Feeding Horses in Idaho

Feeding Horses in Idaho

Since every nutrient in the feed relates either directly or indirectly to every one of the vital organs, it is impossible to address them all in one article, so I’ll start with the basics...proteins.


The Zamzow family has been feeding horses in the high deserts of the Western United States for over a hundred years. Camelita Zamzow moved to Idaho at the turn of the last century and settled in Meridian, Idaho where our feed mill is still in operation. I used to delight in listening to Grandma Z tell stories about the farm, her personal garden and the horses that they used for everything from transportation to working the fields.

One of the things that I found of particular interest was the care and feeding of the horses. We have discovered over the years that high desert soils (which is what we have in Southern Idaho and Eastern Oregon) pose unique problems in the health and feeding of horses.

Protein is the first and probably the most discussed element in nutrition. When digested, protein breaks down into absorbable compounds called peptides, polypeptides, and amino acids. The body then uses these compounds to manufacture the protein containing tissues which are primarily bone, muscle, organs, and connective tissues. Protein compounds are also used in the manufacture of hormones, enzymes, and bodily fluids.

Balancing Proteins

The problems we encounter with proteins in horse feeding are not one of quantity but of balance. Not all proteins are alike. The body requires some two dozen or so essential amino acids (which we get from foods) and a myriad of non-essential amino acids that in most cases it can connect from the essential ones. If any one of the essential amino acids is missing from an animal’s food, they will manifest some defects in body structure or functions. Since horses are primarily grazers and not browsers, their natural diet consists mostly of grass and assorted broad leaf plants most of us call weeds. If a horse is allowed to range large areas he can generally find a balance of proteins for good health.

A Horse’s Primary Feed Should be Quality Grass

The problems occur when we domesticate a horse, keep them in a confined area and limit his feed to pasture and what we give him in the form of hay and grain or mixed feed. In these cases, it is the horse owner’s responsibility to ensure protein balance and quantity.

Contrary to many opinions, alfalfa ( Lucerne as it is called in Europe and the southern hemisphere) is not a good stand-alone diet for horses. Alfalfa is an excellent source of some nutrients but extremely out of balance for a horse. A horse’s primary feed should be good quality grass, and everything else, including alfalfa, should be used as a supplement to fortify the diet. These things should all be considered when choosing a feed for your horse.