AND once his metabolism has had time to respond accordingly he WILL BE ABLE TO slow down, eat for shorter periods and feel satisfied.

Persevere with this as for some horses this will happen within a few weeks but for others it can take longer for his physiology to adjust. This is why it may take months before some horses start to self-regulate again.

Adhering strictly to 1.5% of BW can leave the poor horse without food for too long. Especially small ponies who only weigh 200kgs or less – 3kgs of hay, even the 4kgs which would supply a maintenance amount of 2% BW can be gone in no time flat!

Forage restriction ISN'T the answer and in fact it is very stressful physically, mentally and emotionally. Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) is a metabolic disorder as opposed to just being over-weight. Adlib availability of forage along with proper nourishment and plenty of movement is the key to managing horses with EMS and prevention of it developing in the first place.

Avoid Lucerne or hay with any clover, they contain far more calories per kg than grass hays even though they can be lower in sugars.

Small mesh hay-nets encourage trickle-feeding. Some owners go to great lengths to ‘stretch out’ consumption, hanging them from posts or trees, attaching them to an anchoring tyre, or stretching a small-mesh net over a box. There are some great ideas out there – just always check for safety in your situation!

Hay can be soaked to reduce its nutritional value while still providing the fibre - then the horse can consume more of it over the 24 hour period. Daily essential nutrients can easily be supplied in a small daily feed.

For some over-weight horses it can work to substitute at least some of their hay with straw. Being higher in indigestible lignin it is harder to chew and tends to slow them down. Mix with grass hay to extend feeding times and satisfy the need for chewing.

Obviously straw shouldn’t be fed to horses with poor dentition and make sure water is readily available. In most cases late-cut grass hay is preferable.

The take home message is: Budget for feeding appropriate quantities of hay. The benefits are endless and it is the most economical strategy in the long run!

* Be Mindful of Potassium & Nitrogen Intake


ALL forage is very high in potassium and nitrogen while being low in sodium. For example a forage test that has a potassium level of 3% means a horse consuming 10kgs is ingesting 300gms of potassium. That same forage is only .02% sodium meaning the horse is getting a measly 2gms of sodium. He is ingesting 150 x as much potassium as sodium.

Reducing this very high ratio to an acceptable level for normal functioning (2-5 x as much potassium as sodium) the horses must excrete the excess potassium in their urine.
The trouble with modern horse keeping is that of more potassium going in than going out; a bit like trying to empty a swimming pool while the hose is still pouting water in at the other end....

Adding to this already high potassium and nitrogen load with even more potassium/nitrogen rich forages and feeds (Lucerne, clover, soy, most protein meal, kelp, many herbs and molasses) places unnecessary stress on the mechanisms which are working hard to meticulously regulate these levels.

Eventually these mechanisms are compromised leading to metabolic disturbances which manifest as health, movement and behaviour problems. (Becoming Grass Affected)

* Check Salt Intake

It is not rocket science when you see the figures above, that it is vital to add salt to your horse’s feed.

You can relax. Salt will not harden the arteries. Force feeding salt has been the ‘nutritional tip of the century’. How simple and what a difference it makes for many of the grass-affected type issues. It not only reduces the critical potassium to sodium ratio, but also promotes the electrical neutrality necessary for normal bodily functions.

Chronic lack of salt in regions of high humidity can lead to a condition called ‘anhidrosis’ which is dangerous because the horse has lost the ability to sweat at all.

To ensure your horse is ingesting adequate salt you need to ‘force-feed’ it. In other words put it in a feed rather than relying on a salt lick from which they will never lick enough!
See The Importance of Salt

* Feed High Spec Vitamins & Minerals


Premium NZ Horse MineralsPremium MVA and Supreme Vit & Min for Australian horses.

These products will compensate for the lack of access to the wide variety of plants, weeds, shrubs, bushes, grasses and trees that the horse in his natural habitat would have access to.

There seems to be a mind-set that says...
“It is only an animal therefore the cheap minerals will do,” however the fact is that we would like our horses to live a long, healthy and useful life.

To ensure their longevity and postpone the onset of the degenerative diseases that shorten it, we need to provide them with the best nutrition that we possibly can with our knowledge to date.

To enjoy your horse you need him to be calm and healthy, so he will be as safe as possible for both you and your children. It presents a serious dilemma if a horse becomes unsound or unsafe to ride or be around.


Accidents are more likely and precious confidence is easily lost. Be at the ‘top of the cliff’ by following these principles and ‘get it right for the horse’ rather than being at the bottom always trying to ‘get the horse right’!

It is a learn curve but it can be a rewarding and enjoyable one when you get passionate about it!

* Make sure your hard-feeds are suitable.

Let’s begin by saying “if your horse is already calm and healthy on your current feeding regime then there is no need to change anything”.

On the other hand if your horse has any ticks in the boxes of the ‘Check List’ then it is worth making some changes to your horse’s diet because mineral levels/ratios are the result of the total diet, not about any one in isolation.

Choosing feed plain feeds and adding high spec minerals enables you to alter quantities of feed according to energy/weight gain or loss requirements without altering the amounts of essential nutrients, eg; selenium, copper, zinc, vitamins.


If you alter the quantities of a complete feed which already contained vitamins & minerals then you are altering the intake of everything in that feed.

The problem with feeding many of the processed/complete feeds to grass-affected horses is that they contain ingredients (Lucerne, soy, vegetable proteins, molasses, extruded grains) that in our experience we need to avoid, at least temporarily, in order to return the horse to normal.

Therefore a simple and economical option is to feed plain feeds to which you can add your high spec minerals.

* Protein

When horses lose weight, it is muscle that they have lost, noticeably on their topline, which can be accompanied by a distended belly. The mistake people make is thinking that they need to 'fatten' their horse, whereas what is needed is to feed nutrients which will rebuild the muscles. Protein contains the amino acids for rebuilding muscle.

It is not about feeding large quantities of protein as this will create other metabolic problems, rather it is about feeding the smaller amounts of protein that will do the job.

Calm Healthy Horses has developed ShapeUp, and ShipShape in Australia for this purpose. It contains all the amino acids and is fortified with lysine, methionine and threonine which are particularly important for horses.

Feeds like pollard, rice bran or boiled or rolled barley are widely used for fattening and are more carbohydrate than protein. You certainly can feed any of these, so long as you are adding a supplement which will balance their poor calcium: phosphorous ratio (XtraCal/  AlleviateC/SOS)

* Understanding 'Extruded' Feeds

'Extruded' means, 'ground and cooked' which means these feeds are very easily digestible and provide extra energy for the horse.

While may be desirable for horses who are in heavy and intense work (racing, endurance etc), it is not something you want for recreational horses and kids ponies and it is the very last thing you want to be feeding to grass affected horses who are already overreactive and potentially dangerous.

Always Check Your Ingredients

It is advisable to get into the habit of checking the ingredients list on the back of your 'complete' feed bag as these often contain things we are trying to avoid when resolving issues.

These ingredients include...
Lucerne/Alfalfa and other legumes such as peas

High energy items such as corn & maize
Vegetable proteins such as rapeseed and soy bean meals



Hence we advocate the feeding of plain feeds

Marshall Art, a Tb off the track

Cathy's new Tb Marshall Art (Above) has been gaining topline and weight since arriving in light condition after being turned out from racing.
When he arrived he was a chronic windsucker, chewed through an entire fence post and was nervous and reactive.

Around 2 months on, he hardly ever windsucks, has stopped all wood chewing and is now calm and ready to restart work.

As you see, the grazing is rough (perfect) and, being winter a lot of people struggle to get these horses to gain weight,
Marshall is being fed twice daily feeds (along with plenty of hay) of the following...

Oat chaff
Boiled barley with linseed

Premium MVA


He gets GrazeEzy when it rains and the grass starts to come through.

BELOW...A year on and Marshall Art is a picture of great health. He no longer wind sucks at all, is calm and happy, very playful and a pleasure to have around...
Read more about his journey with a nasty skin condition here...


Tips for Feeding

For Horses in Good Condition (and not Grass Affected)

The feed should be only what is necessary to get them to eat their salt and Minerals.
Basically oaten chaff and a sprinkling of something they like such as whole oats, copra.


For horses needing to gain weight and/or topline

Feed as above but add boiled or crushed barley and Omega 3 oil. Feed Premium MVA (Minerals Vitamins and Amino Acids) and XtraCal which will balance the low calcium:phosphorous ratio of feeds like bran, barley and copra.
If the horse has had a nutritional set back and is lacking top-line, add ShapeUp (which contains bio-available amino acids), ideal for boosting muscle and general health.


For horses needing to lose weight

The same as horses in good condition. Hard feeds are only enough to deliver the salt and minerals. If they are really obese, soak the hay for at least an hour before feeding. This abslutely makes a difference and helps them to lose those extra pounds.
Use small mesh hay-nets, two of them if necessary, one inside the other to slow down hay consumption. Swinging these from a tree adds another degree of difficulty!

For 'Grass Affected' horses

Feed as above plus whichever combination of GrazeEzy and/or SOS works for their particular issues – this depends on the suitability of your grass at various times of the year.
If the issue is severe you can include AlleviateGold but PM us for guidance.


For performance horses who need more energy

As above with the addition of more oats. Feed Salt, Premium MVA and XtraCal.


For horses on oxalate grasses including Kikuyu

Make sure you feed XtraCal on a daily basis along with the feeds suggested above.

ACTUAL Nutrition

Understandably many horse owners don’t have much of an understanding of what ‘Good nutrition’ means. If the horse’s diet is not meeting his daily requirements for the ESSENTIAL nutrients which are the building blocks of life, sooner or later his health will deteriorate.

Feeding a random collection of non-essential nutrients at best will be a temporary band-aid, delaying the inevitable.

Short or lush green pasture grass (which is not the forage they are adapted to) does not meet the horse’s daily requirements for ESSENTIAL nutrients. Instead, it is full of excesses and deficiencies which throw everything out of whack.

Chronic excesses and interactions from consuming such grass disturb critical metabolic pathways and processes and lead to the health, movement and behaviour issues so common in our domestic horses.

As a foundation for optimal health all horses need an expertly formulated broad spectrum vitamin, mineral and amino acid supplement. Premium MVA  in NZ and the UK provide all of the ESSENTIAL nutrients in effective levels.

Soon we will have Supreme MVA in Australia – look out for it!

Some supplement companies advertise their products are ‘Complete’ but when you examine them closely, they are far from it.

They may have SOME trace minerals present but in such small quantities they are totally inadequate for large animals like horses.

Some are even missing critical elements like magnesium.

Some have less calcium than magnesium – based on the assumption that calcium is present in the diet from other sources and not understanding that there are other factors at play.

Some don’t contain vitamins on the assumption that the flora in the hind-gut produce adequate levels of them.

However, every time there is a digestive upset for whatever reason; usually an increase of potassium/nitrates in the grass due to a change in the weather or the season; the flora populations are injured, even destroyed and therefore cease production.

On top of this are the disturbances to the digestive environment caused by oral ulcer treatments.

Having conducted forage analyses on many of the pastures which horses were consuming when they developed issues, we soon realised that there is NO WAY you can simply ‘balance’ to it, there are far too many aspects, interactions, and variables which throw out calculations.

Processed feeds only remotely come close to supplying what the horse needs and that is only if fed in the amounts specified on the back of the bag for the weight of the horse.

Neither herbs nor other ‘natural products’ for instance, fulfil the horse’s basic nutritional requirements for macro and trace minerals and amino acids.

Feeding a whole lot of bits and pieces of this and that, is far from ideal and costly – for instance, feeding Brewer’s yeast for B vitamins doesn’t work because it doesn’t include vitamin B12 so then you have to feed something else to ensure they get this.

None of the protein sources have sufficient lysine, methionine, threonine for horses which is why horses lose top line, muscle tone, hoof quality along with a general deterioration in health.

BELOW: Basile was being fed a long list of various items including turmeric, seaweed, a variety of herbs and a very basic brandX free choice multi vit mix, yet his health and hoof quality continued to deteriorate.

He came to Cathy and was put onto her dry lot with hay, a basic feed consisting of oaten chaff, beet, copra (for taste) and crushed linseed with salt, PremiumMVA and ShapeUp added - You can see the difference - 5 months between photos.

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