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Feeding Horses - Part 1

Feeding Horses – Part 1

Written by Antoinette Foster © taken from her forthcoming book

 The commonsense approach to feeding is the logical step, sometimes this may not always appear to be achievable considering that there are so many different types of feeds available. If you were to read all the information available on the labelling of premix feeds, pellets and the like you would need an enormous amount spare time and possibly a great deal of research data to come up with the right answers.

Horse nutrition can be simple but very often is made complicated. If you ventured into your own feed room right at this moment, a very good exercise would be to look to see what feeds you have in your feed room and then ask yourself why do you have these feeds. Do you consider that you are feeding a balanced diet

Nutrition is a vital component; it is in fact the key to unlock your horse’s true genetic potential. Correct feeding requires a good deal of knowledge in three areas the horse’s digestive system, feed types and nutrient content and nutrient requirements of each individual horse.

Human classification of food is simple and easy to follow and horse feed classifications can be as simple split into four categories, roughages, energy feeds, protein feeds and vitamin/mineral supplementation.

Roughages generally consist of hay and pasture and these can be divided into grass and legume plant species. Legumes have the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen, transferring it into plant protein.

Legumes tend to be higher in protein than grass species. Common legumes are Lucerne and clover. Lucerne hay has a good level of calcium. Grass species include, rye grass etc.

Many types of roughage can be mixed together meaning a combination of grasses and legumes.

Roughages are a source of fibre, protein, energy and calcium.

Quality of hay and pasture can vary depending on the weather, plant maturity, quality of soil and storage.  A good supply of roughage is absolutely vital to your horse’s diet, so it is very important to know the nutrient content. Certainly the eye can tell you if the hay is of good quality, but the only guarantee would be to have an analysis performed. There are several ways you can do this, but they are time consuming and expensive, I think the safest way to determine hay quality is by smell and colour. A good fresh smell always indicates reasonable quality.

Roughage is essential for the normal function of the gut and many digestive conditions can be avoided, if horses were fed more roughage. It is a common problem worldwide that horse owners do not feed sufficient roughage for the digestive system to function normally.

The horse is classified as a non-ruminant herbivore, the horse’s capacity to digest feeds results from the microbial population residing in the caecum, a large sac located at the beginning of the large intestine. It is easy to forget that the domesticated horse has not changed its anatomy and physiology at all and they require sustainable pasture or other forms of roughage. A multitude of problems stem from a combination of reduced roughage, excess grain feeding and insufficient exercise.

I believe that the value of good pasture is possibly underestimated. There are many factors that affect the quality of pasture. Pasture can be seriously affected in drought and depending on where you are located the quality will alter noticeably. For example high rainfall areas will undoubtedly produce a far superior quality pasture. There are other factors that effect quality and nutritional content, during spring the nutritional content in pasture increases. During the early growing phase the nutritional content is always higher and decreases with maturity. Pasture management is essential to maintain quality and horses tend to avoid areas that have been soiled by faeces, therefore they will be inclined to continually overgraze other areas. If it is possible to rotate paddocks this an ideal or grazing cattle during rotation will reduce the problem of poor pasture.

Generally speaking horses tend to be located in heavily stocked areas and this creates a big problem, it means there is a difficulty in being able to spell paddocks and to renovate pasture.

When pasture is at its peak it may be difficult for horses to consume sufficient amounts to supply their energy requirements, so supplementing extra hay may be necessary.  Pasture management can also be affected by frosts or heavy rain.

Some breeding and pleasure horses can possibly survive on pasture alone with limited supplementation. A biscuit of Lucerne hay may be all that is required.

The ideal situation for working horses would be pasture and hand feeding, bearing in mind that the feed requirement increases when the workload increases.

Pastures that have been improved containing legumes tend to sustain a good level of protein for longer periods of time. These pastures will contain a higher level of calcium.

Supplementation of some type is vital to your horses over all health and wellbeing.

In Australia and many other countries in the world there are difficulties with different types of grasses. For example pasture containing  grasses such as Kikuya, Setarius or buffel grass have high levels of oxalates and bind calcium, which prevents normal absorption in the small intestine. This can lead to a condition known as hyperparathyroidism an abnormally high level of parathyroid hormone in the body, causing various disorders including kidney damage. High oxalate levels in grasses can also lead to the development of kidneys stones.

Supplementation of calcium and phosphorous will assist in prevention of these conditions. Overfeeding and underfeeding can occur when horses are on pasture only.

As many pony breeds and other breeds are prone to laminitis it is essential for horse owners to be aware of the changes in the quality of pasture from spring to summer. Because the nutrient content changes quite dramatically through seasonal changes it is important to make sure that feeding regimes are altered accordingly.

Problems can also take place in studs where at the beginning of the season the nutrient content in pasture is at a level where it can sustain mares in foal, however when the dry season kicks in and there is more demand on lactating mares and growing foals there is a risk of what one would consider is a small drought. Many of these horses can suffer from a degree of nutritional stress.

Pasture feeding also runs the risk of toxicity from chemicals, such as market gardens or urban areas with toxic waste runoff. Poisonous plants, particularly in areas that are drought affected are another problem. In drought affected areas there is the increased risk of horses consuming toxic plants when pasture is not sufficient to sustain nutritional requirements.

Prepared roughages  (hay and chaff)

Only a small number of adult horses can survive quite well on hay alone. If horses are required to perform higher work levels or can not survive without extra feeding, or in the case of brood mares and lactating mares where the nutrient requirement increases, then it would be necessary to increase the feed and include some form of grains and supplements, as well as hay. The energy and protein needs will increase in the above cases. With the effects of the drought flowing on to many areas in Australia there are many locations now that just do not have pasture, or if they do it is of poorer quality.

The quality of the hay will depend a great deal on the type of plants. Very often good quality hay such as Lucerne and clover represent a better option, as the nutrient content is much higher. Whilst these hays are often far more expensive the owner of the horse saves on wastage and would actually feed less. Poor quality hay may be cheaper but its energy and protein level will be much lower and very often horses will not eat the poorer hay. 

Legume hays such as Lucerne and clover contain a much higher level of digestible energy, protein, calcium and vitamin A than grass hays.

Cereal hays such as oaten hay can be of a high standard, but quality can depend very much on when the hay has been produced. The nutrient content of hay decreases as the plant matures and undoubtedly the best time to produce the hay is when the plant is at the early flowering stage. The fibre content increases and the protein and digestible energy decreases if production is left until the plant is more mature, this often occurs in the case of oaten hay.

There are some critical factors when purchasing hay, it is important to choose hay that is free from mould, dust and weeds, has not been subjected to weather, has a good colour and fragrance and is leafy and lacks stems. If you follow these guidelines when purchasing the hay then chances are you will not purchase hay that is of poor quality. Once again even in drought situations when feed prices increase it is far better to purchase legume hays in preference due to the high nutrient content which will out way the cost factor.

The cost of a bale of Lucerne hay based on current Victorian prices is $27-$30 but Lucerne hay has a much higher MJ level. The average bale of Lucerne hay weighs 30 kilograms in comparison to the average bale of hay weighing in at around 20 kilograms. Even though the cost is greater for the Lucerne hay it is actually more economical to feed the Lucerne hay, look at this calculation 1kg of Lucerne hay provides around 2.2 Mcal of digestible energy, 170g per kg of protein and 12g per kg of calcium in comparison to hay which provides 1.4-1.6 Mcal/DE, 140-160g protein and only 2.2g calcium. The cost of hay varies but to gain the same level of DE and calcium you would be required to feed a minimum of 20-25% more hay than Lucerne hay.

Based on these calculations the Lucerne hay is a cheaper alternative and has the advantage of being higher in protein and calcium content and is far more palatable. It is also the preferred hay for young growing horses.

Certainly there is no doubt that good quality hays such as clover hay can provide good nutrient levels, but the quality can vary more than Lucerne hay.

Chaffing hay is another option, however the cost to purchase does increase significantly and there are other factors, such as contamination, dust etc. I think that a way to solve this problem would be to chaff your own hay. This can be done by investing in a mulcher at a cost of around $1,000. You can then chaff you own hay when you require it in a far more cost effective way. The other advantages are the size of the chaff, which will be rough-cut so as to encourage correct chewing and grinding and in turn correct digestion. There are some advantages to using chaffed hays, you can add into your hard feed regime if necessary. Using feed bins will reduce wastage, but I believe it is preferable to feed rather more hay and less hard feed quantities. This is possibly the ideal but sometimes not always achievable. There is no doubt that the ideal way to feed is to provide excellent quality roughage in the form of legumes and some grain.

Good quality silage can be used as a form of roughage but there is the risk of mould toxins if the PH level is not balanced. Big bale silage has been implicated as the cause of an outbreak of botulism in the UK.

The pros and cons of feeding silage/balage


• Your crop is far less likely to be ruined by rain.

• You can store it outside.

• It retains more food value than hay.

• It will help you achieve the rule of thumb of providing two-thirds of your horse's diet in forage feed.


• It's more costly than hay.

• Bales will be at least twice as heavy as their hay equivalents.

• Specialist gear is needed to move big bales, or you need to employ a contractor
  to do it.

• You need to check regularly for holes and repair them.

• Once open, bales need to be fed out within a few days.

• Horses can contract botulism from poor quality balage.

• Storage life can vary from bale to bale.

Ingestion of preformed toxin in silage and haylage can cause excessive salivation. The other concern with haylage and silage is the moisture content prior to being packed in plastic. This type of storage process can cause neurotoxin outbreaks.

Energy (Carbohydrates)

Cereal grains can be fed to horses as an energy source this includes, oats, barley, corn/maize, sorghum, wheat, lupins etc. Apart from water, energy is the most required nutrient, but energy is contained in all forms of feed not just grain.

Oats are the safest of all the grains to feed; they are higher in fibre, lower in digestible energy, lower in density and less likely to have moulds and mycotoxins. Energy feeds tend to be low in fibre and protein and high in energy, however oats are the highest in fibre and are less likely to cause conditions such as founder. On a volume basis they provide about 1/2 as much digestible energy as other types of grain.

It is preferable to crack or roll small grains, but larger grains such as oats can be fed whole. It is necessary to feed roughage with barley or oats to supply at least 10-15% of dietary fibre. If higher density grains are fed in excess digestive upsets can occur. It is advisable to always make feed changes slowly over a period of 5-7days. 

There are many grain by- products, which can also be used as energy sources. Bran for example has a good energy level and has high fibre content, but if you are feeding oats and Lucerne it is unlikely you will require much more for your performance horse, brood mare or lactating mare. Fats and oils are an excellent source of energy as they are 2 & ½-3 times the energy source of the equivalent weight in grain. Fats and oils do not contain, protein, fibre or minerals

It is very likely that the average horse working 4-5 hours per week can survive very well on a diet consisting of roughage in the form of hay/lucerne hay, chaff and oats and include an excellent daily formula, this will provide sufficient energy and protein plus vitamins and minerals.

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