Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Basics of Horse Nutrition: Understanding Hay

I don’t know how many times I have been asked questions such as…. “Just how hay do I need to feed my Horse?” …..”Could you look at my horse and tell me if I’m feeding enough?”….. I like these questions since it shows the horse owner wants to ensure he/she is taking care of their horse. I always remind these people that my answers are my opinion and if they asked several other people, they will get several different answers. The following opinion is for people who do not have their horses on pasture.

Generally, a horse currently in decent body condition needs 2% of his body weight in daily feed. That means a 1,000 lb horse needs 20 lbs of feed each day. And I’m talking hay here. There are two general types of hay: Grass Hay and Alfalfa. Grass Hay usually runs about 10—12% protein and Alfalfa Hay generally runs about 17 –23% protein depending upon what cut of the growing season it is.

Hay should make up the bulk of the horse’s daily feed. With the feeding of grains or processed and bagged horse feed, the daily requirements of hay can be reduced, however, again hay should make up the majority of the horse’s diet and most horse’s do well on hay alone providing it’s a good quality hay and must be free of mold. If it smells bad, don’t feed it!

Although thousands of horses do well on Alfalfa alone, the protein content can present problems that are somewhat avoided with a mix of grass and alfalfa or a grass only diet. There is a saying that everything a horse eats goes straight to their feet. That’s true but it goes the way of the gut and digestive tract before it gets to the feet. High levels of protein are thought to cause blockages or colic in the horse’s gut and can affect the hooves in negative manner such as leading to founder. Generally a horse that gets into grass hay storage and eats and eats and eats won’t have near the problems that the same horse would have if he got loose and overfed on alfalfa.

The more times you feed a horse a day, the better, however most horses do just fine on being fed twice a day. I feed my horses four times a day, dividing up grass and alfalfa in near equal amounts.

My reference bible on horse feed is Equine Clinical Nutrition, Feeding and Care, by Lon D. Lewis, DMV, PhD available from Amazon. I understand that this book is used as a textbook in some college equine management programs. It is worth the cost.

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