Why is forage so important for the equine’s diet? We look in more detail at the importance of forage for horses and find out exactly why your horse cannot maintain optimum health without it…

We know that forage, which includes fibre such as grass, hay, haylage and chaffs, are the most vital element in the horse’s diet. Feeding a diet that is high in forage is not a new concept, however it is something that can be overlooked in the modern management system. But what is forage for horses and why do they actually need it?

Evolution

Horses have a very sensitive digestive system that is designed to be what is known as a "trickle feeder". This essentially means that the horse is equipped with a relatively small stomach (approximately the size of a football), which works most efficiently when consuming small amounts of food on a regular basis. Historically, the horse’s natural lifestyle would involve miles and miles of roaming and grazing on a daily basis, ingesting a broad range of grasses and plants and receiving a multitude of different vitamins and minerals.

Why has this changed?

The way we have domesticated our horses has changed the lifestyle for most equines, as stabling, regular exercise and performance demands can mean that there is more stress placed on the horse, and a simple grass diet does not meet energy requirements. Alongside this, management routines mean that some horses miss out on regular turn out on good quality pasture and the forage that they do receive can be lacking in nutrients. For this reason it is sometimes necessary to supplement the diet with additional fibre for horses, hard feed and vitamin and mineral additives.

Going without

Another concern with the modern feeding regime is that for many owners it is not possible to maintain a trickle feed supply of forage for horses. With the majority of horses being kept on livery or in stables where it is not possible to give feed throughout the night, it means that many horses finish their forage early in the evening and go without food for long periods of time. This can be detrimental to digestive horse health and also increase the chance of stereotypical behaviours developing due to boredom and stress.

What is the problem with a lack of forage?

The horse’s digestive system requires a regular passage of food. Regardless of whether food is present, the stomach continually produces gastric acid and when forage for horses is not supplied in high enough quantities, this can increase the pH of the stomach, resulting in a greater risk of damage occurring to the stomach wall. In addition, the simple act of chewing forage helps to buffer stomach acid in order to neutralise the stomach acid. When forage is not present this is not possible and can lead to digestive upsets and even ulcers and colic.

Alongside a healthy digestive system, providing ample forage helps keep your horse warm during the chillier months. As the horse digests fibre, the fermentation process of the roughage can help warm him up from the inside out. This will help maintain condition and reduce the risk of winter chills! Fibre for horses meets two requirements of the equine: energy AND physical bulk. Fibre is broken down in the hind gut and slowly releases energy. Energy is required to maintain many body functions, including muscle movement and temperature regulation. Many horses can happily exercise on forage alone, however for some it may be necessary to give additional concentrate feed to boost energy levels – particularly those competing or training intensively. The act of chewing forage also helps to maintain healthy dentition by wearing down the teeth and preventing the build up of sharp edges.

Top tips

  • For all these reasons, ad lib forage consumption in horse diets is preferable when managing the equine’s fibre intake. Here are our top tips for maintaining this balance…
  • Choose quality forage for horses, which is fresh smelling, and free from moulds, weeds, dust or discolouration.
  • If your horse’s grazing is looking scarce, provide additional forage and fibre for horses in the field to keep the digestive system mobile and healthy. This is particularly important once the colder weather appears and grass may be frozen or covered in snow.
  • Consider adding nutrients to the diet in order to balance out any deficiencies in your horse’s forage. This could be in the form of a hard feed, balancer, supplement or lick.
  • Think about feeding your horse his hay or haylage in a small holed net to slow down his consumption. This will help him make his forage last longer and ensure he isn’t going without for too long.
  • Buddy up with people on the yard to ensure your horse’s hay or haylage supply is always topped up. They can pop in a section of hay before they leave late at night and you can do the same for them at early morning feed time.
  • For a horse or pony on a restricted diet, consider feeding hay that is soaked to reduce the nutrient content without removing important bulk from the horse diets.
  • Forage for horses and fibre replacers can be a great way to add variety to your horse’s diet. Things like Alfalfa, Rye Grass and Chaffs are all great sources of fibre and can be fed alongside hay, haylage and grass.

What forage do you feed your horse? Comment below or let us know your forage tips on Facebook and Twitter.