Horse people love to talk about what they feed.
Go to any show or performance event, and you’ll likely hear ten different opinions on which type of commercial feed is best. Unfortunately, far too many horse owners don’t give enough thought to the other part of their horse’s diet—the part that should actually make up the majority of what a horse eats. I’m taking about forage. Hay and grass just don’t get the appreciation they deserve.
Sure, everyone wants a pretty pasture or stocks of fresh-smelling hay without a weed in sight, but forage is often seen as a filler instead of the staple of the equine diet.
Forage can actually be a horse’s entire diet, and it is for feral horses, of course. But feeding a forage-only or mostly forage diet is also catching on in the domestic horse world. In fact, several recent studies have examined a forage-only diet for both performance horses and horses in training and found that this diet has a positive effect on performance.
But even if you still prefer to feed concentrates, there are many reasons why you might want to increase the amount of hay or allow more pasture time for your horses.
Here are five reasons to feed more forage:
1. Good quality pasture or hay can provide most of the nutrients a horse needs.
Yes, even protein! (As long as you feed enough of it.) You can find out exactly what it’s in your forage by sending a sample to your local county extension office or a company like Equi-Analytical. Because hay has been cut and dried, it’s always going to be lacking in some vitamins, so feeding a good multi-vitamin and mineral along with hay is often recommended.
2. The act of chewing forage helps to prevent ulcers.
Yep, it’s that simple! A horse’s stomach produces acid on a continual basis, but when they chew, it stimulates saliva production. Saliva contains bicarbonate and calcium, which both buffer stomach acid. So basically, no chewing = no saliva = a more acidic stomach. And this creates prime conditions for ulcers to develop.
3. Forage-based diets decrease the risk of colic.
When a horse is allowed to eat forage as he pleases, this keeps the gut moving, so to speak. When things slow down in the gut, colic is much more likely to occur.
4. Having continual access to forage decreases boredom.
As a result, it can reduce the likelihood for a horse to develop stereotypical behavior such as cribbing or wood-chewing. (Of course, providing horsey friends and decreasing stall time helps with this as well.)
5. Eating hay actually helps to keep your horse warm in the winter.
You read that right! Most horses don’t need blankets or to be kept stalled (although some form of shelter is important), they just need plenty of hay during cold temperatures. When the horse digests food, heat is produced, and the greatest amount of heat is created when microbes in the gut digest high-fiber foods like hay. And remember, the colder it is (below 30º Fahrenheit), the more hay your horse will need in order to stay warm.
Now many of you might think this all sound fine and dandy, but if you board your horse or only have a chance to feed once or twice a day, you’re probably wondering how you can make sure your horse always has access to hay. This is where slow feed hay nets can really make a difference.
The concept of slow feeders is to make it more difficult for the horse to get the hay, so that the horse has to eat more slowly. There are quite different products on the market and you can even make your own, but using a slow feeder will save you time and money, not to mention it can ensure that your horse never runs out of hay.
So next time you’re tempted to increase your horse’s grain or concentrated feed, consider increasing the forage instead. Your horse will thank you for it.
About the Author
Casie Bazay is a freelance and young adult writer, as well as an owner/barefoot trimmer and certified equine acupressure practitioner. She hosts the blog, The Naturally Healthy Horse, where she regularly shares information on barefoot, equine nutrition, and holistic horse health. Once an avid barrel racer, Casie now enjoys just giving back to the horses who have given her so much.