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Eating Lots of Hay Is Vital to Your Horse

By: Dr. Joseph Bertone

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The foundation of a horse's diet is roughage, so careful attention should be paid to this key nutritional component. Generally, roughage accounts for 70 percent to 100 percent of a horse's caloric, mineral and fiber intake. Good quality mixed (legume and grass) pasture under some form of weed reduction program is an excellent way to provide food for horses.

But as real estate prices and urbanization nibble away at grazing areas, hay is becoming the primary source of dietary roughage for most horses in the United States. Where you live and your horse's lifestyle and life stage will determine his diet. Certain foods are not available in some areas. And growing, pregnant and working horses need special attention. Feeding horses isn't very complicated when you're armed with some basic information.

Feeding Basics

Providing sufficient quality and quantity of food should be your goal in devising a proper equine diet. Some horse owners cannot afford high quality feed, but the digestive tract and physiology of horses allows you to compensate by feeding greater quantity. The best approach, however, is to strike a balance between cost, quality and quantity.

Your Horse May Lack Variety

It's generally assumed that the nomadic life of wild horses – and their constant ability to forage on a variety of plants – accounts for their balanced diet. It also follows that if the domestic horse is fed a limited diet, with little variety, then there may be some nutritional problems.

Expensive Diets Aren't Good Diets

Overfeeding, supplemental overload and dietary imbalance are more common problems than nutrition-related diseases. Lack of feed is seldom a problem. Some owners spend a great deal of money on supplements and forget that the basis of a good diet for healthy horses is roughage.

Hays and roughage generally come in four forms: legumes, grasses, cereal grain hays and residuals from food processing (e.g. sugar beet pulp).

Alfalfa Hay

Legumes include alfalfa and clovers. Alfalfa is by far the most commonly fed legume. Its high nutritional density per acre, and its relative ease of cultivation account for its popularity. It may be less available in some humid climates in the United States because it is tough to harvest. Alfalfa often contains twice the protein, three times the calcium, and six times the magnesium of grass. In general, good-quality alfalfa is all the diet most horses need. But alfalfa can be a troublesome forage for the pregnant mare's fetus or the growing foal. Copper, manganese and magnesium content, as well as calcium and phosphorous imbalances, can lead to skeletal diseases in these young horses. Imbalances can be overcome with appropriate supplementation to the pregnant mare's diet.

One shouldn't judge the quality of alfalfa on external appearances of the hay bale. The outside can be yellow and have leaves while the inside is leafy and green.

Some insects found in alfalfa can cause a major problem for the horses that consume them inadvertently. Blister beetles are long, thin and brown or black striped insects. They are rare but are associated with serious consequences if the dead beetles are consumed. Moreover, blister beetles contain a potent irritant that can damage the stomach and urinary system. Hundreds of beetles can sometimes be found in a single flake of hay.

Grass Hay

Grass hays can vary from mixes to nearly single species crops. Grass hay species include: timothy, blue, orchard, Bermuda and fescue. They tend to have more phosphorous relative to calcium, and less protein content than alfalfa hay.

Cereal Grain Hay

Cereal grain hays include oat and wheat. They are more challenging to feed and harvest consistently. A few days difference in harvesting time can greatly affect the energy content of these hays. If the seed is lost, these hays become straws.

Other Roughages

Other sources of fiber and roughage can be integrated in the equine diet, such as beet pulp and mint compost. These are often used in pelleted diets.

What Hay Is Best To Buy?

Crops that do well in Montana may not be productive in Georgia. For example, it doesn't make sense to try to find expensive and rare grass hay in southern California when alfalfa hay is more readily available. Stick with hay common to your locale. This will let you maintain a constant feeding program in case you lose your source and need to switch to a different seller.

How Much Should I Spend?

Forage is the foundation your horse's diet and you should consider how the hay chosen affects the overall cost of the diet. Consider grain a supplement to balance the forage portion of the diet. It's wisest to provide good quality roughage and, if necessary, add enough grain to balance the ration to your horse's nutrient needs. In general, legume hays, such as alfalfa, are much better nutritionally. So, even though they may cost more, you won't need as much added grain in the ration as you would for an equal amount of grass hay.

On the other hand, many horses don't need any more nutrients than those supplied by good quality grass hay. In this case, paying more for legume hays would be a waste. In the western U.S., however, grass hays often are more expensive than alfalfa hays because more alfalfa is cultivated.

What Determines Hay Quality?

Hay should be free of mold. It should be leafy with fine stems, as well as soft and pliable. Increased stem thickness often indicates older plants that have less digestible content. Color is least important. The outer portion of the bale should be bright green or yellow while the inside portions should be bright green. The hay should not be brown. A brown color often indicates heat damage from a high moisture content. Your nose is a good quality indicator. Hay should smell fresh and fragrant. If it doesn't, it may be lacking essential vitamins, including vitamins A and E.
How Much Should I Feed?

Most mature pleasure horses doing light work need only the nutrients supplied by good quality grass or alfalfa hay. A good starting point is 1.5 percent of the horse's body weight divided into two or three meals daily. As an example, five pounds of hay (one flake)should be fed three times per day to a 1,000 pound horse. This percent can be decreased to 1 percent for second or third cutting alfalfa hay. Use this only as a guide. Some horses need more and others less. The tendency is to feed too much, except in the winter when horses' energy demand is greater in cold climates.

Only late term mares need about 30 percent more grain. The lactating mare usually requires 30 – 50 percent more calories, with the peak amount given during the height of lactation at 4 to 12 weeks after foaling. It is more important to feed according to the body condition of the mare.

Under most circumstances, these horses need mineral supplementation more than calorie supplementation. More of these horses develop problems caused by overfeeding poorly balanced diets than by consuming insufficient calories.

If you have a questions about the quality of your horse's diet have your forage tested for protein, fiber, energy and mineral content. If you have a large load of hay, and a bunch of horses to feed with different demands, it's well worth it to know what they're eating. Your veterinarian can tell you how to provide a sample to a lab for forage analysis.

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