Nutrition for Horses: Forage

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.



Nutrition for Horses: Base Diet

I was talking to one of my barn mates yesterday about feed regimens and trying to solve minor issues based on supplements. Which got me thinking….everyone probably has this same problem! Why not talk about it?

So I want to start a series on this blog about feeding your horse. Now, before I get into what I know, what I’ve studied, and what I’ve learned, I am in no way a professional. I’m just a fellow equestrian that has a degree in Equine Science, but I do not have a DVM or a PhD in nutrition. I don’t know as much as feed companies, or anyone that studies nutrition for a living. But what I do know is what I’ve done for my horse, what I’ve learned along the way, and what I do now. I can offer as much advice as I can, but please remember that this is in no way a professional opinion.

To get the ball rolling, let’s start about what horses would eat in without human interruption: grass. Wild horses eat about 65% grasses and about 35% shrubs. This is great to know, but our horses don’t live in the wild. They are kept in stalls, paddocks, and pastures. They also need more energy than wild horses, especially if they’re performance horses. Which means things get tricky.

Now the horse has a small stomach (15L), but a large digestive system. This translates to a horse being a natural continuous eater (or a grazer). Which is why horses tend to do better with free-feeders or at least 3 meals a day. These meals can vary from grass, hay, forage, or grain.

While brands will say your horse only needs complete feed, as in only grain that is fortified with nutrients, your horse’s digestive system is made for forage. If you feed your horse a complete feed and it works great..that’s perfect! The only caution with a complete feed stems mainly from the fact that it is not a grass or shrub; meaning your horse’s gut will not process it the same and it is more susceptible to colic, ulcers, or other digestion issues.

So now that we know horses are made for forage, and that grazing is good for them, now let’s get to more of the specifics. A horse should be eating 2% of their body weight. If you are unsure of how much your horse eats, weigh their food out! A mature horse’s food demand depends on energy consumption, living conditions, water availability, and quality of food.

For instance, a horse that is ridden heavily 6 times a week, lives in beautiful living conditions with clean water that is readily available, and eats top-notch grass hay 4x times a day will have completely different dietary needs than a horse ridden maybe 2x a month that lives in a pasture with water available and gets their hay in the evening. Both options are perfectly fine, but their diet will differ. (This is where your vet will come in handy to give recommendations on diet.)

Ok, so to recap: horses are grazers, meaning they naturally want to continuously eat. They consume about 2% of their bodyweight daily, mostly on forage. Every horse is different, and demands vary, but 2% is a good starting point. Finally, dietary needs depend on living conditions and quality of water and food.

I hope these basics help you understand the bare minimum that your horse needs. I plan on getting into specifics later, but I want to take things one stride at a time.


Happy grazing!