Most horse diets are primarily composed of hay. There are different types of hay that serve different purposes, but before we dive into forage, I think it’s important to go over why we feed hay in the first place.
Horses are hind-gut fermenters. This means that horses get their energy from Volatile Fatty Acids (VFAs); something that is a byproduct of them digesting structural carbohydrates. What is a structural carbohydrate? They are exactly what they sound like. Plants need structure in order to do their thing…like we need bones. Therefore, the “bones” of plants are the structural carbohydrates. Some examples of these are cellulose, pectins, and hemicellulose.
Whats more important is the following question. What are the structural carbohydrates we can feed? Forage. Now, hay isn’t the only type of structural carbohydrate you can give a horse, but it is the most common. Let’s go over that first.
Hay is separated into legumes and grasses. Alfalfa is the most popular legume fed to horses. Here is a picture of good quality alfalfa:
You can tell it’s good hay because you can see plentiful flower, it’s green, and leafy. Alfalfa is a good source or protein, calcium, and generally just high in energy. This hay is generally fed to a horse in heavy work, or uses a lot of energy (example: lactating mares). It is important to buy horse-quality alfalfa hay.
Grass hay is probably what you think of when you think of hay. This is a really common forage to feed your horse, but the quality can vary greatly. Grass hay is generally less energy dense, so you don’t have to worry about your horse getting “hot” off of grass hay. Good quality grass hay is also determine on the flower and the length of stem. There’s a lot of variability in grass hay, but if the hay has color to it, smells fresh, and has some flower to it, you’re good. Below is a good example:
There are also other kinds of forages you can feed your horse. There is combination hay, which combines alfalfa and grass in each flake. This feed regimen could make it easier on your horses gut, since the energy of each hay type “balances” out. Fodder is also another popular forage. This is actually a grown bed of grass that you feed to your horse. Fodder mimics a natural environment, since it’s literally grass and not hay. With that said, it could also lack the nutrients of land-grown grass.
There are pros and cons of every forage out there. If you are hesitant on what you should buy, ask a horse nutritionist or your vet! They are trained to look at your horse, their energy requirement, and the types of feeds out there.