Anyone with any involvement with equines will have some understanding of the vast amount of diets available now on the market. Like human athletes, horses in work have more specific dietary and energy needs to ensure their optimum health and balance. If their food and energy levels are not correct it can result in poor performance, which of course is undesirable! This article will explore what is meant by ‘heating’ and ‘non-heating’ feeds and when they are used.  

What is ‘heating’ (sometimes ‘heated’) feed?

The term ‘heating’ when in relation to horse feeds does not mean that the actual food has been ‘warmed up’, but rather reflects the consequence of feeding certain feeds. Diets that are high in starch and sugar generate a ‘heating’ effect when they are rapidly digested and quickly become readily available as an energy source in the bloodstream. The higher the starch, the faster the energy release will be.

Oats are a common ingredient in many high energy horse feeds

Oats fall into the category of ‘heating’ feeds because of the effect that they can have on horses that eat them. Many horse owners also feed ‘coarse mixes’ containing a high amount of cereals which give a quick-release energy source. I suppose feeding higher energy feeds to horses is the equivalent of giving candy to children! Cereal grains are classed as moderate to low quality protein sources and as mentioned above, they are mostly included in a horse’s diet for energy; but they do provide protein and amino acids.

Horses which are regularly fed oats are often considered quite ‘hot headed’ and ‘fizzy’ and generally have greater energy levels. Additionally, feeding high quantities of oats or cereals can cause horses to be excessively exuberant and sharp. This behaviour may well be desirable, particularly in athletic horses which experience regular intense exercise such as racehorses. The more work they do the more energy they require. This is why racehorses are regularly fed high amounts of cereals.

It is very important to selectively feed diets based on the desirable energy levels

Furthermore, you wouldn’t want to feed a non-competing children’s pony excessive amounts of heated feeds. This is because it may result in undesirable behaviours by giving them too much energy; making them potentially more difficult to handle and ride!

If non-athletic horses with low exercise levels are fed ‘heating’ feeds this can also be detrimental to their health. Feeding higher energy feeds inappropriately can result in obesity. 

What is ‘non-heating’ feed?

In contrast, a ‘non-heating’ feed is one that is less likely to produce excitable behaviour in horses when fed in appropriate amounts. Following on from our discussion about race horses having high energy needs due to their huge expenditure, retired racehorses differ. Retired racehorses no longer in work need lower energy levels to ensure maintenance and this can be sourced from ‘non-heating’ feeds containing oils and fibres as the main source of energy. A horse fed a lower energy diet may have more roughage in their diet which still remains a good source of protein. It is also popular for horse owners to feed ‘balancers’ and they contribute a small amount of energy, starch and sugar to their diet, meaning that they too have no ‘heating’ effect. 


To conclude, I hope that this article has provided more of an insight into heating and non-heating feeds. The biggest difference is that heating feeds result in horses receiving a diet much higher in energy compared to non-heating feeds. It’s all about the energy – not the protein! Diets higher in energy should only be fed to horses that are undergoing intense exercise or work levels, otherwise it can result in obesity and potentially undesirable excitable behaviours.