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.

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.

* 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 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.