Counting Calories: How to Calculate The Number of Calories Your Horse is Consuming in a Day

My horse is getting three scoops of feed a day and all the hay they want but they’re not gaining weight.

My horse is only getting two scoops of grain and still is overweight.

My horse is an Olympic athlete but always seems to fatigue at a certain point in competition.

Have you said to yourself any of these statements? If so, it might be time to evaluate how many calories your horse is consuming vs how many they should be consuming.

The importance of measuring your feed

Equine feed companies have feeding recommendations printed on the tags or bags of feed they manufacture. These feeding recommendations are based on feeding horses by their body weight (BW). This allows for consistency among the feed and several different types of horses to be on one feed. If you are feeding “per scoop” knowing how many pounds or kilograms of feed per scoop will allow you to understand just how much feed your horse is getting, and thus how the number of calories your horse is actually consuming.

Feeding by “scoops” isn’t accurate unless you know how many pounds or kilograms of feed goes into each scoop. Just like not all horses are created equal, not all scoops are either. Several people use the “coffee can method” or use a feed scoop they bought from the store. Whichever way you measure your grain, knowing the weight of your scoop will benefit your horse in the long-run.

Calculating Calories

Some equine feed bags will offer the (kilo/Mega)calories per pound or kilogram, but if your feed tag doesn’t provide that information, contacting your feed representative or your equine nutritionist will be the best option. To calculate the calories your horse is getting, start by measuring your feed.

But what if I don’t have a scale? Fishing scales are relatively cheap to purchase and can be found on amazon, they’re also very easy to stow away in a feed room or hang up on the barn wall for easy access. Another option, a bathroom scale. It might not be as accurate but if you have one in the house it can be used. Once you weigh the feed you can multiply however many pounds you are feeding by the calorie count.

Below is a step by step visual on how to measure the grain.

Materials needed: bucket, feed scoop, scale and a place to record the values.

Materials needed: bucket, feed scoop, scale, and a place to record the values.Step one: Place empty bucket on scale and tare the weight so that it reads “zero” when the bucket is on the scale. If using a fishing scale measure the bucket weight and record it for later. If using a bathroom scale, measure the bucket weight and record for later.





Step two: Measuring the feedScoop the grain into the bucket, however much you have been feeding. Not all grain weighs the same, and if you have multiple types of grain they will all need to be measured and recorded.

 Step three: Record the weight of the grain onto a sheet of paper and dump the grain back into the feed bag. If using a fishing scale or bathroom scale, take the new weight with the grain and subtract the previous weight to get the weight of the grain.

Step four: Repeat steps 1-3 for all grain.


HAY: In a similar fashion, measuring the hay is just as important if not more. Hay, forage or fiber makes up the majority of a horse’s diet since they are hindgut fermenters. Concentrated feed or grain is supplemented for added nutrients and calories that the hay/forage may be lacking.

Step one: If you have access to a hay net measure the empty net onto a portable hay scale or fishing scale and record that for later. It may help to use a muck tub or bucket to hold the hay net open but should not be used in the final value of the hay measurement.

Step two: Measure out how much hay you feed your horse into the net. Hook that hay net onto the hay scale. Record that value.

Step three: Take the second value (hay net with hay) and subtract the first value (hay net) from it.

Step four: Record the weight of the hay and the type of hay if you don’t have an analysis done. The National Research Council (NRC) has values set up for different forages at various levels (grazing grasses, dried alfalfa hay, etc).

Tidbit: If you provide your forage at free choice then an easy estimate of the rate in which the hay is consumed can be measured through calculating 1% of your horse’s body weight (BW) equals how many pounds of forage your horse is consuming in hay. The same can be calculated if your horse is turned out for half the day on properly managed pasture. This is for the average horse, every horse is unique and may consume more than 1%.

Importance of a hay analysis

While this isn’t always a necessary step, having the analysis done on large quantities of hay gives a more accurate value for Mcals your horse(s) is consuming. Hay and forage are the foundation of a horse’s diet and having that baseline as accurate as possible will allow for a better feeding program to layer on top.

A hay analysis can be an important tool when managing horses with metabolic diseases. Knowing what the Nonstructural Carbohydrates (NSC, starch + sugar) in the hay or pasture can better help owners tackle the grain portion of the feeding program.

Below is an example of a hay analysis done on some round bales in Wisconsin back in 2019.

Hay AnalysisAt the top is the lab where the analysis is performed.

The date, and the sample number.

Dry matter is used to calculate DE.

This starts all the measured nutrients the hay has to offer.

Hemicellulose is non-digestible fiber. Having a lower value for this makes for “better quality” hay.

Calcium to Phosphorus should be in a ratio range of 1-2:1.

Sugar ESC vs WSC: ESC has only simple sugars. WSC has fructans and simple sugars.

NSC is calculated by adding the Sugars and Starch that was tested for.

“Equine DE”: is the main value to be looked at for calculating calories of the hay (Mcal/lb).

Final Calculation:

The weight of the grain multiplied by the value of Kcals/Mcals = how many calories your horse is consuming in grain.

The weight of the hay multiplied by the value of Kcals/Mcals = how many calories your horse is consuming in hay.

Add these two values together and that is how many Kcals/Mcals your horse is consuming a day.

Below is a table found on the Kentucky Equine Research website. It represents the Body Weight in kilograms (there are 2.2 pounds in one kilogram) and how many Mcals (Megacalories) in Digestible Energy are recommended per day.

Example 1: Taking what was measured in the step by step photos lets calculate how many calories this imaginary horse is consuming a day from grain “X” and the alfalfa cubes.

Horse information: 14 year old Quarter Horse under moderate work weighing in at 500kg (1100#) with a BCS of 4.5.

This horse needs 24.6 Mcal of energy per day. From the grain that was measured at 2.701# fed twice daily and the forage measuring at 2.684# fed three times daily, is this horse getting enough?

2.701# x 2 = 5.402# 5.402# x 1800 Kcals = 9723.6Kcals from the grain
2.684# x 3 = 8.052# 8.052# x 960Kcals = 7729.92Kcals from the forage
9723.6 + 7729.92 = 17453.52 Kcals divided by 1000 = 17.454 Mcal
This horse is getting well below the number of calories needed to maintain an ideal Body Condition Score (BCS).
Example 2: Still taking what was measured up top, totaling at 17.454 Mcal.
Horse information: 8 year old Arabian horse considered at maintenance weighing in at 450kg (1000#) with a BCS of 7.
This horse needs 14.9 Mcals per day of energy and using the same feeding from before this horse would be getting well over the number of calories.
Continuing with Example 2 how do we help this horse to lose weight in a healthy way? Read the newsletter titled Are You Loving Your Horse to Death?

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