Farm Horizons, Sept. 2005

Nutrition straight to the horse's mouth

By Liz Hellmann

Properly taking care of a horse’s nutritional needs can involve many different factors, but it doesn’t have to be complicated.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to feeding horses. Just like humans, a horse’s nutritional needs depend on its activity level, age, and other factors, such as pregnancy.

Once a horse has been evaluated according to these factors, attention must be focused on one of the main parts of its diet, hay.

Wally Brummer of Waverly owns Brummer’s Tack Horse and Trailer Sales. He believes the staple of a horse’s diet is good hay.

“If you feed the better quality hay, you really don’t have to grain your horse, or at least cut down the grain you do feed it by a lot,” Brummer said.

Brummer has been dealing with horses all his life, and handles about 300 a year.

It is important to feed these horses a good diet, as many of them will end up competing in the Wright County Fair.

No room for rumens

Good quality hay is important, not only because it cuts down on grain needed, but because low-quality hay can result in digestive problems, according to the Wright County Extension Service.

Unlike sheep and cattle, horses do not have large rumens. Rumens are the first section of the stomach in cows and sheep. Immediately after eating, food flows into the rumen, then it is regurgitated, and chewed again.

This process allows microorganisms to break down the food, aiding in digestion.

Because horses do not have rumens, food goes straight to the stomach, where it is more susceptible to molds.

Because of this, food passes through the digestive system quickly, making low-quality hay not only dangerous, but also less effective in providing nutrients.

Horses should be fed frequently, rather than having to digest large amounts of food at one time.

As horses chew forage, they wet it with saliva to aid digestion. On average, horses use about three gallons of saliva a day.

Therefore, it is also important that horses stay well hydrated.

Quality hay important

Horses generally eat between 1.5 to 2.5 percent of their body weight in dry matter every day, according to the Wright County Extension Service.

This means that if a 1,100-pound horse eats 2 percent of its body mass for six months, the horse will consume about 4,000 pounds, or two tons, of hay.

The value of the hay will depend on several different factors, including plant species, level of plant maturity at harvest, weed content, growing conditions, moisture content, and storage methods.

The hay should be tested before it is bought, to ensure its quality.

“We feed good, clean, grassy hay,” Brummer said. “You need to make sure it isn’t moldy.”

One way to test hay is to examine it, testing how it looks, smells, and feels.

Horses generally like to eat hay that is soft and smooth, because this appeals to their tongues and mouths. Therefore, choose hay that is fine-stemmed, green, and leafy.

Choosing the right hay is important for the horse, and also makes economic sense. The horse will pick through unwanted hay, wasting unsuitable hay that has already been purchased.

Hay should also be harvested when the plants are in early bloom (for legumes) or before seed heads have formed in grasses.

Reject hay that has weeds, dirt, and debris, or smells moldy or dusty. Stay away from bales that seem too heavy for their size. This may be an indication they are holding excess moisture, which promotes the growth of mold.

Open several bales in order to evaluate the inside of the bales. For further analysis, have a sample of the hay tested for nutrient content in a certified forage laboratory.

Legumes or grasses

Hay can be divided into two categories, grasses and legumes. Brummer likes to use a mixture of both to get good results.

“We feed hay, and mix in a little alfalfa once in awhile,” Brummer said.

Alfalfa and clover are examples of legumes.

Legumes contain a more concentrated amount of protein, energy,calcium, and vitamin A.

Legumes are perfect as part of a diet for young and growing horses, lactating mares, work horses, and performance athletes.

However, not all horses need the level of nutrients and energy supplied by legumes.

For more sedentary horses, an alfalfa grass mix can supply the needed nutrition, without supplying extra nutrients that may cause problems for the horse.

Be sure to include a phosphorous mineral supplement when feeding horses alfalfa. This will balance the calcium/phosphorous ratio, which is especially important for young horses.

Grass is an excellent choice for many adult horses. It is generally lower in protein and energy, and thus will not burden the horse with extra calories.

A fortified grain concentrate can be used to supplement grass hay to increase its energy, protein, vitamin, and mineral content.

Grasses that are commonly used for horse hay are timothy, orchard, brome, fescue, prairie, oat, and bermuda.

When deciding on a horse’s ration, it is a good idea to consult a veterinarian or equine nutritionist.

For more information, visit the Wright County Extension Service web site,

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