Roughage, such as hay and pasture is critical for the health and well-being of all horses. Understanding the design, function and reliance of the horse’s digestive system on roughage is the first step in appreciating the critical value of roughage. Understanding what’s in forage, the types and physical forms of forage and importance of roughage quality should be common knowledge for all horse owners. Finally, understanding how much roughage a horse requires per day is essential in properly feeding any horse. So let’s get started learning about forages for horses.
The Digestive System
The unique structure and function of the horse’s digestive system is designed for the utilization of forage. Horses are herbivores (plant eaters) that evolved on a high fibre diet, spending 16 to 18 hours a day grazing. Fibre is the plant cell wall material which consists of cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin and pectin. Fibre is largely indigestible as animals lack the necessary enzymes to break down fibrous material. However, the microbial population in the horse’s hindgut (large intestine) is able to break down (ferment) fibre, converting it into utilisable energy. Although lignin is completely indigestible, these microorganisms can partially digest cellulose and hemicellulose, and digest practically all pectin, mainly producing energy yielding compounds called volatile fatty acids (VFAs). The horse’s hindgut is the largest area of the digestive system making up over 65% of the digestive capacity. With a gastrointestinal tract designed to digest fibre, it is easy to see why forage is critical to the health of all horses.
What’s in Roughage?
Roughage contains all of the essential nutrients required by horses: water, energy, protein, vitamins and minerals. Unfortunately, many horse owners only talk about, or judge, roughage based on protein content. Roughage should be judged by the levels of all nutrients, not any one single nutrient. The following are some of the nutrients that roughage contains along with a brief explanation.
- Water – Pasture contains large amounts of water whereas preserved forages such as hay and chaff have been dried to prevent mould growth while in storage.
- Protein – The protein content is highest in legumes such as Lucerne and Clover, lower in grasses and lowest in oat or wheaten chaff.
- Fat – Forage contains a small amount of fat which is high in omega 3 fatty acids.
- Fibre – Fibre is the main component of forage. Not all of the fibre in forages is digestible with an overall estimate of digestibility ranging from 40 to 50%.
- Minerals – A number of important minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, potassium, copper, zinc, selenium and others are present. The mineral content of forage tends to be higher in legumes than grasses but is dependent on soil conditions where the plants were grown.
- Vitamins – The vitamin content of green forages is higher compared to sun bleached or weather damaged forage.
Legumes are plants such as Lucerne and clover. Generally, they provide more energy and have a higher protein and mineral content (especially calcium) than grasses.
Grasses that are fed to horses include many different species. The individual species of grass are further divided into those which grow well in colder climates – cool season grasses (e.g. ryegrass, orchard, oat and wheat) and those that grow well in hotter climates – warm season grasses (e.g. kikuyu, mitchel and kangaroo). Again, grasses typically contain less protein and more fibre compared to legume forages.
The physical form of forages fed to horses is also quite variable. The simplest form of forage is pasture. Pasture can contain both grass and legume plants. Pasture plants can be selected to grow in all types of climates. Unfortunately when conditions become harsh such as during extreme heat or cold, pasture plants will quit growing and become dormant. At these times of the season, the horse must rely on physical forms of forage that have been stored.
Hay is the most common form of stored forage. To make hay, plants are grown to a certain height or maturity, cut, dried to low moisture content and packaged into a bale. If the moisture content is greater than 15% the hay will mould while in storage. Feeding mouldy forage is never recommended with horses since it can result in digestive upset (colic) or even death. Mould growth on forage results in the production of toxins that can cause colic or death.
Alternative feeds such as HYGAIN FIBRESSENTIAL (35% crude fibre) or HYGAIN MICRBEET are ideal as a substitute and partial replacement of traditional roughages. HYGAIN FIBRESSENTIAL includes highly digestible fibre sources such as soybean hulls and legume hulls that are high in the most digestible fibre, pectin. Since pectin is virtually totally digested by the horse, the feeds’ fibre level can remain high but also have a moderate level of energy, so much so that soybean hulls can have a similar energy level as some oats whilst having fibre levels similar to lucerne hay. For this reason feeds which are high in pectin are often considered “super fibres”. These alternative feeds are easy to feed and provide superior conditioning whilst significantly reducing the dust and inconsistency often associated with traditional forms of chaff. Furthermore, they are an ideal fibre source for dentally challenged horses as they can be soaked in water, which transforms the product into a soft mash. HYGAIN ZERO (35% crude fibre) and HYGAIN ICE (25% crude fibre, approved by Laminitis Trust) have been formulated as high fibre low starch feeds which are fully fortified with vitamins and minerals.
Highly lignified (stalky) feeds such as straw and some cereal hay are not very nutritious but they keep the horse chewing and the digestive tract moving, which may reduce the risk of stable vices and stomach ulcers.
The main factors that influence the quality of forage are: species of plant, stage of maturity of the plant and the physical location where the plant was grown. As mentioned previously, legume plants (lucerne and clover) tend to be higher in protein, energy and calcium compared to grass plants. Hence, legume forages are best suited for horses with elevated nutrient requirements such as equine athletes, broodmares and growing horses. On the other hand, grass forages, because of the lower energy content, may be better suited to horses that gain weight easily or for pleasure horses.
The maturity of the plant is also a determinant of forage quality. The inside of plant cells consists of protein, fat and soluble carbohydrates (cell contents) whilst the outside (cell wall) consists of fibre. The inside of the cell is highly digestible (80-100%) whilst the cell wall is more limited (40-50%). The more mature (older) a plant becomes or the taller a plant grows, the smaller the proportion of cell contents and the larger the cell wall. As such, as plants mature, their digestibility and hence quality, decreases. Due to the high fibre content of mature plants, they proportionally contain less energy, protein, vitamins and mineral. Pastures often become less digestible in mid-summer and autumn due to the plants becoming tall and mature.
The final determinant of forage quality is the physical location where the plant was grown. Different geographic regions contain soils with different nutrient densities. The nutrient content of the soil is reflected in the nutrient content of the plant. For example, plants grown in nutrient deficient soil will also be nutrient deficient and of lower quality.
How to assess hay quality in 4 steps!
Forage quality can be determined to a limited extent by visual inspection of the forage. Visual inspection can include looking at:
- Leaf to stem ratio,
- Length of the seed head,
- Colour of the plant,
- Presence of dust or mould.
Higher quality hays will have more leaves than stems, a short seed head, be green in colour, and smell fresh with no dust or mould. A more accurate evaluation of forage quality can be acquired via a laboratory analysis. First, a representative sample of forage is sent to the laboratory for chemical analysis. The results will then provide accurate determination of energy, protein, vitamin and mineral content. Laboratory analysis can also be used to determine the presence of harmful mould.
How Much Roughage Should Be Fed?
Roughage is the safest dietary ingredient that can be fed to horses. Horses require an absolute minimum of 1% of their body weight in forage per day, for a 500 kg horse this equates to just 5 kg of forage per day. Racehorses are the only horses that would get down to this minimum amount of forage. A safer guideline is to provide horses with a minimum of 1.5% of their body weight in dry forage per day, which equates to 7.5 kg of dry forage per day for a 500 kg horse. So how much forage will a horse eat? Maximum voluntary feed intake is 2-2.5 % of body weight in dry forage per day, which is up to 12.5 kg of dry forage per day for a 500 kg horse. When fed ad libitum (free access) forage, horses spend more time chewing and thus produce more saliva. As saliva contains bicarbonate, a buffering agent, it may reduce the acidity in the stomach thereby reducing the risk of acidosis and related disorders. It is therefore better to feed your horse several small meals rather than two large meals.
- Over 65% of the horse’s digestive system is designed to digest forage, making it the most important dietary ingredient for horses
- Forage provides essential nutrients such as water, energy, protein, vitamins and minerals
- There are many types and physical forms of forage:
- Legumes are higher in protein, energy and calcium
- Grasses typically contain less protein and more fibre
- Alternative fibre sources include, hay, chaff, HYGAIN MICRBEET and HYGAIN FIBRESSENTIAL
- Roughage quality is affected by specie of plant, stage of maturity and physical location
- Higher quality forage has more leaves than stems, short seed head and be green in colour
- All forages fed to horses should be free from contaminants such as dust and mould
- Horses require a minimum of 1,5% of their own body weight in forage (e.g. 7.5kg for a 500kg horse)