Ponies aren’t horses. That means they can’t be fed the same way you would feed your horses. The obvious difference is in their smaller size, but ponies also tend to have more efficient metabolisms because they are designed to get maximum nutrition out of sparse coarse forage. They developed into tougher and more efficient keepers than most horses, and are adapted to conditions with harsher climates. Breeds such as Icelandic horses, miniatures, donkeys and mules are also hardier than horses and require their own specialized diets.
Basic requirements - Many horses only require a good quality forage, salt, minerals and constant access to clean water to maintain good condition. Ponies and easy keepers are best kept on lower quality forage (in terms of protein, energy and nutrient levels). A sparse pasture or quality grass hay is the major component of a pony’s diet. The pasture should be one in which the ponies have to work at finding the grass. They also require salt and mineral supplements (which can be free-fed in a loose crushed form), and access to clean fresh water.
Managing forage - An excellent idea for pasture is to try to reproduce conditions similar to those in which the breed originated. Add in dirt and/or gravel areas and sparsely use native grasses. All equids (horses, ponies, donkeys) prefer to eat small amounts of food steadily throughout the day. Six or seven hours of grazing per day on healthy dryland pasture can meet all their nutritional requirements. It is far better for ponies to be outside on pasture, but when or where there is none available, hay becomes the main feed. Generally, forages may be fed based on weight, about one pound of forage for every 100 pounds of body weight. Many people successfully keep their ponies in a bare-land pasture and supplement with hay. Multiple feedings throughout the day help keep the pony’s digestive tract healthy. Get your hay analyzed, then add supplements to correct it to what is needed. Some will add straw to a pony’s diet to increase bulk, but this should be limited to 10% of the total ration. Chaff is a mixture of chopped straw and added molasses for palatability. Like straw, it can be a good source of bulk but again should be limited to about 10% of the total ration. Feeding too much poor quality fill will deprive the pony of sufficient nutrients.
Pony power – supplements and concentrates - Ponies don’t usually require concentrates, and grain can present unnecessary amounts of sugar and starch. A hard working pony or lactating mare may need some extra supplementation, but first increase the amount of forage and then provide a higher quality forage or hay. Beet pulp, which is lower in energy than grain, can be a good addition. If more energy is required, some oil can be added to top up the pony’s diet. If a hard working pony needs concentrates, a ratio of no more than 30% concentrates to 70% forage is recommended. Most commercial concentrates are designed for horses and will often provide insufficient nutrition at the small serving sizes needed for ponies. The added nutrients are too dilute for the amount required in smaller feedings. If a pony requires concentrates, feed and supplements designed especially for ponies should be used. These feeds may be referred to as pony mix or “lite” feed. If the pony’s coat starts to lose condition, she may need a protein supplement. Soybean meal can provide good quality protein without adding calories.
The downside of diets - We know being overweight is not beneficial for any animal and leads to a variety of problems. However, putting any animal on a feed reduced diet isn’t the answer and could create a situation in which the pony is being starved of nutrients. Caloric restriction, as well as not being able to feed for a sufficient time during the day, leads to problems that often manifest as behavioral issues. Instead, feed a good low quality hay throughout the day and increase the pony’s exercise program.
Keeping track - It is important to track your pony’s condition carefully. If you are unsure they are the correct weight, check them against a body condition scale. You can also measure their “heart girth” with a tape measure. In general, 30” corresponds to about 70 pounds. Multiply every additional inch by 13 pounds and add it to the original 70 pounds. Ponies are tough little animals. They have their own requirements and thrive in conditions similar to those they evolved for. Otherwise, they may require more management and their caretakers may need some help ensuring they are getting sufficient nutrients. It’s always worth getting your pasture and hay tested so you can balance your pony’s rations. Keeping them on a natural healthy diet and ensuring they get lots of exercise means they will stay happy and healthy.