Man might not live by bread alone, but horses can live on forage just fine. As grazing, herbivorous animals, forage (grasses and plants that grow on pastureland) is what they're designed to eat. Other components of the equine diet--grains, fats, apples, and carrots, for example--are merely the "bells and whistles." It's high-fiber grasses and legumes that need to be front and center in your horse's daily menu.
Forage is more than just a favored feedstuff for horses; it's essential for their gastrointestinal health. In the wild, horses graze for 14 hours a day or more. The equine digestive system is designed to process small amounts of fibrous material on a more or less constant basis. This is the best way for horses to extract the maximum nutrition from the tough grasses and plants they take in. It's also the best way to keep the small and large intestine moving material along--the indigestible bits of fiber in the diet help stimulate contractions in the hindgut. That part of the digestive system appears to need this stimulation to remain in optimum health. Without regular doses of "long-stem" fiber, horses are at increased risk of colic. The constant introduction of small amounts of food in the stomach also helps keep acid production at a reasonable level and reduces the risk of gastric ulcers.
Because they are designed for a grazing lifestyle, horses have an instinct to chew that is almost as compelling as a rodent's. Tough, fibrous pasture plants take a long time to process, and thus satisfy that urge. However, as many owners have discovered, many easier-to-process feeds might not satisfy that urge. In the absence of enough fiber in the diet, it doesn't take long before fencing, barn doors, tack, or any other accessible objects become substitutes! Horses don't derive nourishment from munching on lumber, of course, and depend-ing on substances used to treat the wood, they might even do themselves damage. The best way to dissuade horses from wood chew-ing is to put more edible fiber in front of them on a daily basis.
Delivering enough for-age is easy if you have large, grassy pastures where your horses can roam. Throughout the growing season, they can take care of their own forage requirements with little help from you. When drought or winter kills pasture grasses, we generally provide forage in the form of hay--sun-dried grasses and legumes that have been compressed and baled for convenient storage. Feeding hay is a tradition that's as old as horse husbandry, and for the most part it works very well to satisfy a horse's need for forage.
Hay is not a perfect feed, however. First, it can be difficult to grow and harvest. Hay is weather dependent; without sufficient time to dry in the field, it will ferment and mold, making it unsafe to feed to horses. Drought or flood conditions can ruin a crop, or make it impossible to harvest. Other circumstances--such as forest fires in the western states of the this past summer--can play havoc with distribution, leaving horse owners to deal with high hay prices, scarce supplies, and extremely variable quality. If you can't manage to purchase enough good-quality hay for your horses' needs, you might find yourself scrambling for some sort of alternative.
There are other reasons to look at hay alternatives. Some horses, for example, are allergic to certain hays. If your horse breaks out in hives when you feed him alfalfa, and alfalfa is the most prominent hay that's available in your area, you're going to have to think of some other way to provide him with the forage that he needs. A horse with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD or "heaves") might not be able to eat any kind of hay because the dust content would aggravate his already labored breathing.
Geriatric horses might have trouble with hay because their digestive efficiency can be compromised by age, and because they frequently suffer from dental problems. Animals in their 20s and 30s can have molars which are worn down to almost nothing, which can make chewing the tough, dry stalks of hay very difficult. They might either begin to "quid" (drop mouthfuls of poorly chewed hay out of the sides of their mouths), or, if they do manage to swallow their poorly masticated mouthfuls, they might run the risk of choke (an obstruction of food material in the esophagus). A feed that is softer, easier to chew, and comes in a "smaller particle" format is the better choice for many older horses.
At the racetrack, many trainers prefer not to feed hay to their horses before a hard workout or a race. They feel that a belly full of hay makes a horse retain water in his gut--and the total weight of the fiber plus the water can add up to several pounds, weighing the horse down when he's supposed to be performing at maximum speed. In addition, storage space sometimes can be extremely limited at the track, making it difficult to store hundreds of bales of hay. Once again, a hay alternative might be the best solution.
So what are your choices when you're looking for a way to satisfy your horse's need for fiber, and hay and pasture aren't options you can offer?
Ensiled hay, or haylage, is high-moisture hay that has been compressed and encased in plastic within hours of harvesting. This creates an anaerobic environment under which bacteria ferment the plant fibers, creating a moist, soft feed most horses enjoy. In fact, in one study in which horses were offered dry hay and haylage free-choice, virtually all of the horses chose the haylage within 24 to 48 hours--even those which had never encountered haylage before.
In some ways, haylage can be considered a more "natural" feed for horses than hay. For one thing, its moisture content (which can range upwards of 50%) mimics much more closely the moisture content of growing pasture grasses. Hay, on the other hand, contains less than 15% moisture if it has been properly cured. Because haylage is cut and bagged promptly, its nutrient content also tends to be more like pasture. This is because most of the nutrients in grasses and legumes are contained in the leaves. Dry hay tends to suffer a lot of "leaf shatter" when it is baled--in other words, the fragile, dry leaves tend to crumble and be left in the field, while the stalks get baled. When haylage is created, more of the leaves make it into the bag, thus preserving those important vitamins and minerals.
Haylage also tends to be much lower in dust than ordinary hay. This makes it a far better choice for a horse with respiratory allergies. Because it is soft and succulent, it's easier for geriatric horses to chew than regular hay, and its higher nutrient content might help older equines maintain condition better.
Finally, it is more digestible than hay, although the difference is slight (there's an estimated 2-5% better utilization of nutrients in haylage).
Growers often favor making haylage rather than sun-cured hay because they're not at the mercy of the weather to the same extent--they don't need a week of warm, sunny weather to guarantee a good crop. But because haylage requires specialized equipment for bagging and needs careful handling after packaging, its price tends to be higher than for regular hay.
The biggest downside of haylage is that the plastic packaging needs to be handled cautiously. If the plastic is pierced before you are ready to feed the haylage, aerobic bacteria move in along with the oxygen and begin a secondary fermentation. That can spoil the feed and make it unsafe for horses. Mold spores also find moist haylage an ideal environment in which to multiply. Haylage should be fed within a day or two of the plastic wrapping being opened--which might make it an unsuitable feed for small operations (particularly in the case of plastic-wrapped round bales, which can weigh several hundred pounds). Any haylage that is discovered to have had its wrapping compromised prior to feeding should be discarded.
Because haylage is a high-moisture feed compared to regular hay, it tends to be heavy (almost twice the weight of a comparably sized bale of dry hay). That moisture content can be a liability in the winter, when haylage has been known to freeze!
"This can make it very difficult to get the flakes apart," notes John Burton, PhD, equine nutritionist at the University of Guelph's Department of Animal and Poultry Science. "You also have to take into account that you're handling and storing a lot of water."
That means that you might have to feed slightly more haylage than hay to provide the same amount of fiber. Many owners have found, to their surprise, that their horses lose weight when first switched to a haylage diet until their rations are increased to compensate for the moisture content.
Finally, botulism is a rare, but documented problem for horses on haylage diets. Researchers believe that because haylage is harvested and bagged within hours, there's an increased risk of small rodents, reptiles, or birds being caught up in the forage as it's baled (with sun-cured hay, they have time to make their escape). When dead animals are trapped in the haylage in an anaerobic environment, the botulism bacterium can multiply. Unfortunately, the problem isn't immediately obvious when you open the package. Haylage infected with botulism looks and smells perfectly normal, which is why many veterinarians now recommend vaccinating your herd against the disease ahead of time if you plan to feed haylage. Botulism frequently results in a painful, protracted death, and treatment is expensive and difficult, so the vaccine is cheap insurance for your animals.
Hay Cubes And Pellets
If storage space is at a premium, or if securing a steady supply of good-quality hay is a problem, processed hay cubes or pellets might be the solution. These products are made from coarsely chopped dry hay (sometimes artificially dried rather than sun-cured in the field) that is compressed into cube or pellet shapes. They're easy to handle and store, have a guaranteed nutritional content (which usually varies very little from bag to bag), and generally are very digestible. They even can be soaked in water to make a soft, easy-to-chew fiber source for older horses or those with dental problems. They also tend to be very low in dust and fines.
One of the problems with hay cubes is that they often have a very high alfalfa content, making them rather high in crude protein for most adult horses. Alfalfa acts as a natural "binder" when the cubes are made, helping to keep the chopped fiber stuck together. Grass hays such as timothy, in contrast, don't stick together very well. Some companies have found a way around this by mixing grain products, such as whole-plant corn, corn cobs, or oat hulls, in with the alfalfa to bring the overall protein percentage of the cubes down from 18-24% to 12-14%, a more appropriate level for mature horses. These cubes also might have a better overall balance of nutrients than hay-only cubes, which enable them to be used as a "complete feed."
Hay cubes are favored by many trainers of Standardbred and Thoroughbred racehorses because they tend to be highly digestible and less "bulky" in the gut than long-stemmed hay. But that very digestibility, and the ease and speed with which they are chewed and swallowed, can be a potential problem. Horses that are fed exclusively on hay cubes rather than regular hay tend to find themselves with an unsatisfied grazing urge which can result in chewed lumber, a lot of consumed bedding, or even in vices like cribbing or stall walking. Horses which bolt their feed also might be at increased risk of choke when fed hay cubes (although soaking the cubes in water for about 10 minutes before feeding tends to slow these horses down somewhat).
There's also some question as to whether the short particles of chopped forage do as good a job of stimulating the hindgut as do the long stems of ordinary hay. Some researchers feel that the two- or three-inch particle length found in hay cubes is quite sufficient to keep the gut moving along as it should, but others say the jury's still out and that horses on a hay-cube diet might be at increased risk of colic. Until this question is answered definitively, the best suggestion is to choose a hay cube product made from coarsely chopped hay rather than finely ground forages, and if possible, to combine feeding hay cubes with some natural pasture or long-stemmed hay.
Beet pulp is the fibrous material left over after the sugar is extracted from sugar beets. It's an excellent source of digestible fiber, with a relatively low crude protein content (averaging 8-10%) that is comparable to good-quality grass hay, and a digestible energy level somewhere between hay and grain. Because it's usually fed after having been soaked in water, it's a succulent feed that can help boost a horse's water intake (useful especially in winter, when many horses don't drink enough and run the risk of impaction colic).
In terms of nutrient content, beet pulp is not a stand-out. It contains fairly high levels of calcium, relatively little phosphorus, and no significant quantities of vitamins or other minerals. Because of that, it's not really an adequate 100% substitute for forage unless you also feed a vitamin/mineral mix to compensate. It can serve as a soft, easily digestible supplement to your horse's fiber intake. Since it's very low in dust, it can be a useful feed for horses with respiratory allergies. (In fact, most feeds formulated for high-performance horses or racehorses with "bleeding" problems contain a high proportion of beet pulp, which is intended to replace some or all of the hay in the diet.)
Consider feeding beet pulp if your horse is stressed-out, a "hard keeper," if he has dental problems that make chewing hay difficult, if the quality of your hay is poor, or if you have a geriatric equine who has trouble chewing or digesting hay or pasture. Beet pulp's excellent digestibility also makes it a great choice for a convalescing horse--one recovering from illness or surgery, for example. It even can be fed warm in the winter months, just like a bran mash (and nutritionally, it's a better choice than bran). Most horses find it quite palatable, although occasionally you'll come across one which considers it an acquired taste. Another plus is that beet pulp usually is quite inexpensive and easy to store as long as it doesn't get wet.
Because most people prefer to soak beet pulp before feeding it, however, it is a high-maintenance feed. In the hot summer months, soaked beet pulp left to sit tends to ferment, significantly changing its odor and flavor. It's best to make it up in small batches, just enough to feed in a single day. In winter, it will tend to freeze, so it must be kept in a heated environment until ready to feed. Not everyone is prepared to fuss with this feed, but those who do find it a valuable addition to the diet, especially when hay is expensive or scarce.
In some regions, other byproducts of the human food industry have also served as fiber sources for horses--almond hulls, for example, sometimes are available in California, and citrus pulp is used in Florida and Central America. These products tend to be similar to beet pulp in terms of digestibility and nutrient content, but are regional in availability, which means you might have difficulty securing a steady supply if you live out of the production region.
A popular fiber "extender" in equine diets in the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand is chaff, otherwise known as chopped straw and/or hay. Hay of good, consistent quality often is hard to obtain in England, where the mild, wet summers tend to thwart growers and encourage mold. Therefore, chaff often is mixed into the daily grain ration to give horses more "chew time" and provide some indigestible fiber to help keep the gut functioning properly. Most of these mixes are low in digestibility and nutrients, although they might have molasses added for palatability or various herbs for their reputed therapeutic effects.
Although there's nothing wrong with feeding straw as a supplementary fiber source (or in letting your horse eat some of his straw bedding to satisfy his grazing urge), it should be noted that straw sometimes is contaminated with fungi that produces mycotoxins poisonous to horses. Wheat straw grown and harvested in wet seasons, in particular, can be infected with fusarium, a fungus that invades the grain heads and stalks. Its effects on horses still are poorly understood.
Rye straw sometimes is infected with an endophyte that can cause dystocia (difficult foaling) in broodmares. Therefore, it's generally recommended that pregnant mares not be fed chaff in the last two months of gestation.
As with any feeding decision, it's up to you to weigh the pros and cons when you're considering feeding your horses something other than pasture or hay. It's a good time to involve your veterinarian and perhaps a nutrition consultant from the university or feed store. There are lots of choices available, but only you can determine what's going to be most appropriate for your animals.
About the Author
Karen Briggs is the author of six books, including the recently updated Understanding Equine Nutrition as well as Understanding The Pony, both published by Eclipse Press. She's written a few thousand articles on subjects ranging from guttural pouch infections to how to compost your manure. She is also a Canadian certified riding coach, an equine nutritionist, and works in media relations for the harness racing industry. She lives with her band of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on a farm near Guelph, Ontario, and dabbles in eventing.
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