Counting Calories in the Equine Diet

Happy Horse Healthy Cover

How many of you have counted Calories in your own diet?  Probably most of you are at least familiar with the term and that it provides your body with energy.  A Calorie is actually a measure of energy provided by the food we eat. It is the basic unit of heat energy defined as the amount of heat required to raise one gram of water one degree Celsius.  

All living things have energy requirements. The goal for health (and a healthy weight) is to balance the energy obtained through eating with the energy required by the body. You know, “Calories in/ Calories out.”  This is also true for your horse.

All animals need a certain amount of energy for basic body functions like keeping their hearts beating, digestion, and to maintain body temperature.  This maintenance level of energy is considered the basal metabolic rate. In general, when we refer to “maintenance” levels it usually refers to a mature horse (not growing) that is not in any work, breeding, reproducing or under any weather stressors. But that isn’t very realistic because as we all know there are “easy keepers” and “hardkeepers” with very different “maintenance “needs.

So, in reality this amount of maintenance energy is really related to body size and disposition, for example a hot 17 hand thoroughbred will have a higher energy requirement than a laid back Shetland pony.

Equine Nutrition Nerd_Horse and Shetland standing next to each other in front of white background

In 2007, The National Research Council (NRC) finally updated The Nutrient Requirements of the Horse (the nutrition bible) and they added three levels of “maintenance”; high-level (think hard keeper), medium level and low level (think easy keeper).

Now, after we determine what level of maintenance our horse is we add to that value the energy (Calories) that you must account for with the “extras” such as exercise, breeding, aging, weather and any other factor that can influence energy needs to achieve optimal weight management of a horse.

For this reason, in their update, the NRC also added various “activity” levels:

Table 1:





Horse in no work



Recreational trail riding

Beginning training programs

Occasional show horses

1-3 Hours per Week


School horses

Frequent show horses


3-5 Hours per Week

Very Heavy


Elite Three Day Eventing

6-12 Hours per Week

 So figuring out your horse’s energy/Caloric needs looks like this:

A normal mature horse’s maintenance level plus its age (is it young? old?)  plus its activity level (chart above) plus or minus for metabolism (hyper? quiet?) equals Caloric needs also known as “the amount of energy it needs to thrive”.

It’s much like in humans; for example, it is generally accepted that the average adult woman can eat 2,000 Calories per day and maintain her figure.  Add exercise or a high strung metabolism and she can eat more.  If she has a low metabolism and is a couch potato she has to eat less or she will gain weight.

Lazy And Fat Cupcakes

Because horses are so much bigger they consume way more Calories than a human each day. For that reason, in the equine world, we measure their requirements in kiloCalories (kcal) and megaCalories (Mcal).  There are 1000 kiloCalories (kcals) in a megaCalorie (Mcal)but for ease in understanding I will also include Caloric values in this article. 

It gets even more interesting on an international scale as everywhere else in the world the International Unit (IU) of energy is megajoules (MJ) and kilojoules (Kj).  For this article I’m not going to get into that but I included it in case you see it again.

Here’s where it usually gets confusing for some horse owners I work with.  When we talk about equine diets we refer to Digestible Energy (DE) which is measured in megaCalories per kilogram of feed (Mcal/kg).  Because the energy from food is not all available to the horse we have to look at what is actually digested (not excreted out).

Happy Horse Healthy

Not surprisingly, the digestible energy (or Mcal per kg of feed) requirements of a horse largely depend on its body weight, metabolism and activity. The following equation is used to estimate daily digestible energy requirements of an average horse for maintenance:

DE (Mcal per day) = Body weight (in kilograms) x 0.0333

These numbers are derived from the body weight of the horse multiplied by the energy required to maintain one kilogram (2.2 lbs) of that horse’s body weight.  So you can see why I am always preaching about knowing your horse’s body weight!


Using our average horse a sample of this equation would be:

450 kg (1,000 lb) horse x 0.0333 would require roughly 15 Mcal (15,000 Calories) per day to maintain body weight.

We just said though that DE is also dependent on metabolism and workload.  Factoring in just metabolism and those with low maintenance requirements (easy keepers) would multiply body weight by 0.0303 and those with harder keepers would multiple body weight by 0.0363.

Table 2:

Weight of Horse

Kg (pounds/2.2)

X Metabolism Factor

Mcal (Calories) per day

for maintenance

450 (1,000/2.2)

Normal : 0.0333

15 Mcal (15,000)

450 (1,000/2.2)

Easy Keeper: 0.0303

13 Mcal (13,000)

450 (1,000/2.2)

Hard Keeper: 0.0363

16 Mcal (16,000)

On average, a more active horse will need 20% more energy than an inactive horse to maintain its weight.  Table 3:

Activity/Energy Needs

DE Formula

Using 450 kg (1,000 lb) horse

DE  (Mcal/day) needed

Maintenance (No Work)

450 x 0.0333

15-18 based on metabolism (15,000 calories/day)


450 x 0.0333 x 1.40

23 (23,000 calories/day)


450 x 0.0333 x 1.7

25 (25,000 calories/day)

Very Heavy

450 x 0.0363 x 1.90

31 (31,000 caloriesday)

So when we factor in activity levels it becomes even clearer how much these “other” factors influence energy/Calorie needs. You can see that the very active horse requires TWICE the amount of Calories per day than one not in work!

Horse racing.

In case you want to try it with your horse the equation for calculating this is as follows:

Your horse’s weight in kg (pounds / 2.2) x metabolism factor x activity factor = DE (mcal) per day.

Since this post is about Calories I will hold off on any more discussion of DE until the letter “D”.  For this article my goal is for you to understand how your horse’s Caloric intake is dependent on the many factors we have discussed.  I also hope you can use the calculations above and the charts below to estimate the Caloric intake of your horse’s current diet and determine if it’s adequate for his needs.

Here are some Caloric values of common forages and whole grains:

Table 4:

Equine Nutrition Nerd_Calories in Feed StuffHere are some common feed brands and their Caloric values per pound.  There is no way to list them all so it’s not complete but you should be able to determine what feed listed might be similar to what you are feeding:

HappyHorseHealthyPlanet_Calories in Common Feed Brands

So weigh your horse, figure out the Activity Level (Table 1), get out your calculators, determine his Caloric needs using charts 2 & 3, figure out the Calories in your feedstuff (Tables 4 & 5), then add it all up. Easy right?

New home

It really is, and I hope you do it so you will be able to understand why your horse is getting too fat, or to thin, or putters out before the end of your trail ride or lesson and how it’s related to Calories..

NOTE: You should weigh your feed stuff in pounds to use these charts so here is another chart to help you figure that out in case your scoop is in quarts.  If you are not using a scoop (coffee can?) then you need to weigh the amount of feed you feed on a scale!

Grain or Feed

Lbs. per Qt

Barley (whole)


Barley (ground)


Beet Pulp


Corn Meal




Linseed Meal




Oats (whole)


Oats (ground)


Soybeans (ground)


Wheat (ground)


Pelleted Feed (1/8 diameter)


Pelleted Feed (1/4 diameter)


Sweet Feed


See ! You are now officially a member of the Equine Nutrition Nerds

Happy Horse Healthy Girl

Let me know if you have any questions, good luck!

Peace and Good Feed,

~The Nerd


4 thoughts on “Counting Calories in the Equine Diet

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