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Every Horse Should Have 4 Diets- Does yours?

Is your horse's diet plan adaptable to the change of seasons? In order to prevent weight gain or loss, optimize performance, and save your pocketbook, your horse's diet MUST change a minimum of four times per year. Sometimes those changes are subtle, but sometimes they are quite dramatic depending on where you live and how you use your horse. A good diet plan considers changes in environment, activity level, and forage quality throughout the year and flexes with the four (or more) seasons.

No matter where you live, there are multiple factors that create the need for multiple diet plans throughout the year. They include the following...

  1. Weather Changes

  2. Pasture and Forage Quality Changes

  3. The Stages of a Competition Season

  4. Lifestages

It is likely that you are already intuitively making changes to your horse's diets as these factors change, but perhaps you haven't consciously thought about it as four or more complete diets. Perhaps you've adjusted the amount of hay each horse gets in winter, or you've increased grain and added electrolytes during competition season. These are the kind of adjustments that I'm talking about, but it can be difficult to ensure proper calorie, protein, vitamin and mineral balance during those alterations. Problems arise when our horses' diet plans do not adapt appropriately; problems such as weight gain, weight loss, unthriftiness, loss of muscling, and behavioral changes like hyperactivity or dullness. What I see, all too often, is a horse owner feeding the exact same thing 365 days a year, and that just doesn't work. It creates great inefficiency, higher costs, and poor performance.


Winter is coming. We're on the shoulder of fall where the trees are stilling clinging to their brightly colored red, orange and yellow leaves. The water troughs haven't frozen yet, but they threaten to any day now. Every warm, sunny trail ride feels like the last. The four seasons are quite dramatic here in Montana, which creates very obvious changes to my riding, horse care, and feeding. The weather is the driving force behind seasonal diet changes for my herd. It also correlates with my competition season which changes my horse's nutritional requirements for calories, protein, vitamins and minerals. Here's an example for you.

  • Season #1: Spring (warming weather) + Increasing Condition + High Forage Quality = Diet Plan #1 Focus on Increasing Calories

  • Season #2: Summer (hot weather) + Peak Condition for Competition + Moderate Forage Quality = Diet Plan #2 Focus on Calories and Protein Quality

  • Season #3: Fall (cooling weather) + Decreasing Condition + Poor Pasture/Forage Quality = Diet Plan #3 Focus on Decreasing Calories

  • Season #4: Winter (very cold) + Roughing Off + Moderate Hay Quality = Diet Plan #4 Focus on Vitamins and Minerals

For those of you who snowbird south for the winter, you are not immune! Traveling 1,000s of miles may stabilize the weather, but it creates massive changes in your horse's nutritional needs due to hay/pasture quality changes, traveling stressors, and the amount of riding.


A few of you manage your horse(s) on pasture all year round, some of you feed only hay, and most of you feed a combination of hay and pasture throughout the year. How that primary forage changes over time affects the nutrients that you need to focus on in your diet plan. For example, when spring grass is plentiful and highly digestible, it is likely meeting most of your horse's nutritional needs. However, as the plants mature, seed out, and become dormant, you may need to supplement additional calories and protein.

Do you receive a new load of hay frequently? Well slight changes in that forage quality can behave differently in your horse. Maybe your horse was thriving on the last load, but all of a sudden they are losing muscle mass or stamina. Your feed and supplementation needs to be prepared to adapt to that! Don't be caught off guard!


No matter what level or discipline you ride, there are four major seasons to your riding year; increasing condition, peak condition, decreasing condition, and roughing off. As I mentioned previously, temperate climates may create those seasons for you and, therefore, they likely overlap with spring, summer, fall and winter. Sometimes an unexpected injury and corresponding stall confinement may cause the resting/roughing off stage! Regardless, your horse's diet plan MUST adapt to the activity level. Sometimes, it's often the case that a horse will go from peak season needing around 32 Mcal per day down to 16 Mcal per day on stall confinement or rest. That's a 50% decrease in caloric requriement and a huge adjustment to make requiring very different forage, feed and supplements.

Here's an example of my own sport horse;

  • Building Condition = Spring grass (6 hours) + local grass hay + 1 lb ration balancer + 3+ pounds performance feed + joint supplement

  • Peak Condition = Moderate quality grass hay + alfalfa hay + 4-6 pounds per day of performance feed + joint and protein supplement

  • Decreasing Condition = Moderate quality grass hay + less alfalfa + 1 lb ration balancer + 3 lbs per day of performance feed + joint supplement

  • Roughing off = Moderate quality grass hay + 1.5 lb ration balancer + digestive aid


Your horse's lifestages include suckling weanling, growing baby, mature horse, and senior. Reproductive lifestages also include open, early gestation, late gestation, and lactation, along with working and resting stallions. Your horse's nutritional requirements change dramatically as they transition to each new lifestage. Sometimes that change is slow such as the transition from mature to senior, but sometimes that's very fast such as from 300 lb newbie to 600 pound yearling and 900 lb 2 year old! I think that the most dramatic nutritional adaptation is required with young, growing horses. They change every month, so you should have some good journaling and nutritional plans to adapt for best growth and longevity!


I realize that it can be daunting, this day in age, to create just ONE diet plan for your horse, much less four! However, if you are already balancing your horse's diet appropriately for the BASICS (i.e. calories first, then protein, vitamins and minerals), then it should be more straightforward. I am always considering how a client's horse's needs will change over the year and create flexibility in that diet plan to adapt. It's one of OCEN's founding principles. The hardest part is knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your forages as they change and that requires real work. OCEN can help. Schedule a FREE 15 Minute Discovery Call today- CLICK HERE.

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