Friday, June 3, 2011

Hay is for Horses

This is not too exciting today. It's my column from the paper.

Hay is For Horses
By Janet Huntington

The first barn I landed a training job with had a very unusual feeding program. They fed complete feed pellets and one small flake of alfalfa hay twice a day.The horses were fat and shiny and seemed healthy enough, but the concept puzzled me.

“I learned to feed this way from an Endurance Race competitor,” the barn ownersaid. “It’s plenty for them to eat and they don’t poop as much.” He also liked the ease of feeding and storage.

It seemed an odd way to feed tome, but they had been boarding horses for a long time, and I figured they knewwhat they were doing. As the years went by I noticed we had an awful lot of colic at the place. Thebroodmares seemed to have a rough time every year with much more than the usualbouts of colic. The boarded horses would have periodic episodes. There always seemed to be an explanation, but it still came down to an unusually high incidence of stressed digestion.

Katherine A. Houpt, VMD, PhD, Dipl. ACVB, a professor emeritus of CornellUniversity's College of Veterinary Medicine and Jaime Elia conducted a study of the dietary needs to keep horses physically and emotionally healthy. They point out the natural diet of horses is grass, which is typically high in fiber and low in calories.

The diet of most domestic horses is high in grain which is high in calories and much lower in fiber. An abstract of their study on explains the goal was to determinethe motivation of horses for hay when fed a low roughage diet. The horses were trained to push a panel to receive more feed. The results indicated a greater motivation for hay, the high fiber diet, when fed a low fiber diet. The horses fed the pellets spent much more time pushing the panel to get feed than horses being fed hay. They also spent more time searching the ground for food on the low fiber diet and almost twice as much time standing idle when fed pellets instead of hay. The authors concluded reducing forage will have a major impact on the mental and physical health of horses. Ulcers are a common medical condition in horses and foals. It is estimated thatalmost 50% of foals and 1/3 of adult horses confined in stalls may have mildulcers. Up to 60% of show horses and 90% of racehorses may develop moderate tosevere ulcers. Because they are so common, and can occur as a result of a number of factors, the condition is often called "equine gastric ulcer syndrome" (EGUS)or "equine gastric ulcer disease" (EGUD).

The website Drs. Foster and Smith( suggests low fiber diets are a leading cause of ulcers. “Horses evolved to graze, eating many small meals frequently,” the article stated. “This way the stomach is rarely empty and stomach acid has less of adamaging effect. If horses don’t eat frequently, the acid builds up and ulcersare likely to build up.”

The type and amount of roughage play a role in development. Roughage, because it requires more chewing, produces more saliva. The swallowed saliva helps to neutralize stomach acid. There is an increase in stomach acids when concentrates are fed. A book by Dr. Juliet Getty, Feed Your Horse Like A Horse, wants horse owners to understand their horses are trickle feeders, they need a continuous supply of asmall amount of forage. A horse’s digestive system needs to have food in it most of the time in order toavoid digestive problems. Getty writes, “Horses stomachs continually produce stomach acid, if a horse goes more than three hours without anything to graze on the excess acid can produce ulcers, diarrhea, behavioral problems and colic.”

A full horse is a happy horse. While many complete feeds have the necessary nutrition and calories, they don’t have the “munchability” of an armload of hay. There are hay bags available which will slow down how fast a horse can eat,drawing out the feeding process to last through the day.

Low sugar grass hay can be free fed, even to stall bound horses, and will make for a happier, healthier animal. Economically speaking, I found my horses stayed perfectly healthy on a diet ofalfalfa/grass mix and free choice salt and minerals. Even my show horses stayed strong and healthy on this diet. This approach to feeding saved me lots of money from my previous diets of hay, grain and supplements. I was able to feed quite afew critters on big squares and some well-placed mineral blocks. The barn owners with the weird feeding program lost three studs and a couple of broodmares to colic, on top of many vet calls for the horses who didn’t die but were still sick. I can’t help but wonder if more hay and less convenience might have made a difference in the health and well-being of their horses.


  1. I agree with this 100%. I feed my horses grass hay. It's orchard/fescue mix. I just been getting round bales and letting them free feed. I always have people asking me what I feed my horses to get them so shiny and fat. They never know how to respond when I say I only feed them hay. I do not supplement with hard feed. I do keep 2 bags of alfalfa pellets for emergencies though. And before anyone says anything about fescue, yes, I know fescue hay is bad for breeding mares. I don't breed.

  2. The 'they dont poop as much' is a very scary comment. I freak if I dont see healthy piles, often. ;)
    Good article.
    Lots of grass hay is my ideal feeding for my ottb.

  3. I feed lots of quality grass hay and my horses are happy and healthy on that diet. I agree with KES, it is scary if they aren't pooping a lot. Gotta keep that system moving!

    Great article, I can see how it might be easy for some folks to think that bagged feed fortified with a bunch of stuff with nutrition info listed on the side might be the best food for their horsey.

  4. Being a one horse, suburban horse owner, I use managed stables. I found a place where my horse can be in 'pasture' with 4 or 5 other horses and get grass hay only. I keep looking for other similar situations so I have alternatives if this place closes or chnages the feeding situation.
    I wish we could hang nibble bags instead of the twice daily feedings - but haven't figured out how to sell that solution.
    Thanks for the article Mugs. I never find that stuff boring!

  5. I agree that hay as the base of the feed program reduces bouts of colic.
    I only have the 1 horse and live in Fla, land of sand. My horse has free choice Alicia hay and 2 feeds a day of Safe Choice.
    I have never in the 20 years of horse ownership, ever experianced colic.He moves about freely in a small paddock but seems to do fine.

  6. Mine too are on timothy hay free choice and pasture. I do use a ration balancer (Tribute Feeds) along with a joint supplement, and my gelding is growing out his crappy feet (bad farrier) so is on hoof supplement until they are nice again.
    They are fat, shiny, and muscled!

    Now the mini's are on the same, but in proportion, and no grass pasture, just dry lot with some grass, but mini's are different than horses being prone to founder.


  7. I cannot imagine a (modern) endurance rider endorsing such a bizarre feeding program! These days, Saint Susan (Garlinghouse, DVM) has pretty much convinced American endurance riders to feed FORAGE AND LOTS OF IT. Hay, hay, and more hay if there isn't any pasture. A teensy bit of alfalfa. Supplement with selenium if you live in the Northwest. That's all.

    Results: fat horses, and lots of poop piles!

  8. Boy! I wonder how the beautiful wild horses get along. Sometimes I think you just have to get back to basics. Thanks for sharing the article!

  9. It's amazing how many problems you can prevent simply by allowing horses to be horses. It makes me wonder what we're doing to human health.

  10. Mine get free-choice but slow-fed timothy during non-pasture season, and are on grass much of the spring-summer-fall (tho not 24/7 as they aren't getting as much exercise as they really need right now). They get a vitamin-mineral supplement, and a pinch of loose salt (to make sure they're drinking), but no grain.
    Funny thing was, the other day an equine chiropracter that I hadn't met before commented on how healthy my two girls looked, and then proceded to tell me how I should change their diet! (He also suggected a dose of "ace" for my one higher-strung girl, just as a matter of habit, to calm her down. At that point, he negated any value his advice might have had for me.)

  11. Amen.

    I wish I could do truly free choice hay, but I am making due with NibbleNets.

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  13. My horses get only grass hay as well, with the exception of my older girl who is 20 who gets a senior supplement, they all are fat and shiny. My gelding could survive on air so because of that I have gone to making my own nibble nets from hockey nets. Yes we live in Canada and you can find hockey nets any time of the year!!! I cut off the smaller sides then loop rope through the holes to make a draw sting bag. The holes are around 1 to 1/2" and they are very tough!! A large hockey net can fit most regular size hay bales. This ensures that they eat slower and have something to eat throughout the day and there is less waste. On my small property that is a big deal!!

    Does anyone have suggestions for those older equines that take a little more to keep their weight up? My girl seems to be doing okay with her supplement but this year I also added a fat and fiber food as she seemed to come through winter a bit more underweight. Thanks for your thoughts.

  14. mommyrides- I've had great success with alfalfa cube/beet pulp mush. The oldies love it and it keeps everything fat, even the hard keepers.

  15. Another vote for alfalfe pellet/beet pulp mush.

    I'm convinced that free-choice hay and alfalfa pellet/beet pulp mush is the ultimate way to put weight on ANYTHING. I've never seen it NOT work. Love it.

  16. Thanks for the suggestion on the alfalfa/beet pulp mush I will definitely try my old girl on that. Is there a specific ratio of cubes to pulp?

  17. mommyrides- I just went 1/2 and 1/2...

  18. A video on Slow Feeders... they are awesome! feature=player_embedded&v=YVRWskvdsio

    Mommyrides had a great idea for making your own using hockey nets!

  19. I also do mainly grass hay. I feed a pelleted supplement, very little. And one of them wears a muzzle when there's grass in the pasture. They are all slightly plump, and shine like they've been sprayed with show sheen. Never had a colic (knock on wood), but I do have a lot of poop.

  20. I agree also. I've always been taught and agree that horses should pretty much always be able to eat, whether grass or hay or hay product like haylage. At home in the UK, our horses are out from 7-4 in winter, then have hay in their stalls at night in nets, and out 24/7 in summer.

    Where I work in Canada, the horses that are not out during the day are given a slice of hay every 3/4 hours, which fits in with the recommended eating schedule. If you can't deal with poop, why would you work with horses?!

  21. I can't stand it when a barn feeds 2 flakes of hay, 2 times per day, regardless of the size or needs of the horse. My horse is fat, but he proceeded to get ulcers on that type of diet. Mine is also on a cup of alfalfa pellets with a vit/min supplement and joint supplement. I also know people who give no hay during the day since the horse is out on grass all night. It's amazing none of teh horses are showing signs of ulcers yet.

  22. When I got December back from a lease arrangement completely underweight and having weird colic problems I thought ulcers might have been the culprit. I never had her scoped to be sure on the advice of my vet who wanted me to change her feeding program first.

    I couldn't even get her to eat hay at first but she went out in a nice pasture with 24-7 forage. I also started her on beet pulp, and alfalfa pellets once a day and just a tiny bit of rice bran. Right now she's also getting a flake of 3 grain hay once a day because the brat still won't eat the grass hay I was feeding and the winter pasture wasn't as rich. I'll wean her off that now that the grass is really coming up.

    Six months later she's fat again, looks great and is jumping 2'6 courses for me at the age of 14. She really looks great.