We’ve all heard the saying “forage or hay is the most important part of a horses diet”. Let’s take a closer look at the different types of forages and feeding methods that will not only keep your horse healthy, but your pocketbook happy too!
As herbivores and “hindgut fermenters”, horses are designed to graze from 15 to 20hrs each day. The horse’s hindgut is like a giant fermentation vat and consists of the caecum and colon (large and small). Billions of bacteria and protozoa (probiotics) live in this portion of the digestive tract. These microorganisms work together to break down (ferment) plant fiber from forage. The hindgut makes up over 65% of the digestive system, so it is easy to see why “forage is the most important part of your horses diet”.
Forage types vary widely depending on where you live and can be divided into two categories: legumes and grasses. Legume forages mainly consist of Clover, Birdsfoot Treefoil and Alfalfa. These forages have higher protein values, higher calories and lower sugar content than your “cool season grasses”. Legumes are great for hard working horses that need additional calories for weight management and proteins (amino acids) for muscle recovery.
Common grass forages here in the US are Timothy, Rye, Orchard and Bermuda. Timothy, Rye and Orchard are also referred to “cool season” grass forages. These varieties typically grow well in the Midwest portion of the US and are common in pasture environments. Bermuda forage is known as “warm season” grass and is more common to the Southwestern part of the United States. Grass forages typically have a lower calorie content and may be good choices for “easy keeper” horses.
Often farmers will mix seed varieties in order to harvest a more versatile crop that appeals to horse owners. Mixed forages can be any combination of grass/legume plant varieties including but not limited to (50/50, 60/40 or 80/20).
Choosing the right forage is important not only because it’s the largest part of your horses diet, but also because it can vary significantly in protein, calories, sugar/starch and digestibility. Lastly, forage is economical in comparison to grains, concentrates, supplements and complete feeds. Below are common examples of average percentages and calories based on data from Equi-Analytical Laboratories. More information on forage analysis check may be found here.
To fully understand the horses forage requirements, we’ll need to know the animal’s breed, age, body condition score (BCS) and activity level. All of these factors play a significant role in determining what type of forage is ideal for your situation.
Horses require a minimum of 1.5% of their bodyweight in forage consumption per day with an ideal consumption of 2%. That’s to say a 1,000 lb. horse should consume between 15-20 lbs. of forage per day.
Let’s look at some case study examples below:
1) The Thoroughbred is eating 2.6% of his bodyweight and is still below the ideal BCS of a 5. He’s approaching the max capacity that a horse can eat (3% of bodyweight) in a 24hr period. This horse is probably in full training in addition to being a hard-keeper. Changing him from a grass only diet to a mixed hay forage that incorporates alfalfa, will allow him to meet his calorie requirements with about 23 lbs. of hay/day (2.1% of bodyweight). That’s a savings 1,460 lbs. of hay/yr. or approximately 130 small square bales. He will not only meet his calorie and fiber requirements more efficiently, but the overall sugar/starch (NSC) is reduced and the amino acids for muscle recovery are increased – not to mention the additional savings in forage costs to you.
2) Our Quarter Horse has the opposite problem. She is an easier-keeper with a BCS of 7 and not receiving the minimum requirement of forage/day. She’s eating a high calorie alfalfa diet but the owner has reduced the amount of forage because she’s overweight. “Easy keeper” horses have the same minimum forage requirement as “hard keepers” though. By changing this mare to a grass only diet we can control her calories while keeping her digestive system functioning optimally with 15 lbs. of grass hay/day. If we need additional proteins for muscle recovery, we simply add in a Ration Balancer or Amino Acid Supplement.
3) The Arabian is receiving the minimum recommended allowance for forage at 1.5% of his bodyweight. With an ideal BCS of 5, this horses daily requirements for calories are being met. Minor micronutrient gaps may be improved by adding a low calorie Ration Balancer to this diet. No changes are needed in his forage intake.
“It’s simply beyond my control”
Sometimes forage quality or quantity is not something that we can control. In boarding situations or certain parts of the US (Florida in particular) forage quality, variety and availability may be challenging. Forage types may change on a monthly, weekly or even daily schedule. Because the microbial population is dependent on a consistent forage supply and variety, these frequent changes may lead to digestive upset. Horses in these situations benefit from a daily probiotic/prebiotic to help improve fiber digestion and reduce digestive upset. When forage is beyond your control, there are some options.
Option 1: For easy-keeper or “piggy” type horses receiving an overabundance of high-calorie forage, you may want to try a slow feed hay net (openings of 2″ or less)*. These devices will slow the consumption rate and extend your horses eating experience, often eliminating boredom and reducing calorie overload . Slow feed hay nets are also a great way to save money by minimizing waste and reducing the occurrence of ulcers in horses. The continued chewing of forage creates saliva which helps to buffer the stomach. *Caution: holes that are too small will frustrate your horse (1.5″ – 2″ is ideal for a normal size horse).
Hang your slow feed net low enough that you horse can still eat in a natural grazing position, but not so low that they can get a hoof stuck in the net. Be sure the “tail” of the net is not dangling where a hoof can get stuck either.
Option 2: For horses that are getting too much high-calorie forage you may choose to use a grazing muzzle. These may be used in a pasture environment or in a stall. Grazing muzzles are a great way to limit pasture intake or hay intake without hindering your horses turnout time. Grazing muzzles come in a wide variety of styles and sizes. Here is the sizing chart for the Best Friend Deluxe Grazing Muzzle.
In a boarding situation where horses are receiving poor quality forage or lacking in quantity, you can add forage extenders to their diets. These products can be fed as a lunch feeding or in conjunction with your horses normal dining routine. Forage extenders include hay cubes and chopped forages (hay pellets are not a good forage alternatives, as they do not offer the “long stem” fiber that is needed by the caecum). Forage extenders will help to ensure your horse is receiving adequate quantities of high quality and consistent forage even if the facility doesn’t offer it.
Sourcing the optimal forage for your horse’s BCS, activity level and breed will not only benefit his/her digestive system, but it will reduce the overload on your pocketbook. Forage significantly reduces the starch load in comparison to grains/feeds, reduces the instances of ulcers and improves GI motility. Looking at the total cost/day/head of your supplements, feeds and forages is the best way to determine the savings to your bottom line.