Grains in Horse Feeds

Grain is one of the most traditional meals fed to horses. For years people have fed oats to race horses, corn and barley to plow horses, and the good old “cob” (Corn-Oats-Barley mix) as a treat or as a staple of the diet.  With the research and studies that have been done in the past decade, we have discovered that feeding straight grain, especially in large amounts and without vitamin or mineral supplementation, is not a healthy choice for your horse. That said, grains are still very good ingredients in a horse feed when used to provide valuable sources of energy and fiber, but need to be combined with other products and adjusted to meet requirements for protein, vitamins and minerals, so that a balanced diet can be achieved.

When grains are used in horse feeds they are most commonly processed to help enhance digestion. Processing methods can include cracking, screen cracking, flaking, kibble, toasting or heat processing . The grains that  can be fed to horses include triticale, wheat, rye, rice and grain sorghum although these are much less common than “The Big Three” grains that are most typically used in horse diets:

  • Corn is added to feed as an energy source and provides a whopping 1.54 Mcal of digestible energy (DE) per pound. However, corn is also one of the grains that is highest in content of starch. Whole corn is not typically used in textured horse feeds unless it is processed (flaked , cracked, etc.), and fine ground corn should not be used in textured feed because it increases the risk of colic. While it has received a bit of a bad rap in recent years due to its higher starch content, it can be, and is, still a valuable piece of the formulation of a total feed, as long as the proper attention is given to the overall starch level of the finished feed.
  • Oats is one of the more common grains used under the heading of Grain Products

    Oats are probably the most traditional grain fed to horses. Oats provide a source of fiber but energy content is considered low for a cereal grain, and they have a moderate amount of starch when compared to other straight grain rations. Whole oats consist of clean, cultivated oat grains. Crimped oats have the hull of the oat broken while rolled oats have been steamed and rolled flat.

  • Barley is also an energy source, and has a fiber and starch content somewhere in between oats and corn. Whole barley consists of whole kernels of barley with the outer covering intact. Barley has a tougher hull than oats, so it is most commonly processed (crimped, rolled or steam flaked) when put into horse feeds. Whole barley is used in some instances, but is not ideal.


9 Replies to “Grains in Horse Feeds”

    1. Hi Regi,
      Getting your horse’s diet evaluated is always a good idea – to have an evaluation done just contact your local Nutrena consultant and we will be happy to help you! To contact your local consultant, follow this link: or go to and click “contact us” then follow the link to ask a horse-related question. Enter your information and this will be automatically sent to the Nutrena consultant in your local area. Someone will be in contact with you in 3 to 5 business days.

  1. Last year I got an eight-year-old paint from a friend of mine. He had access to unlimited hay, but she did not feed him any grain of any type. When I picked him up she said he doesn’t do well on grain, but since I feed the rest of my horses feed twice a day I started feeding him oats and a little bit of pellets, but mainly oats. My friend and I talk quiet often and she says that I should not give him any feed if I want to take him to an event. What are your thoughts? He gets several pounds of hay per day, but we do not feed round bales like my friend, we feed square bales and he looks to be in good condition.

    1. Hi Darlene,
      Thanks for the great question. Without knowing a bit more about why she said not to put him on grain, it’s tough to say why she would or would not be right.

      My recommendation would be to go by how he looks and acts for you. If your hay is of good quality, and he seems to maintain weight without anything else, and you are not working him very much, then he would likely be OK on hay and possibly a vitamin/mineral supplement. However, if your hay is of marginal or poor quality, we would recommend adding some sort of product for him. If he maintains his weight pretty well, then a perfect product for him would be Empower Balance – it only takes about 1 – 2 lbs per day, to supplement the nutrients that would be missing from lower quality hay. If he needs more calories to keep weight on, then a product such as SafeChoice, which is fed at a bit higher rate, 3-5 lbs per day for lightly active horses, would do the trick.

      And of course, if his attitude or weight get out of control, then adjust back down as you feel necessary. Hope that helps – please do let us know if you have more questions!

      Thanks! ~ Gina ~

  2. Hi Gina,
    I just got a ‘gift ‘ of two bags of steamed flaked barley from a friend who bought a whole pallet of 50 pound bags for 10.00. Apparently they are beyond their sell date. But the bags are unopened and the barley looks fine. Typically i feed my horses a mix of corn/and pellet feed but since I have this shall I feed it out to them?

    1. Hello Paula, Thanks for the question. Two of things to keep in mind here:
      1. Inspect the barley closely for mold or bugs. Do NOT feed it if you see any evidence at all of either.
      2. If it does appear OK to use, then mix it in slowly – you do not want to make any abrupt changes. Make the adjustment in small amounts over a period of 5-7 days to protect the digestive health of your horses.
      Good luck ~ Gina T.

  3. Hi. I’m a new horse owner of a 4 yr gaited gelding. He’s a bit green still but I’m working with him slowly. I’m fixing to move him over to my place an I have no barn just a open back field (3/4) an acre. There’s not a lot of grass so can you help out telling me what a usual feed would be for him. How many lbs of hay a day and how many lbs of grain? They feed him both and he’s in a stall.

    1. Hi Cassandra, Thanks for the question! A general rule of thumb is that a horse should have 1.5-2.0% of their bodyweight in hay per day. For simple math, that means a 1,000 lb horse should have 15-20 lbs of hay per day. You’ll want to weigh your individual flakes from your bales to see how many flakes per day then that he will need. For grain, it will depend on his body condition and activity level. Most traditional horse feeds have a suggested feeding rate of 3-6 lbs per day for a 1,000 lb horse, but some may be significantly higher than that if they are very low calorie. If he seems to be a very easy keeper (the above feeding rate makes him overweight) then you might look at feeding a ration balancer instead, which has a much lower feeding rate but more concentrated nutrient levels so that the overall nutrient intake is the same, but with much fewer calories.
      Hope this helps! Let us know if you have more questions. Thanks ~ Gina T.

  4. I’m buying a new roping horse and want to try a new feeding pattern. I want to know if I feed Alfalfa in the morning and afternoon and let him out to graze for couple of hours a day would work. Won’t be roped of maybe a couple time a week. Thanks

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