Today, equine nutritional information is available from many sources, and it’s imperative that anyone who owns or cares for horses have a basic understanding of the essentials in feeding and the nutritional needs of horses. It is important to note that in a natural environment horses spend a great deal of their days grazing and foraging for food. It is estimated that horses spend up to 18 hours a day in search of food. As a result the digestive tract of horses is uniquely designed to process small meals throughout the day. However, this fact appears to have little impact on the feeding of horses today. As you develop or evaluate the way you feed your horses, it will be to their benefit if you bear this fact in mind and feed accordingly.
Hay is the mainstay of any feeding program. Hay is generally of two types; grass hays and legume hays, of which alfalfa is an example. Due to geographical variations in soil types and weather patterns, some types of hay may be more accessible and affordable than others. Alfalfa is higher in protein content compared to grass hays and as a result of metabolism and production of ammonia, this type of hay will tend to cause a stronger odor in a stable area. However, alfalfa is widely used and many believe it to be a superior type of hay. One important difference is that grass hay can be safely fed free choice whereas alfalfa, because of the density of nutrients, is generally not fed this way. Today new hays such as bermuda have become available and are successfully used in feeding programs. Pay close attention to your hay as it is critically important that it is baled and stored properly. This insures and preserves the quality of the product. If hay is put up before fully cured, or is rained on after bailing, it will tend to mold. Any hint of white powder or musty moldy smell should cause the hay to be discarded. An important observation is that changes in loads or types of hay, if not gradually introduced will tend to cause episodes of colic at about the two-week mark after the change. It is important to note that large round bales can be an inexpensive source and method of feeding horses hay. However, round bales can and do create problems for horses under certain conditions. If you were thinking of feeding large round bales, we would advise you to discuss the issue with your veterinarian.
Grains or pelleted feeds are used as a more concentrated source of nutrients and calories. This is also the most misunderstood aspect of the modern day feeding of horses. Today, most people understand the role of hay and clean fresh water and most owners and caretakers understand the need to provide a salt or mineral block supplement. Grains and concentrated feeds, however, are in general, expensive, overfed and create a great deal of problems for horses. Refer back to the concept of small meals eaten throughout the day and compare this with the concept of several pounds of concentrated feeds that can be consumed in a very short period of time. Horses rely on us to provide them with a diet that will encourage good health and a long useful life. Educating yourself on concentrated sources of nutrition will take time but your horses will be the beneficiaries of your efforts. As you read and learn about this component of feeding horses, keep in mind that most adult horses could be well fed and kept in good to great physical health without any grain in their diet.
Pasture represents free roaming and full time access to feed. This can be good and in many situations today this can be fraught with problems. Watching horses run and kick up is a site that will cause most of us to stop and watch. But beautiful green, richly fertilized pastures can create a number of problems for your horses. This is yet another area of horse management that is often misunderstood and can be the source of your vet bills in the future and the expenses can be avoided with a little knowledge and planning.