Horse Feeding Pitfalls: Forage

Ideally, the average horse’s ration is primarily hay and pasture grass, with modest amounts of concentrates, such as grain, pelleted or sweet feed. But frequently, little emphasis is placed on the quality of forage offered, says Kathleen Crandell, PhD, an equine nutritionist with Kentucky Equine Research in Lexington. “Too many people think that hay is just busywork for the horse and do not realize that it is a major calorie source that can vary greatly with quality. If you’ve tried everything to get a horse’s weight up but are still feeding stemmy, old timothy hay, switching to a leafy grass hay that’s not overly mature is a very safe way to get more calories.”

Besides providing more nutrients, better-quality hay is also more economical. For one thing, poor-quality hay contains less digestible fiber so horses have to eat much more to derive the same amount of nutritional value, yet because it is less palatable, horses tend to leave more of it uneaten. In contrast, good-quality hay rarely goes to waste: Horses are likely to devour every last leaf and stem.

Hay made from different grass species varies somewhat in appearance, but in general the good stuff has several distinguishing characteristics:

  • Leafiness: The leaves contain about 90 percent of a plant’s protein, so ideally, you want bales with fewer stems and large seed heads.
  • Color: The hue of good hay can vary but is generally some shade of light to medium green for grass hays and darker green for alfalfa. Some yellowing is natural if the hay was sun-bleached, but too much yellow likely indicates that the grass was overmature when cut and contains less digestible fiber.
  • Aroma: Good hay smells fresh and slightly sweet. Pungent, acrid or musty odors are signs of mold or other quality deficits.
  • Texture: If you squeeze a handful, good hay feels soft and pliable while poorer hays have coarser stems that will stab your skin.
  • Weight: Good-quality bales are lightweight and springy; if you drop one on its end it ought to bounce.
  • Purity: Good hays contain few weeds and no foreign material, such as sticks, wire or dead insects or animals. 

Source: Equisearch, Laurie Bonner

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