Horses are born grazers that can eat up to 25lbs (11kgs) a day so you can imagine that if you’re keeping a horse without any natural grazing you’ve got a lot of making up to do. That doesn’t mean that you can just increase the amount of food you give him, it means that you need to replace the grass he’s not able to eat with more forage. While that can be as simple as just giving him more hay it would be better for your horse to mix the hay with other types of forage – after all, how would you feel if instead of having different meals you just ate the same thing all the time?
Why do horses need to constantly graze?
Unlike most animals (including cows) horses need to continually eat, this is because of the way their whole digestive system works. Right from their gastrointestinal tract that is designed to always be digesting small amounts of food around the clock to their hindgut which is where most of their energy comes from. Horses don’t have a gall bladder which means that they’re unable to store the bile that’s produced by the liver, the bile, therefore, is continuously delivered to the small intestine. On top of that, they have a small stomach which, as well as not being able to hold a huge amount of food, is constantly producing acids that breakdown the food and digest the proteins.
You might think that if your horse eats the same amount of food but in a few larger meals instead that it won’t really matter – after all if his digestion can’t deal with large amounts of food he’ll eat it slowly – but this couldn’t be more wrong. Feeding a horse in this way will imbalance his digestion which will have a detrimental effect on his performance and body condition. It’ll also increase his chances of suffering serious issues such as colic or gastric ulcers.
How often should horses eat?
The old adage of little and often has never been truer than when it comes to talking about how often horses should be feed. Left to their own devices horses will spend up to 17 hours a day grazing but this isn’t because they’re being greedy. They’re don’t have gall bladders so aren’t able to store bile for digestion this, coupled with the small stomachs, means that they can only digest small amounts of food at a time. On top of their grazing horses should be fed at least two or three times a day, although our lifestyles mean that it can be difficult to feed them more regularly.
Can I safely feed my horse without pasture?
While we all want to give our horses the best quality pasture we can this isn’t always possible, weather conditions such as drought and storms can affect the pasture, but where you live can also affect the amount or quality of pasture. You may not have access to pasture at all or only have a small field but don’t worry you can still feed your horse perfectly safely, just ask anybody living in a desert area. You just need to make sure your horse is getting enough forage. Typically around 80% of a horse’s feed should be forage, whether it’s grass, hay or some other forage it doesn’t matter. If you have an area where you can turn your horse out then as long as it’s not sandy you could scatter it around the ground for him, this will be far more natural for him too. If you don’t have access to a turnout area though don’t worry you can feed it to your horse at various times throughout the day.
How much hay should I feed my horse during the winter?
If your horse doesn’t normally have access to pasture then it’s unlikely you’ll need to increase his consumption of hay during the winter. The reason this is normally done is because a lot of the grass has been frozen and is much more difficult for horses to get to. This then means that you need to increase the forage you’re giving them because they’re not able to get so much of it themselves. If, however, your horse doesn’t normally have access to pasture then there’s nothing to make up for during the winter.
What should you feed a horse if there’s no hay?
If for whatever reason you’re not able to feed your horse hay or want to substitute some of his hay then there are plenty of other alternatives on offer to you.
STRAW – While most people think of straw only as a bedding it can (and has been for many years) also be used in place of some hay. It’s low in protein and the fiber is indigestible so it’s ideal for easy keepers or horses that are overweight. The indigestible nature of the fiber means that there’s an increased risk of compact colic which is why it shouldn’t make up more than 30% of your horse’s forage intake.
DRIED GRASS – Available in chopped form and as compressed nuts (or pellets) the grass has been harvested earlier than hay so is much green, it’s also artificially dried to stop the fermentation process. Dried grass is much higher in protein and energy compared to hay which makes it a great choice for veterans and hard keepers, although this also makes it a bad idea for easy keepers and horses prone to laminitis.
SHORT CHOPPED FIBER – Containing healthy amounts of vitamins and minerals short chopped fiber provides everything your horse needs so can completely replace hay. It can be made up of a variety of grasses and grains but straw, grass and alfalfa are the most common combination.
HIGH FIBER CUBES – As the name suggests these cubes contain all of the fiber your horse needs and as such can completely replace hay or if you’d prefer you can partially replace hay with them. They also make a great occasional treat for your horse too.
HAY CUBES – I know they’re still technically hay but they can be used to increase your horse’s intake of hay without the need to store a large number of hay bales. The disadvantage of them though is that they can often be quite expensive and if you don’t soak them beforehand then there’s also a risk of your horse choking on them.
ALFALFA – Alfalfa shouldn’t be used to completely replace hay but instead fed in combination with it. It’s very high in calcium so you should make sure your horse is getting enough concentrates to balance this out.
CHAFF – Chopped straw that has sometimes been bulked up with chopped hay. Like straw it shouldn’t make up more than 30% of your horse’s forage intake but because it’s been chopped into small pieces it’s often fed with the concentrate feed. Feeding chaff with concentrate is good for horses who eat too quickly because it helps to slow them down.
SILAGE – Even when fed to horses silage still contains moisture so it’s completely dust-free. This makes it perfect for horses with respiratory issues. The big drawback to silage though is that the production of it can be difficult because the bags mustn’t be torn at all, if they are then the horse is at risk of contracting botulism. If you do feed your horse silage it’s important to have him vaccinated against it beforehand.
SUGAR BEET – Recent studies have shown that feeding sugar beet increases the digestibility of hay. The drawback to sugar beet though is that it doesn’t allow horses to chew which is important to them both on a physical level and on a psychological level. They need to chew to keep their teeth smooth but if their diet doesn’t allow them to chew then they can turn to chewing things such as wood, fencing and even manure and in the long run, can lead to stress-related vices such as weaving.
BEET PULP – A byproduct of sugar beet, they can be fed wet or dry and contain plenty of fiber, protein and even calcium. They can completely replace hay but like sugar beet, they don’t need to be chewed. If you feed them wet then be careful in the cold winter months because they can freeze.
SOYABEAN HULLS – Very high in fiber they can be used to completely replace hay but doing so won’t deal with your horse’s desire and need to chew. Instead, it’s better to still feed some hay even if it’s not a huge amount.
COMPLETE FEED – These have been specially developed to give your horse the right balance of grass, forages, vitamins and minerals and can be fed instead of hay if they have at least 15% fiber. They’re much higher in calories so it’s important to read the label before giving to your horse. Like sugar beet, beet pulp and soybean hulls though they don’t deal with your horse’s need to chew.
While horses in the wild would normally forage there are ways around this if you don’t have access to any pasture at all. Careful planning and forward-thinking is all you need to make sure your horse gets everything he needs for a healthy and balanced diet.
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