When most riders and horse owners think about feeding their horse, their mind often jumps first to grain. Think about switching barns, going to a horse show, or trying a new feed store—you often think, “I wonder if they’ll have my brand.” Perhaps it’s because horse owners are often involved in selecting their horse’s grain, while hay is just sort of “there.” Or maybe it’s because grain is more similar to kibble, so we think of it as being the same as feeding our dogs. Or, perhaps more likely, it’s because there are so many companies advertising grain that it’s always top of mind. While grain may be top of mind for horse owners, it’s actually forage that should be the foundation of every horse’s diet.
But What Actually Is Forage?
In basic terms, forage refers to the edible parts of plants that are eaten by grazing livestock, like your horse. (We promise this is the first and last time we’ll ever refer to your horse as “livestock.”)
Finding The Right Forage
The foundation of your horse’s diet can be made up of fresh forage (grass pasture), cut and dried forage (hay), or a combination of the two, depending on your horse’s individual needs. Let’s walk through the most common forage types and discuss the pros and cons of each.
Fresh Grass: Your horse was designed to spend most of the day constantly taking in small amounts of a variety of pasture plants, so fresh grass is the closest to your horse’s natural feed source. It’s also got key minerals and essential fatty acids, making it an ideal feed source. However, fresh grass is also very high in simple carbohydrates (sugars and starches), meaning that it may not be the best choice for “easy keepers” (horses that are overweight), those prone to founder, or horses with endocrine, metabolic, or other disorders. (You might be thinking, “c’mon, fat horses are cute!” but unfortunately, it’s not cute. A recent study¹ found that as many as 50% of horses and ponies are obese, which can have serious impacts on a horse’s soundness and overall health.)
Legume Hay: When cut and dried to make hay, legumes like alfalfas and clovers produce a very high-quality hay that can have great health benefits when fed appropriately. Because legume hay is much more calorie- and protein-dense than grass hay, it should be fed in moderation, and is usually best used as part of the diet of performance horses who have increased demand for energy. Otherwise, like fresh pasture, in excess it can contribute to obesity.
Grass Hay: Grass hay provides the minerals of fresh grass, and the long stem forage your horse needs for healthy digestion and weight maintenance, with fewer concerns about contributing to obesity. This makes it a popular choice for barns serving a variety of horses, because for many horses it can be given free choice throughout the day, with little management required.
*Note: it’s certainly fine to mix grass and legume hay, but if you do, we recommend mixing in both at every serving, rather than alternating between meals. This will provide the most consistent digestive experience for your horse, and consistent digestion is healthy digestion!
How Much Forage Does My Horse Need?
We refer to forage as the foundation of your horse’s diet because, at a base level, horses should be eating 1–2% of their bodyweight in forage every day. For a 1,000 lb horse, that’s at least 10–20 lbs of forage per day. You’ll notice that when it comes to measuring out your horse’s forage, we’re speaking in l-b-s, not f-l-a-k-e-s. That’s because all bales are not created equal. Even if you’re just getting a new cut of hay from the same field you used earlier this year, the density of the bales and flakes might have changed. That’s why our Staff Veterinarian and Medical Director, Dr. Lydia Gray, always recommends weighing your hay whenever you get a new cut.
Dr. Gray’s preferred method is to use a hanging scale, like the kind you see at the fish market, or the ones you can buy to weigh your luggage at home. Whenever you get a new delivery of hay, have someone in the barn weigh a few flakes from a few different bales throughout the load, and use those results to calculate an average. From there, it’s simple math!” For example, if your horse weighs 1,000 lbs and you weigh your hay and find that the average flake is about two pounds, you’d need to feed 5–10 flakes over the course of the day to meet your horse’s 1–2% bodyweight requirement of 10–20 lbs of forage per day.
Hidden Dangers: Hay Changes
Consistency is the name of the game when it comes to feeding for digestive health. Because modern horses were limited to the distance they could travel on their own four hooves, they experienced changes in pastures very gradually, giving their digestive systems time to adapt.
However, modern horse owners often change their horse’s forage rapidly, whether through moving to a new barn or buying hay from a new farmer. Unfortunately, rapid changes in forage are a risky business.
Sudden changes in hay—including switching to a new cut from the same field—can cause a 10X increase in your horse’s risk of colic! And the risks don’t stop there. Digestive disruption can contribute to everything from mild diarrhea to laminitis and founder. That’s why it’s important to make changes to your horse’s diet as slowly as possible.
Spreading The Love
Horses weren’t designed to eat large, infrequent meals. That’s something we introduced into their lives, because it’s how our meals are traditionally structured. Eating large, infrequent meals doesn’t cause problems for us humans, because our stomachs only produce gastric acid once we start eating. But when it comes to your horse, he was designed to be a “trickle feeder,” spending most of his day (10–17 hours) slowly grazing. As a result, his stomach is constantly producing gastric acid, whether there’s food there to digest or not. When paired with infrequent meals, this is a recipe for tummy trouble.
Hidden Dangers: Tummy Troubles
Normally as horses graze, their bicarbonate-rich saliva mixes with the long-stem forage they’re consuming and protects the sensitive stomach lining from the corrosive effects of this gastric acid. But the longer a horse’s stomach sits empty and unprotected in between large meals, the more at risk he is for developing gastric ulcers. Plus, the lower portion of the stomach (where gastric acid is actually produced) is lined with glandular mucosa. Not only is this lining built to withstand the harsh effects of stomach acid, it also produces bicarbonate and mucus as an added layer of protection. The upper portion of the stomach is lined with nonglandular mucosa, which is less able to hold up to acid exposure and does not produce protective material like mucus and bicarb, making it that much more important to feed small meals frequently or allow grazing.
Putting It All Together
Focusing on forage as the foundation of your horse’s diet is a smart way to help keep him happy and healthy. Smart management of your horse’s forage intake will have wide-ranging impacts on his health — from weight maintenance and overall body condition to supporting healthy, normal functions throughout his delicate digestive system. That’s why it’s worth the investment of time, energy, and attention to focus on forage first.
Focus On Forage:
1. Forage is the foundation of your horse’s diet.
2. Aim to feed at least 1–2% of your horse’s bodyweight in forage every day.
3. Make changes as gradually as possible, and consider providing daily digestive support.
4. Keep forage in front of your horse for as much of the day as you can.
Courtesy of SmartPak