Feeding Horses FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

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Feeding Horses FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

Is feeding horses basically the same as feeding cattle?
No, the digestive systems of horses are much different and far less tolerant than cattle. Food that can be fed to cattle can damage or even kill horses. To maintain the health of horses one must be aware of these differences and feed accordingly. When feeding horses, it is also vital to understand the six basic nutrient categories that must be met and balanced: Proteins, Carbohydrates, Fats, Vitamins, Minerals and Water. The balance between these dietary items is dependant on a variety of factors such as age, fitness level, and many more. (See Article: "How to Feed a Horse: Understanding the Basic Principles of Horse Nutrition")

How many acres of grass pasture does a horse need to remain healthy?
Horses are healthiest when they have ample grass paddocks. For healthy horses, pasture needs to be a primary feed source. Horses with an average weight of 1,000 to 1,200 pounds generally need 1.75 to 2 acres. A mare and foal, 1.75 to 2 acres. Yearlings, 1.5 to 2 acres. Weanlings, 0.5 to 1 acre. When acreage is limited (less than an acre per horse), the amount of hay forage needs to be increased. To increase the usability of pasture, manure needs to be removed and composted. Horses in confined areas are difficult keepers, they island graze and if one doesn’t rotate horses they can stress grass and create conditions which are unhealthy for the horse.

How does hay forage fit into the dietary needs of horses?
Horses in nature feed continually. To maintain both the health and minimize the stress levels of horses, their digestive system requires a constant supply of food. In nature, horses browse over large areas (As much as 20 miles per day). Because most people do not have the ability to allow free grazing of this magnitude and as a human / horse compromise, we supplement our horse’s dietary needs with alternate feeds. Where limitations of pasture require it, we supplement with carefully measured grain based feeds and hay forage.

What is the best type of hay forage for horses?
This answer depends on the part of the country in which one lives.  There are a variety of hays are commonly fed to horses in the United States, including timothy, orchard, alfalfa, coastal, oat, fescue, clover and rye, to name just a few. Alfalfa is (arguably) considered the best forage for most horses. Alfalfa (A perennial forage legume), has the highest nutritional value of all forages.

What is hay forage made from?
Hay is grass, legumes or other herbaceous plants that have been cut, dried, and stored for use as forage, for horses as well as grazing livestock such as cattle, horses, goats, and sheep. (See Article “Nutritional Analysis of Horse Forages”)

What are first cut are second cut hays and which is the best to buy for horses?
As the name implies, Hay is cut multiple time during the growing season. As a rule first cut hay is richer in dietary nutrients with a smaller percentage of indigestible fiber. Subsequent cuts the ratios begin to reverse. In the case of alfalfa, first cut is considered by many to be too rich in dietary nutrients and second cut is preferable.

What are the principles of feeding hay to horses?
Horses in nature browse continuously (on average 18 hours per day). Horses which do not have access to continuous forage can become stressed and can develop gastrointestinal problems.  Hay and other roughage provide both nutrients and the potential for continuous browsing for a horse. On average, a horse must consume about two percent of dry matter of its bodyweight per day (A 1000 lb horse will need to consume 20 lbs of feed on a dry matter basis). Different ages, classes and workloads of horses require different levels of nutrients from hay.

Is all hay forage the same?
No, all hay is not the same; there are large differences in the dietary value of each type. Each type of hay forage has advantages and some disadvantages for use as forage for horses. It is important to understand the nutritional values of each and how each affects horses. Horses often need and will readily eat most types of grass and legume hay,. The important factor is that that hay forage is of high quality. A common problem for horse owners is finding a dependable and consistent supply of affordable high quality hay. Also making a determination of which type is the best fit for their horses. (See Article “Nutritional Analysis of Horse Forages”).

Is alfalfa hay forage too rich for my horse?
Although true that alfalfa hay is more nutrient-rich forage hay than most other hays, it is nutritionally equivalent to most feeds commonly used for horses. Pastures vary widely based on location, climate and vegetation. Overall, alfalfa is higher in protein (*Crude Protein – Min 16 %), lower in fat (*Crude Fat – Min 1.5 %), high in digestible fiber (*Crude Fiber – Max 30 %), lower sugar (*Sugar - Max 2.5%) lower in starch (*Starch - Max 8.9%) and moisture (*Moisture – Max 12 %)  Alfalfa is particularly high in energy and an outstanding source for vitamins and minerals and is more palatable than most grass hays. Alfalfa is also high in vitamin B, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, and vitamin K. For those with concerns about this question, veterinary consultation is recommended.

Can the high level of protein in alfalfa hay forage damage my horse's kidneys?
It is true that alfalfa hay forages tend to have more protein than most horses need. However, research finds no definitive evidence to suggest that a moderate dietary excess of protein is detrimental to healthy, *most horses. As a rule, like humans, when horses consume more protein than they need, part of the constituent components of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen portion of the amino acids are used for energy and the excess nitrogen is excreted in the urine. Although it is observable that most horses consuming high-protein diets will drink more water and urinate more than horses consuming lower-protein diets, there is no reason to believe that a horse's kidneys will be damaged when this occurs. This may not be the case with horses which have kidney disorders or related disorders and veterinary consultation is recommended.

What is the difference between “Horse Hay Forage” and “Cattle Hay Forage” and does it matter?
Yes it most definitely matters. Because cattle have a different digestive system than horses, they can break down fibrous material with greater efficiency, so they can utilize lower quality hay. Horses consuming poor quality hay do not have the digestive ability to maintain proper body weight and are at greater risk for impaction colic. So make sure you can determine if the hay you purchase is "horse quality" instead of "cow quality".

How can I tell the difference between good and poor quality hay forage?
There are two main methods to determine the quality of hay for horses; evaluation of physical factors and chemical factors. Physical factors that horse owners can use to determine hay quality are: Cutting Maturity, Color, Smell, Species, Dust and Leafiness.
            Cutting Maturity: When and how hay is cut has an important affect on the digestive value to horses. Early growth cuttings tend to have higher percentages of nutritious and digestible forage. This is as opposed to later cut forage which can have a higher percentage of indigestible fibrous material. This is a general rule and varies by the specie used.
            Color: As a general rule the amount of green color of the hay forage can be a factor. Although some hay types (Like alfalfa) are much greener and many excellent hay types are not as green. The vitamin A precursor (carotene) is largely responsible for the bright green color of freshly cut hay. After forage is harvested for hay, prolonged storage time and or exposure to sunlight will reduce the carotene content of hay and reduce the green color. Often hay can be sun bleached and still retain its nutritional value; still the existence of that color can indicate freshness. Hay with an overall yellow color may be excessively mature and resemble straw, which would be poor quality (Cow) hay. Color can be a factor with hay that has been rained on excessively after harvest which allows nutrients to be leached out; this hay would likely not have a green color and be of very poor quality. Hay with black or white powdery spots likely indicates mold, and should be inspected more closely as toxins produced by some plant molds, or mycotoxins, can cause colic and respiratory problems in horses that consume them.
            Smell: Fresh good quality hay has a distinctive, pleasant, sweet aroma. Hay that smells bad as a rule is bad and possibly moldy. Moldy hay can cause sickness in horses due to the presence of mycotoxins (mold toxins), These toxins are particularly dangerous for horses since they have no natural defense against them. So if a bale doesn't smell right, don't feed it to your horse.
            Species: As discussed each species of forage or combination of species used, have different dietary values. Good horse stewardship dictates that one have at least a rudimentary understanding of the values of these hay types.
            Dust: Dust is an indicator of the moisture content and age of most hay types (Alfalfa normally tends to be a bit dustier than other types). Overly dusty hay may contain dirt, mold, and the presence of mycotoxins, which are all detrimental to horses or simply be too old to have much nutritional value. Testing hay by slapping a bale prior to purchase is an acceptable test.
            Leafiness: Again this indicator varies between the species or mix of the hay forage. Leaves contain more digestible nonstructural carbohydrates, protein, minerals and vitamins than stems, which contain high percentages of indigestible fibers. As forage plants mature, the leaf to stem ratio decreases as well as the nutritional value. Hay with a greater leaf to stem ratio, and with smaller leaves and small, fine stems (indicating an earlier harvest or cutting date) and will have a higher calorie and protein content due to a less mature state.

What percentage of a horse’s diet should be pasture and or hay forage?
Equine experts agree that good quality hay or pasture should make up at least half of most horse’s diets. The nutritional value of a pasture and of hay forage varies on species and should be a factor in determining how much hay forage is added to the dietary mix.

How many calories does my horse need per day?
(Based on an average sized mature horse 1,200 lbs / 544.3108 kg)
Maintenance: Approximately 15,000 calories
Moderate work:         Approximately 25,000 calories
Heavy work:               Approximately 33,000 calories

How many calories do different forages provide?
Forage Type              Calories Per Pound
Alfalfa Hay                              977
Beet Pulp                               1,059
Green Pasture                       245
Orchard Grass Hay               872
Timothy Hay                           804

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