Forage and Horses
By Eleanor Blazer

      You've got to feed him, cause he's a "digestive system" with legs. Horses are non-ruminant herbivores.  They eat plants and do not have a rumen. The rumen is the first part of the stomach common to cloven animals such as cattle, llamas and goats.

       Horses have a cecum.  The cecum is part of the large intestine (hind gut) and breaks down long-stem fiber. The cecum allows the horse to utilize nutrient present in forage.

      The equine digestive system requires at least 1/2 pound of good quality forage per 100 pounds of body weight for healthy hind gut function.  This means a 1,200 pound horse needs 6 pounds of hay or a long-stem fiber source per day "for healthy hind gut function", but that amount won't keep the horse alive.  He'll have a health gut, but he'll die of starvation.

      During shortages of forage many horse owners feed grain, commercial mixes or supplements to try and provide the needed nutrients.  Horses should never be fed more than 50% of the diet in concentrates that are not "complete" formulas.

     Here is better rule to follow when feeding horses:  Horses at maintenance level require 1.5 - 2.0% of their body weight in dry matter per day.  (This amount will increase with their activity level and the onset of cold weather.)  For example; a healthy 1,200 pound horse at maintenance activity level would need to consume a minimum of 18 pounds of good quality long-stem forage each day.

      The fiber needs to be longer than one inch to be classified as "long-stem fiber".

      What if there is a shortage of hay or the hay is of poor quality?  The answer is: feed beet pulp, hay cubes, bagged hay or complete feeds. 

      Beet pulp is a by-product of the sugar beet industry.  It does not have high sugar content as the sugar was removed during the processing of the beets.  Beet pulp is high in calcium, very low in phosphorus, and low in B vitamins, but can provide a source of highly digestible fiber.

     Beet pulp does not provide enough long stem fiber to maintain normal gut function, so its best use is as a hay extender.  Make the hay last longer by feeding up to half the forage requirements in beet pulp.  It is not necessary to soak beet pulp unless your horse bolts his feed.  Soaking gets more water into the system, which is always a good thing.  Do not let it ferment.

      Caution must be taken, especially when the temperature is hot, not to let wet feed ferment.  Sour, spoiled feed will cause digestive upset possibly resulting in colic.  Remove any uneaten portions and provide fresh feed.

      Hay cubes are a good source of long stem fiber.  The forage is dried, chopped, and compressed into cubes.  Alfalfa and alfalfa/grass cubes are available. 
Hay cubes usually contain at least 50% alfalfa.  The alfalfa helps hold the cubes together.  The alfalfa cubes will be high in protein (generally 17%) and should be not be fed as the only available forage if your horse has adrenal gland problems. 

      Hay cubes generally contain 12 - 14% protein.  To avoid the danger of choke and aid your horse with chewing, the hard cubes can be soaked for 10 minutes before feeding.  Hay cubes can be fed as the only source of forage and the recommended feeding rate is 1.5 to 2.0% of the body weight per day.  They can also be used as a hay extender - replacing equal amounts of hay in the diet. 

     Chopped hay is another good source of long-stem fiber.  Chopped hay is available in grass and alfalfa formulas.  Molasses is usually added to the formula, as it will keep the leaves and stems from separating in the bag.   Chopped hay is recommended be fed at a minimum of 1.5 to 2.0 % of the horse's body weight per day when used as a hay extender.

     Complete feeds are products designed to provide a balanced diet and fiber in one package.  Beet pulp or alfalfa is usually the fiber source.  Equine nutritionists advise to feed at least ˝ pound per 100 pounds of body weight per day in long stem fiber (hay).
      In the winter horses should be offered more hay or sources of long-stem fiber.  The digestion of long-stem fiber in the hind gut creates heat.  Do not increase the concentrate or add corn to the diet - it does not keep them warm.  Extra grain increases calories, resulting in extra energy or weight gain…and increases the chance of colic and laminitis if overfed.  Feed more hay - to the point it is being wasted.

      Using wheat bran as a forage source is a common myth and faulty advice. It provides less fiber than oats.  Bran also has inverted calcium to phosphorus ratio; so large amounts should not be fed. Feeding a bran mash can cause more harm than good.  Do not feed bran to horses.

      Instead let's provide our favorite digestive system (horse) with the proper diet…plenty of good quality long-stem forage.

        Proper nutrition and management practices can prevent many problems associated with caring for horses.  You can learn how to provide your horse with a better life-style by taking the online course "How to Feed for Maximum Performance" taught by Eleanor Richards Blazer.

Learning About Horses
Contact Us