What Is Forage for Horses?
While most horse owners are concerned about feeding the best grain for their horse, forage should be the foundation to every horse’s diet. Forage provides an important source of energy, protein, minerals, vitamins, and fiber. By definition, forage is the edible parts of plants that are eaten by grazing livestock.
Horse's digestive tracts were built to spend their entire day grazing on forage. This is why forage should be the primary portion of their diet. A horse’s stomach is designed to continuously produce acid to help with digestion. The stomach acid produced is then buffered by forage and saliva, which keeps it from damaging the stomach lining. Due to this constant production of acid, it is important for every horse to have free access to some type of forage as often as possible.
At a minimum, horses should be eating about 1–2% of their body weight in forage every day. An average 1000-pound horse would eat between 10–20 pounds of forage per day.
Five Forage Types for Horses
Pasture is any grass or other plants that are found in a horse’s turnout area.
Pastures are often an underutilized source of forage for horses. Grazing is the most natural way for a horse to ingest forage. A well-kept summer pasture can supply adequate nutrition for most classes of horses. Horses need to graze around 17 hours daily to meet their nutritional needs.
Poorly maintained pastures can offer little to no nutrition for horses and can lead to an environment for parasites to spread.
Fresh grass is very high in simple carbohydrates (sugars and starches) which may be not ideal for “easy keeper” horses that are prone to laminitis due to an endocrine, metabolic, or other disease.
Hay is the most common type of forage harvested for horses today and can be classified into two categories: grass and legume.
Grass hay is any grass that has been cut and dried. It’s a common forage for horses and can make up the horse's entire daily serving of forage. A good quality grass hay can provide the minerals of fresh pasture, the long-stem forage for healthy digestion and maintaining a healthy weight with less concerns of obesity (compared to legume hay).
This type of hay lacks some of the vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids that are naturally found in pastures. These vitamins and acids can be supplemented with a fortified grain, ration balancer, or a vitamin and omega-3 supplement.
Legume hay includes alfalfa and clover that have been cut and dried into hay. This type of hay tends to be higher in calories and protein than grass hay. Because this is a richer hay, it should be fed in smaller amounts and not as your horse's entire serving of forage. It’s often used as part of a performance horse’s diet who have an increased demand for energy.
Legume hay can be a contributing factor to obesity. It is often higher in some nutrients such as calcium than grass hay but still does not provide all the vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids a horse requires. Often a horse will need a fortified grain, ration balance, or multi-vitamin supplement as well.
Alternatively, hay can be dried, chopped, and compressed into cubes. For horses, these are typically fed after being soaked in water to make them softer and easier to eat. The most common types of hay cubes include alfalfa, timothy, or a mixture of the two types.
Hay cubes may be fed to increase a horse's calories and fiber. Advantages to feeding hay cubes includes a guaranteed level of protein, fat, and fiber which allows for a consistent level of nutrition. Baled hay can vary from bale to bale or even field to field. Cubes can be easier to measure, feed, and store. Cubes also have minimal dust, so this can be a great alternative for horses with respiratory disease.
Disadvantages to cubed hay includes that many horses may eat these faster, leaving more down time for their digestive tract to be empty and for a horse to become bored. Often a small amount (½-1 pound) of long-stemmed forage (normal baled hay) is recommended to horses that are on a complete cubed forage diet.
Similar to hay cubes, hay pellets are made from dried long-stem forage by grinding and compressing into pellets. Hay pellets can be made from a variety of forages but most commonly from timothy or alfalfa hay.
Hay pellets have many of the same advantages and disadvantages of hay cubes. It is important to read the label on hay pellets as chopped hay may be combined with molasses. Adding molasses will increase the starch/sugar content which can pose a risk for horses that require a low starch diet such as horses with Cushing’s disease. Some variations may contain vitamins, minerals, and additional protein or amino acids.
Haylage is a high moisture forage that is stored in airtight containers and allowed to ferment. This is a staple in livestock feed but relatively uncommon and new in the equine industry. The benefit to haylage is the increased retention of protein, carbohydrates, and key minerals. Haylage is high in moisture content which could be ideal for horses with respiratory disease. The biggest hazard associated with this forage is an increased risk for botulism when stored inappropriately.
What Is the Best Type of Forage for Horses?
The best type of forage for any horse is determined based on the horse's individual lifestyle and needs. For example, wild horses who have lived and survived on grass for many years and it is appropriate for their lifestyle since they can constantly graze. An equine athlete may require a forage that is higher in calories like alfalfa hay, while a horse at moderate activity may thrive on “free choice” grass hay. Younger horses, under the age of 5, may require a hay higher in calories due to growth. Older horses that are “easy keepers” may only need grass hay while other older horses may need the added calories that alfalfa cubes or pellets may provide. Some horses may need a forage low in starch/sugar, such as grass hay, due to an endocrine disorder like Cushing’s disease. For the average horse, a forage diet consistent with a mixture of pasture turnout and grass hay can allow them to thrive.
It is always best to discuss with your veterinarian when deciding on the best diet for any horse. Your veterinarian can help you with body condition scoring your horse at their current weight.
Choosing the Best Forage for Your Horse
Questions to consider when developing a forage plan for you horse include:
What age is your horse?
Does your horse get regular exercise? If so, how often and for how long?
What is the current body condition score of your horse?
Does your horse go out on pasture? If so, how long?
Does your horse have any known health issues, such as Cushing’s disease?
How often are you able to feed your horse?
Forage cost can change from year to year based on \availability and crop growth. Generally, grass hays aren’t as expensive as alfalfa hay. Pasture can be a great option during summer months to help supplement the cost of hay, provided there is good pasture management and no overgrazing. Hay pellets and cubes can be expensive when fed as sole forage when compared to hay bales, but could be a good way to help senior horses gain calories when fed in combination with a fortified feed.
Ony, E.E. Kentucky Equine Research. Forage Forms. 2002.
Ralston, S. Rutgers University. Forage Substitutes for Horses | Equine Science Center. 2004.
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