Why Feed Pellets For Horses?

In Feed by Larry Uelk4 Comments

larry UlekSoon after I joined the feed business, some 38 years ago, I attended a meeting where the advantages of feeding pellets to hogs were discussed.

Later, when questions were allowed, I asked if the same nutritional advantages were available to horses.

“Yes”, was the nutritionist’s answer, “. . .

But most horse owners will never consider feeding a pellet!”

Today, however, a good nutritionist could formulate a pelleted food that would be equal, if not superior to, any “grain mixture” available.

Many horse owners are attending seminars and are learning about new feeding concepts. The results have usually been astounding!

We know more about horse nutrition than ever.

Yet, the major impact on equine nutrition has simply been the feeding of a good quality pellet. “Good quality” is the key.

Just as there are sweet feeds less valuable than the packages
they are in, the same can be stated about pellets.

However, a well respected nutritionist was once asked,

“How do you differentiate between one pellet and another?”

He answered,

“Simply know the caloric value.
That is the primary differentiating characteristic between feeds.”

Of course, there are secondary issues too but the “heart” of any food is the energy value. This is information usually not on a tag but must be obtained from the manufacturer.

The amount of energy should determine the amount of:

  • vitamins
  • minerals
  • protein
  • fiber in the remainder of the pellet.


Simply put, pellets are better for most horses because the ingredients are “cooked” and, therefore, more digestible. Just as certain cooked foods are more digestible to humans, the same may be said about horses. Pellets usually cost less than other food-forms of equal nutritional value.

They are especially beneficial when fed to older horses
(they often do not have good teeth).

An Ohio client once stated that his horse frequently ate its own manure when fed a texturized horse feed but never ate it when fed a pelleted horse feed.

Why do you think that is? A horse chews food just long enough to swallow the “bolus”.

With texturized feeds, some of that food travels the entire digestive tract without ever being utilized. The reason is it was not thoroughly chewed in the first place.

Non-digested food particles, in fact, can cause havoc in the large intestine and cecum (hind gut) resulting in colic and laminitis.


Take an ounce of pellets, drop it into a glass of water and, within seconds, it begins to dissolve.

Now, do the same with a “sweet” feed.

Many customers are amazed at the growth of their horses after switching to a good, pelleted diet. The horses are finally getting the maximum food value from the food they are eating.

This is the primary “secret” behind the better “senior” diets on the market.


Pelleted feed is made by grinding grains, adding minerals and heat-resistant vitamins, and combining these elements with steam to make a mash.

This mash is processed through a pellet mill. This circular device, approximately 3-4 feet tall and weighing several hundred pounds, contains thousands of small-diameter openings (usually 1/4inch).

The mash is forced through these openings.

This creates friction, which raises the temperature of the mix to up to 180°. This grinding and cooking procedure processes nutrients so that pellets are more digestible than straight or textured grains.

This is an advantage to all horses.

True, at one time, there may have been vitamin degradation. Today, however, vitamins often are designed to withstand the pelleting process and dissolve only in the digestive environment.

If the pellet is “complete-with-roughage “, it also contains a high-fiber source.

Generally speaking, this means that supplemental hay is not required (if fed correctly).

Often, a couple of pounds of hay are also recommended.Horses enjoy chewing so let’s give them something they enjoy doing. Pellets tend to make adding supplements easier because the horse (usually) cannot selectively pick or avoid additives, as it can with grains. In addition, horses do not tend to waste pellets as they do textured or straight grains.

It is generally advised to never feed more than
six pounds of pellets per feeding.

  • Pellets do not have the variability problems seen in textured feeds containing molasses.
  • Pellets neither attract flies nor lose their freshness as readily as textured feeds do.
  • Certainly, there are obvious storage and handling advantages with pellets over textured grains.
  • Also, they do not freeze in the bag.


The disadvantages of pellets should also be known, for all factors are important in deciding whether to switch to pellets or not.

a_1_number-40percentsizeGIFIt is imperative that the reputation and integrity of the company producing the pellet be of the highest caliber.


Horse owners can no longer check the “appearance” quality of the feed.
One pellet looks about the same as any other, and by sight, feel, and smell you cannot tell if the pellet contains a good quality protein or a high level of digestible energy.

You are placing more trust in the company you choose than you once did.

Look for a company that does not “least cost” or “best value”-cost formulas! I know of only a few companies that can make this claim.

Dr. John Hunt, an Indiana veterinarian, once said that

“The horse’s hind gut is challenged enough without feed companies
“playing” around with the formula!”

Why do some feed companies least-cost formulate?

It reduces cost and increases margins. Any company that claims otherwise is not telling the truth.

2_number40percentGIF You must find out the guaranteed number of digestible calories, per pound, of the food you are considering using.

Is this important?

Dr. David Dzanis, a consulting nutritionist, has said that “. . . a statement of caloric content is perhaps the most important piece of nutritional information that can be put on a label, since all other nutrient requirements are based on caloric intake.

It helps the owner and veterinarian make better informed decisions as to the type and amount of food to offer, and allows for meaningful comparisons.”

However, most horse owners know nothing about the energy value of their feeds and it has little to do with the percentage of protein.

Reputable feed companies will tell you the digestible energy level (referred to as D.E.) of their products.

If a company does not know this level, will not tell you, or quotes only “gross” energy instead of D.E., . . . be suspicious.

Also, knowing the energy value “per cup” is irrelevant.
This primarily is an indication of the density of the food.

Calories per pound is the key! Certainly, there is more information that could be included in this article but space is limited.


Personally, I prefer a large round cube be fed as opposed to a ¼” or 3/8” pellet.

The slower the horse eats the pellet, the better for the horse’s health and digestion.

If only smaller pellets are available, then never feed them at a depth exceeding ½”. This forces the horse to lick the product, slowing the intake, and emulating more of a grazing pattern.

Have a specific question you want answered?

You may reach me at ewelarry @

Or just leave a comment below…

I will do my best to answer your question or recommend another source.

Guest Author : Larry Uelk


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    My 10 year old granddaughter has a 41 year old horse. The horse was given to her 4 years ago (2011), the day before he was to be put down.
    I currently have the horse on a diet of 1 gal. equine senior, and 1 gal. rolled oats. 2 times a day. (4 gal. total) He is currently running out with another horse on 5 acres of knee deep grass and free choice to a round bale of alfalfa. I have been giving him a supplement to keep his gut active. The horse was named ” M&M” because he love the candies M & M. We have his teeth worked on and wormed every 6 months. I know D day is coming, but for the time being he is doing great. We are getting to the point that working on his teeth is a mute issue. Is there anything we could do better or different to push D day back as far as we can? He is still ride able for her. We check cattle and do light exercise at no more than a brisk walk. We do not compete in the arena as he used to run barrels and poles. He would probably try too hard and hurt himself. This is one great gentleman!! Thank you, Larry McVey

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    I have a newly adopted ten year old Paso Fino. He was neglected and is under weight. After a week, I found him cribbing. He was given sweet feed and I am wanting to ween him off of it. What kind of pellet should I use? I live near Tractor Supply. Are their products safe? He does have access to a pasture full of nice grass. However, he seems afraid to go out there alone or for a long time. He runs back into the barn.

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    Are the oats coming out in his poop still whole? If they are I would cut the out very slowly! I have older horses to and there not digesting the oats at all, so I am also looking into other pelleted feeds. Beet pulp is a good fiber filling feed, but it does need to be soaked. Gosh 41! That is great! But with a horse that old change hi over very, slowly like I said before, any great change could cause a serious if not deadly colic in the old boy. Thanks and please write back and let me know how he is! JLE. Diamond J Ranch

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    I have a barrel horse that is a bleeder, I was told pellets or cubes helps the respiratory tract. He is run between 3 to 5 days a week. What is recommendation and how much?

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