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Forage as the Basis of Equine Diets

Working with an equine nutritionist and your veterinarian can help you design a forage-first diet that is right for your horse.
hay net close up horse nose

While grazing and free access to hay are often considered a best practice for gut health, not all horses can benefit from this approach.

Editor's note: This month we are focusing a series of articles on equine nutrition along with other content. You can find previous equine nutrition articles in our Feed/Supplements section on StableManagement.com.

Starting with forage as the basis of a horse’s diet mimics the types of food he would feast on in the wild. However, the main meal of wild horses consists of lower-quality grasses and even brush and nearby shrubs. So, even domesticated horses on a forage-only diet typically receive a more nutritious meal through quality hay and pastures.

While grazing and free access to hay are often considered a best practice for gut health, not all horses can benefit from this approach. Unlimited grass or hay is problematic for horses with insulin resistance and metabolic issues that need careful management of rations.

Other horses simply can’t walk away from the buffet and never stop eating. Allowing a horse to become overweight can predispose them to multiple health risks. Try these strategies to slow down your enthusiastic eaters.

  • Provide smaller, more frequent portions of hay in slow-feed nets
  • Soak hay to pull sugars out before feeding
  • Turn horses out on dry lots
  • Limit or avoid grazing at times of day when sugars in grasses are the highest
  • Use a grazing muzzle
  • Pair horses with similar eating habits so competition doesn’t encourage eating to beat the other horse(s)

Access to grass is only part of the equation. Hays contain varying nutrient levels based on the type and maturity of the forages contained. 

For example, alfalfa is a nutrient-rich hay that is often considered best practice for performance horses and horses with gastric ulcers. However, the high nutrient levels can be too much for easy keepers or those horses not working. 

Legumes and grass hays cut back on nutrient density while still meeting the horse’s nutritional needs. 

Plant maturity at the time of cutting and baling can also control nutrient levels for horses needing less dense nutrients.

Working with an equine nutritionist and your veterinarian can help you design a forage-first diet that is right for your horse.

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