It's the time of year where we start thinking about bringing our horses in and stocking up on feed for the coming winter months. It can be difficult to know how much forage to feed in relation to hard feed so we asked our experts! Here is a basic guide on forage rations from Hannah Williams PGCE, MSc, BSc (Hons), BHS ISM, Equine Nutrition at Bishop Burton College.
The horse’s digestive system and forage
Forage is an essential part of the horse’s diet. The horse’s digestive system has evolved to have a continuous supply of forage passing through; hence them being termed ‘trickle feeders’. This constant supply of fibre maintains gut mobility and digestive efficiency. The most significant proportion of the horse’s diet should always be forage as the hindgut (the largest part of the digestive system) is designed to digest the fibre from forage by microbial fermentation in the cecum. When deciding on a forage-to-concentrate ratio for your horse, it is important to consider this.
How Do I Know What To Feed My Horse?
When deciding on a ration for horses, we should always start off with grazing (fresh forage). In most cases, if the horse has free access to good quality grass, this can meet their daily nutrient requirements. Grass is an essential source of the horse's energy, nutrients, and fibre. For example, a 500kg horse in light work needs 83MJ of energy per day. They need to eat 12kg of feed per day, with grass providing an average of 8MJ, meaning the horse consumes 96MJ, which meets and exceeds their energy requirements.
If grazing is insufficient, we can consider adding baled forage (such as haylage, especially through the winter months). If this still does not meet the horse's daily nutrient requirements, then giving the horse a concentrate feed and lastly, a balancer or supplement may be needed.
Forage To Concentrate Ratios
Developing a ration for our horses involves deciding on a forage to concentrate ration. Some authors write that a ratio of 30% forage to 70% concentrate can be fed to horses in very hard work. However, even though these ratios are sometimes fed in practice, this is not recommended as such small amounts of forage and large amounts of concentrates are not optimal for gut health and digestion in the horse. Concentrates should always be less than 50% of the diet, with the table below showing the ideal ratios.
Key Points To Consider
When feeding forage, here are some important points to consider:
- Choose the right type of forage: The most common forage for horses are hay and haylage. Hay can be further categorized into grass, legume, and mixed hay. Haylage can also be suitable as some types have a lower nutritional value (See ‘Our Range’). Each type of forage has different nutrient content and quality, so it is essential to choose the right type based on your horse's age, weight, and workload, among other factors.
- Determine your horse’s appetite: The general rule of thumb is to feed at least 2 to 2.5% of your horse's body weight in forage per day if they are in average condition. If they are underweight, this will increase to 3%; if they are overweight, this will decrease to 1.5% of their body weight, but you would never feed less than 1.5% of their body weight. For example, a 500kg horse would need at least 12kg of feed per day, then split into forage and concentrate if required.
- Feed multiple small meals: If you are limiting the amount of forage due to the horse being overweight, divide the ration into 3 or 4 portions a day to last longer.
- Provide access to clean water: Horses need access to clean, fresh water at all times.
Evans, P. and McKendrick, S., 2010. Equine Nutrition: Concentrates. Utah State University Extension.
Frape, D., 1998. Equine Nutrition and Feeding. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell Science Ltd.
Jansson, A. and Lindberg, J. E. , 2012. A forage-only diet alters the metabolic response of horses in training. Animal Science, 12(6), pp. 1939-1946.
McDonald, P., 2009. Section 13: Horse Nutrtition and Feeding. In: Animal Nutrition Handbook. London: Pearson Education Limited, pp. 332-359.