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.
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.
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.
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.
When feeding forage, here are some important points to consider:
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.
Summer is here – apparently! Although the weather has not felt as warm and summery as some years, we still have more sunshine and lighter nights than the rest of the year. This causes changes to grass and consequently may see changes to feeding horses throughout summer. Here is some advice from the Equine Nutrition team at Bishop Burton College.
The first thing to consider is if the summer grass meets your horse’s nutritional requirements. Consider what you are feeding them and what work they are doing. Even if their work increases slightly in the summer, it does not always mean extra feed is needed. You may need to reduce hard feed or remove it altogether.
Hay or haylage may need to be provided in the field if the grass is of poor quality or for mares supporting a foal, horses in hard work or during poor weather conditions. Native ponies turned out all summer will not need extra forage.
If your horse's ration now only consists of forage, you may need to add a supplement to ensure their vitamin and mineral requirements are met. This is because UK soil can be deficient in certain minerals such as selenium (supports the immune system), zinc (needed for bone development, healthy hooves and coats) and copper (needed for bone and cartilage development). Ideally, a forage analysis of the grass should be carried out to determine which, if any, minerals are lacking.
Supplements can compensate for vitamin and mineral deficiencies in the horse’s forage-only diet. As supplements do not add calories to the diet, they are suitable for overweight horses and those who do not need the extra calories. They can be added to a small amount of low-calorie or straw chaff, or a salt/mineral lick can be used (Be cautious of the sugar content of some licks due to the molasses in them). Alternatively, a balancer can be used, but they do have a calorie value. They will also give added protein to the diet.
Good digestible energy, protein and improved nutritional quality of the grass can result in your horse gaining extra weight. Sometimes this is needed as horses may come out of winter needing to gain summer condition (Winter BCS 2.5/5 to Summer BCS 3.5/5). This is the horse's natural weight gain and weight loss cycle due to the changing seasons and nutritional value of vegetation; however, most horse owners mistakenly keep their horses at the same weight all year round. This means coming into the spring/summer, the horse does not need to put weight on, as they are already at their summer weight. When they gain weight because of spring grass or their ration has not been altered for summer, this can lead to obesity. Research shows that over 70% of some equine populations are obese and that obesity has become so common it is now seen as the norm. Obesity is a common risk factor for Equine Metabolic Syndrome, insulin dysregulation and laminitis. It can also lead to infertility, orthopaedic disease, hyperlipaemia, hyperthermia and poor performance.
Cuddeford, D., 2003. Equine Nutrition. Wiltshire: The Crowood Press Ltd..
Frape, D., 1998. Equine Nutrition and Feeding. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell Science Ltd.
McDonald, P. , 2009. Section 13: Horse Nutrtition and Feeding. In: Animal Nutrition Handbook. London: Pearson Education Limited, pp. 332-359.
O'Beirne-Ranelagh, E., 2005. Managing grass for horses: The responsible owners guide. London: Cambridge Publishing Ltd.
Rendle, D., McGregor Argo, C., Bowen, M., Carslake, H., German, A., Harris, P., Knowles, E., Menzies-Gow, N., Morgan, R., 2018. Equine obesity: current perspectives. UK-Vet Equine, 2(5), pp. 1-19.
Spring has arrived! As equestrians look forward to leaving the dark winter days behind, there are lots of horse management points to think about. The main one being the transition in feeding required for our horses. Equine Nutrition Lecturer, Hannah Williams from Bishop Burton College has given us some top tips on transitioning feeding routines as we go from Winter to Spring.
As a horse comes out of winter, it is expected that they should be slightly ‘ribby’ as they will then regain weight during the spring and summer months. This is due to seasonal fluctuations in the nutritional value of the grass. This is the natural weight loss and weight gain cycle of the horse and owners often make the mistake of keeping their horse the same weight all year round.
The nutritional content of grass changes throughout the year which reminds us of one of the golden rules of feeding.
This must be remembered when changing the horse from a diet of predominantly hay/haylage over the winter to increased amounts of grass in the spring.
Horses spend 10-17 hours a day grazing, usually split into 15-20 grazing periods.
Horses can consume over 3% and ponies up to 5% of their body weight in 24 hours when grazing good-quality pasture.
Bear in mind that a horse in average condition only needs to eat 2% of their body weight per day!
Compared to hay, grass has a much higher water content and often higher non-structural carbohydrates such as sugars. Increased intake and varying nutrients can lead to problems such as:
Not to forget the change spring grass can bring about changes in the horses behaviour. We often see increased anxiety or excitability on the ground or when ridden due to ‘spring fever’.
In any field the nutritional value of grass varies from area to area, meaning the value of the whole pasture will be dependent upon the stocking density and variety of herbage and grasses available. We know to be cautious with spring grass, especially if they have been stabled most of the winter. But it is often forgotten that there is another peak of grass growth in the autumn, resulting in high amounts of water-soluble carbohydrates and potentially fructans. During a drought, overgrazing or temperature fluctuations grass may become stressed and which can also lead to high amounts of fructans, which can result in colic and laminitis.