According to the National Research Council’s Nutrient Requirements of Horses, many mature horses can maintain a healthy body weight by consuming a diet composed solely of forage, in addition to clean water and salt. Here are some tips for managing horses on hay-based diets.
1. Weigh your horse’s hay, and feed based on your horse’s target body weight. Ensure your horse is receiving 1.5–2.5% of its body weight in forage each day.
2. Have a veterinarian or equine dentist routinely examine and treat your horse’s teeth. Don't assume the horse has a functional mouth if you simply pull back his lips and find a full set of incisors. These front teeth are usually the last ones lost by aged horses. The molars you don’t see grind forage. If your horse is not able to chew its hay sufficiently, consider alternative forage sources.
3. If the horse is overweight, restrict grazing and offer mature hay with lower digestible sugars and higher indigestible fiber. However, be sure that the horse will actually eat the hay and not just use it for bedding.
4. Feed off the ground to minimize the chance of sand colic in areas where this is a concern. Use nets, feed bunks, feed racks, or place the hay on rubber mats.
5. Hay shortage in your area? Consider other forage sources: hay cubes, alfalfa or grass hay pellets, chopped forages, shredded beet pulp, or soy hull pellets.
6. Invest in a few hay nets. Use of hay nets will keep forage off the ground and away from sand and bedding dust; make it easy to weigh and preload hay to quickly feed hungry horses on busy days; and potentially slow consumption.
7. Soak or steam hay to reduce dust if your horse has a respiratory ailment or to reduce the water-soluble sugar content for horses with endocrine abnormalities or chronic laminitis.
In the case of harder keepers, a forage-only diet can be challenging. Making sure the horse has the best-quality forage will go a long way to increasing the caloric intake. Abundant grass and legumes, like clover, in the pasture and high-quality alfalfa, grass, or mixed hay with a high leaf-to-stem ratio are excellent sources of forage calories. Supplementing with forage alternatives, such as hay cubes and pellets or beet pulp, will further increase calorie consumption.
An all-forage diet does not, however, work for every horse in every circumstance. Depending on the origin of the forage and the individual horse, additional minerals and vitamins may be necessary to balance out the deficiencies of the forage. Deficiencies can be corrected through the use of a ration balancer or a vitamin and mineral supplement, such as Micro-Max, which is a low-intake concentrated source of vitamins and minerals for mature horses. Micro-Max is ideal for horses that maintain body weight on diets composed entirely of forage or forage and small amounts of concentrate. Learn more.
Kentucky Equine Research (KER) is an international equine nutrition, research and consultation company serving both the horse producer and the feed industry. Its goal is to advance the industry's knowledge of equine nutrition and exercise physiology and apply this knowledge to produce healthier, more athletic horses. For more information, see www.ker.com or call 888-873-1988.