Draft Horse Nutrition – Feeding the Gentle Giants

Clydesdale grazing representing Draft Horse NutritionThe Belgian, Clydesdale, Percheron, Shire and Suffolk breeds are the primary draft horse breeds in the U.S.  The breeds are named for their country or area of origin.  The Belgians originated in the Belgium, the Clydesdales originated in the river Clyde district of Scotland, the Percherons originated in the Perche region of France, the Shires originated in the east of England and the Suffolk originated in the counties of Norwich and Suffolk in England.  They were originally imported to the U.S. for true horsepower and are now very popular for shows, pulling competitions, parades and work.  The commercials and advertising associated with the Clydesdales have made that breed one of the most recognized of the draft breeds.

Key Criteria for Raising and Using Draft Horses

Draft horses are large, heavy muscled animals that are relatively slow to mature and are metabolically very efficient.  Mature horses will weigh anywhere from 1500 lbs to well over 2000 lbs.  Hoof quality, bone strength, muscle development and hair coat are all key criteria that are important in raising and using draft horses.  As draft horses perform work, energy requirements increase substantially.

Draft Horse Nutrition: Importance of Forages and Balanced Grain Mixtures

Good quality forages, grass or grass/legume mixtures, are an important part of the draft horse diet.  Horses will consume 1.5-2.5% of bodyweight in forage.  Properly balanced grain mixtures, pelleted or textured, may be used to provide the additional energy, amino acids, minerals, trace minerals and vitamins to balance the diets.

Addressing Hoof Quality and Growth in Draft Horses

Poor quality hoof growth can be a problem with draft horses.  The use of feeds containing biotin, zinc and methionine may be beneficial for these horses.

Equine Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy Impacted by Draft Horse Nutrition

Draft horses may also be affected by Equine Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy, which used to be called Monday Morning Disease or Azoturia.   This conditions results in the horse “tying up” with stiff muscles and reluctance to move.  These horses may benefit from a diet that has controlled levels of non-structural carbohydrates or soluble carbohydrates (starches and sugars) and that contains added fat from vegetable oil as well as optimum selenium and vitamin E levels.  Regular exercise and turn out are also important for these horses.

Preventing Developmental Orthopedic Disease in Growing Draft Horses

Growing draft horses may also develop Developmental Orthopedic Disease problems as a result of genetics, conformation, stress or improper nutrition.  Feeding a balanced diet and avoiding excess body condition score may be beneficial in reducing the risk of these problems.

Essential Care: Salt and Water for Draft Horses in Heavy Work.

Be sure to provide free choice salt and access to fresh clean water for all your draft horses, especially those who are performing heavy work.

At Nutrena, we believe proper nutrition plays the biggest role for a lifetime of health and happiness for every horse. That’s why Nutrena horse feeds are specifically formulated for every life stage and activity level. 
Ready to ensure your Draft horse is getting the optimum nutrition at feeding time, every time? Find the perfect feed formulated specifically for horse’s needs with our Feed Selector Tool.
Feed Selector tool

12 Replies to “Draft Horse Nutrition – Feeding the Gentle Giants”

  1. Re. Draft deaths his fall in NJ, and CT

    So it comes down to this.
    Extreme changes in temperature, drafts keep on eating but stop drinking.
    They get an extreme temperature not controllable by antibiotics, but it’s really the colic that does them in.
    At least three cases i know of in Sept.
    This comes from a good source here In NJ.
    Any horsie types or draft owners want to comment?
    Please do.

  2. I live and work at a horse rescue. We are teying to put the weight back on two older drafts and keep a third in healthy weight. We’ve fed healthy edge and haystack in a runny soup for a week and then not so runny. Then free feed ih a hay pasture for a couple of weeks. Still ribby and sunk in hips. What is the trick to feeding a draft to gain weight?

    1. Hi Maria,

      Thank you for your question about feeding some rescue draft horses. Putting weight, and particularly muscle mass, does require time and good nutrition. I am assuming with your experience that you have had the horses checked so that they have been de-wormed and had their teeth floated if needed. After that, re-feeding requires a combination of energy (Calories) and high quality protein with essential amino acids to build muscle. You did not indicate what type of hay the horses were consuming. Hay will generally not be a readily available amino acid source to build muscle. In order to gain weight and muscle mass, the horses need to be consuming energy and amino acids (along with vitamins and trace minerals) ABOVE their maintenance requirement. It take about 2.5-3.5 pound of feed per pound of gain.

      You might consider the following options:
      1. Continue offering hay and pasture free choice (you may want to have a forage test done) and offer a balancer type product such as Empower Balance at recommended feeding rates to help amino acid intake
      2. If the horses have any dental issues, Senior Horse Feeds, such as SafeChoice Senior or comparable products, work very well for rescue horses. You can gradually increase the feeding rate until you start to see the horses gain weight, then hold them at that rate until they reach the desired Body Condition Score and Topline Evaluation Score. In estimating the feeding rate, you need to use the horse’s target weight, not the horse’s current weight. If their target weight is 1600+ pounds and they currently weight 1400, you should use the 1600+ pound feeding rate. The target weight may be higher, depending on breed and height. The nice thing about Senior Feeds is that are quite safe and can be fed at fairly high intakes. Salt and fresh clean water need to be available. Many rescue horses are salt deficient.

      Best wishes,
      Roy J.

    2. Slowly introduce corn oil into the diet at each feeding. Start with 1/4 cup and build up to up to two cups/day. This will provide calories from fat and not grains which can be unhealthy for drafts. Take a look at this link:
      Diseases and disorders which can be helped by an appropriate diet, also serves to prevent the diseases in the first place. jmho
      For older drafts, you can hand feed small amounts of some coarse salt, since they may not get enough from the block. Google this as the amount depends on your draft’s weight and condition. Cornell has excellent info for draft horses and their extension service is a great resource.
      Good advice from Roy J here. Cheers!

    3. Empower Boost worked best for us anytime that we needed to put weight on especially our older drafts..nothing else put weight on them like this did..

  3. I live in Florida and our grass/ pastures don’t always supply the beat nutrition because of our sandy soil. I have Baha’i grass in our pasture but also have a orchard and alfalfa block for my 5 year old Clydesdale to eat freely. I have heard so many different opinions on what hay to feed my draft. In your opinion, what the best hay to feed a draft ?

    1. Hi Vanya,
      Thank you for your interesting question about what hay to feed your 5 year old Clydesdale. Your assessment is accurate that the grass pastures on sandy soil may not provide required nutrients. We generally recommend a high quality grass hay that will be above 8% crude protein, preferably in the 10% range to provide amino acids to support healthy hoof growth. An alfalfa/grass combination is also very suitable, so your orchard grass/alfalfa block will be useful. Young growing horses and lactating mares will generally be fed a higher protein and nutrient dense diet than mature horses. If the higher quality hay is not available, a suitable ration balancer product may also be useful to provide the amino acids, trace minerals and vitamins that help with muscle mass, hair coat and hoof quality.

  4. The information I found here is great. I have a senior draft I am trying to put weight on. I am feeding free choice coastal, turnout/pasture, along with 3.5 lbs of soaked alfalfa pellets with one ounce of Red Cell per day (increased pellets gradually). She is still not putting on much weight and it seems she eats a lot one day and then doesn’t the next, she will eat the pellets every day but then refuses the hay. I recently had her teeth floated as well. Now she is limping and I am afraid she may have developed laminitis bc of the alfalfa…I am still waiting for my farrier to come look at her. Can alfalfa in that amount effect her feet that way? ESP if she’s supposed to be a solid 1500 at least?

    1. Hello Rebekah, Thanks for the question. Since it sounds like you gradually increased the alfalfa pellets and are feeding them at a very small quantity anyway, it’s highly unlikely that they caused your horse to have a bout of laminitis. That said, there are other reasons laminitis can occur including concussion, cold weather, etc. Knowing that your draft is a senior, I would recommend reaching out to your equine veterinarian to see if she has developed PPID (Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction) or another metabolic condition that is known to cause laminitis.

      From a nutrition standpoint, I would recommend controlling the starch and sugar in her diet and balancing out the amino acids, vitamins and trace minerals missing in the coastal hay she is eating. Here is an example feeding program if her ideal bodyweight is around 1500 lbs:
      Free choice coastal hay 24/7
      Free choice access to fresh water and salt
      AM & PM feedings of the following amounts:
      2-4 lbs alfalfa pellets
      1.5 lbs of a high quality diet balancer such as Empower Topline Balance
      2 lbs of a high fat supplement such as Empower Boost

      Monitor her body condition score (ideally we don’t want to be able to see her ribs, but we want to be able to push and find them). If she still needs more weight/flesh over her ribs, then I would recommend utilizing a senior feed designed with controlled starch and sugar levels at the manufacturers feeding directions. Best of luck to you!

    2. Never ever feed alfalfa to drafts. It’s too concentrated for them

      I come from an old farming family. Alfalfa was for cows only as they have many stomachs to break it down.
      Take off alfalfa and no grains Lots of low sugar hay and maybe soaked beet pulp with mineral supplements. A bit of careful turnout. And exercise is important!

  5. I have a soon-to-be 13yr old Shire gelding. He is about 16.2-16.3 and tends to stay around 1600lbs in moderate work. We foxhunt several times each year, do hunter paces, very basic dressage work, and low jumps. I would really like to get him closer to 1500lbs (body score 5). He seems to have permanent fat deposits behind his shoulders but is otherwise good (belly not hanging, not real cresty, etc – body score 6). He is on good turnout at least 16 hours/day (often 24/7) and receives mixed grass hay in the winter to supplement pasture and if stalled. He is not muzzled at this time as he is maintaining nicely. With what I’m asking him to do, I’m sure he needs nutrients for muscle and joint support plus energy. What would you recommend?

    1. Hello Dana, Thanks for the question. It sounds like your gelding is maintaining his body condition nicely on his current diet, so he doesn’t need much in the way of additional calories. Thus, we would recommend a ration balancer such as our Empower Topline Balance, which will balance out the nutrients of your forage sources to provide key nutrients for topline and overall muscling, as well as joint health and overall wellness. For a horse of his size, the recommended feeding rate is just 2 to 3 lbs per day of the Empower Topline Balance. We hope this is helpful, please let us know if you have further questions!

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