Forages are long-stem plants and include pasture, hay (cut and dried plants) and haylage (cut and fermented plants). They typically provide the bulk of the equine diet and for good reason. The horse’s digestive system, with its well-developed cecum and large colon full of microbial organisms – or hindgut – is designed to digest and ferment these high-fibre plants to provide useful nutrients.
The fragile ecosystem of the horse’s hindgut needs a constant influx of fibre and it is well recognized that diets low in fibrous plant material can increase a horse’s risk of digestive upset such as colic. In feral horse populations, and even many domesticated populations, animals will spend up to 70 per cent of their day “foraging” and eating plant material as they meander around their location.
Horses not provided with longstem forages tend to be at risk of developing undesirable behaviors, such as wood-chewing or cribbing, which are extremely rare in feral or semi-feral types of groups.
Perhaps the most important benefit of forage is its nutritional content. Good-quality forages can easily provide a horse with all the calories – or energy – he needs; most, if not all, of his protein requirements; and many minerals and vitamins.
Of course, the only way to really tell what nutrients your horse is getting is to have your forages analyzed. Hay and/or pasture analysis is readily available through private or government agricultural labs. With the resulting information, you can determine what, if any, additional nutrients he might need to balance out the rest of the diet.
Horses at pasture might only need to be supplemented with sodium and, perhaps, some copper, zinc and selenium. Because hay (or haylage) is dried and preserved, it can lose some of its vitamin content, so horses on hay should also be supplemented with vitamins A, D and E. These additional nutrients – if needed based on your horse’s requirements and the results from the hay/ pasture analysis – can be found in:
- ration balancers (that contain added protein as specific amino acids, typically fed in amounts less than 500 grams per day);
- vitamin-mineral supplements (fed typically at less than 100 grams per day);
- commercial concentrate feeds (that also contain energy/calories, typically fed in more than 500-kilogram amounts per day).
Therefore, forages do an excellent job of providing nutrition, fibre for hindgut health and stimulus to satisfy a horse’s natural grazing/foraging behavior.
Forage availability may be limited under certain conditions. Pasture may be dormant for much of the year but good management, including rotational grazing, during the growing season can increase its efficiency. This can maximize your reliance on pasture and, therefore, also decrease your need for hay. Hay may also be limited at times, so it is important to secure good quality supply well in advance. Finding a good hay supplier is key!
Hay storage is essential to minimize both dry matter losses, due to leaf shatter and weathering, and nutritional quality losses over time. Hay should be stored on pallets or rock pads to provide airflow underneath and kept out of the elements, covered securely with tarps if outside.
Ideally though, hay ought to be stored in a barn, preferably away from where horses are kept. Fire risk is decreased if hay is baled at less than 18 per cent moisture. The addition of preservatives such as propionic acid and anhydrous ammonia can also help minimize losses over time.
It is also important to reduce losses when feeding, as it has been estimated this can amount to more than $1,000 per year. The investment of hay feeders – mangers, tubs, hay nets, hay huts, etc. – are well worth it and typically pay for themselves within a year. Slow feeders are particularly useful for horses that might only be fed limited amounts of hay.
But what if your horse can’t eat hay or pasture? Or what if you can’t find any forage for them? And some horses have bad teeth or food sensitivities that prevent them from eating traditional long-stem hay or pasture. In many situations, more processed forages, such as haylage, hay cubes or hay pellets might be a good alternative. Haylage has a higher moisture content than hay and some horses may chew it better.
Hay cubes or pellets are essentially chopped up hay and can be fed in a weight-for-weight exchange. For example, if you feed five kilograms of hay, you can feed five kilograms of cubes. It is generally a good idea to soak hay cubes or pellets, especially if your horse’s teeth are in poor condition.
Chopped hay, or chaff, is also becoming more popular in North America. Sold in bags, it is preserved to ensure quality. These alternatives provide all the nutrition and digestive benefits of typical hay but might not provide the same behavioural benefits.
If horses are only eating hay cubes or chaff, for instance, it would be wise to consider feeding them five or more meals per day to spread out consumption. Owners may also get creative and use various slow feeders or toys to provide some environmental enrichment when feeding cubes or pellets.
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Other feeds may also be provided as fibre alternatives in situations where traditional forages may not be available or suitable. Beet pulp is an excellent high-fibre feed, that provides a great calorie source, a moderate amount of protein and some required minerals.
Soy hulls (or other hulls) are also high in fibre and can be included in a horse’s diet. Rice bran is an excellent source of calories and can also provide some fibre for digestive health.
However, if feeding any of these to your horse as the main fibre source, a qualified equine nutritionist should be consulted to help balance the rest of the diet. Some of these feeds can be high or low in some nutrients and an expert will quantify these nutrients in the diet and compare them to requirements.
Complete feeds are another alternative, and will include several forage alternatives as ingredients, but are already balanced by the feed company. These are designed so that other forages such as hay are not required to be fed to meet nutritional needs – the diet is “complete.”
Forages should always be considered first when formulating an equine diet, but other high-fibre forage alternatives may have their place.