Lizzie Drury MSc RNutr
Feeding plenty of quality forage is essential to keeping the horse’s digestive system in good working order. In addition, the fermentation of fibre generates heat, so feeding plenty of fibre through the winter will help to keep your horse warm and help to maintain their body condition.
The bottom line is that all horses require an adequate supply of forage (grass, hay or haylage). Forage is essential to satisfy both the horse’s physical and psychological needs. The physical need for forage is to provide bulk, weight and to combat a number of issues; preventing the intestines twisting and looping over each other (colic); aiding the passage of food through the gut to eliminate gas bubbles; to help maintain a stable pH in the hindgut of the horse and to meet a large proportion of the horses energy (calorie) bill.
The psychological need is that the horse has a natural “drive” and need to chew and “trickle feed”. Restricting this requirement may lead to the development of behavioural issues, such as weaving and wood chewing, as well as physical issues, such as gastric ulcers.
Understanding Gastric Ulcers
As the horse evolved to almost continually trickle feed, the way in which he stimulates saliva production and gastric acid production is different to the likes of you or me. When the horse chews, copious amounts of saliva are produced to lubricate the food to aid swallowing. To cope with the continual ingestion of food, the stomach continuously secretes gastric acid into the stomach lumen, not like humans where we only produce gastric acid when we actually eat.
If the horse is not eating and therefore not chewing, he is not producing any saliva. However, he will still be producing plenty of gastric acid with nothing to neutralise this. Long periods without saliva and fibre reaching the stomach results in the acidity building up in the stomach and eventually causes erosion to the delicate cells that line the upper half of the stomach, leading to gastric ulcers.
The incidence of gastric ulcers has been shown to be as high as 95% in racehorses and is thought to be as high as 60-70% in horses performing other disciplines. The biggest cause of this is reduced forage intake and irregular feeding times.
Top Tips on Managing Gastric Ulcers
What Type of Fibre is Good For My Horse?
Grazing is the most common method of forage consumption and can provide exercise and companionship. It helps to prevent boredom and minimises the outlined risk of ulcers.
BUT, unlimited access to rich pasture or frosted pasture can cause colic or Laminitis. Grazing can also expose horses to pasture hazards such as poisonous plants and parasite eggs, so field management is extremely important. It is also difficult to determine the amount and type of forage that a horse is consuming when formulating diets for the management of ‘good-doers’ and performance horse. Soil testing, manure collection and weed control are important to maintain pasture quality.
Grass is the most natural of all horse feeds. It provides energy through fermentation in the hindgut. When hay forms the basis of a horse’s diet there is a lower risk of metabolic disorders and gastric ulcers than when horses are fed large concentrate diets. Good grass hay should be soft, green and leafy, with a sweet smell. Hay that is mouldy or dusty will cause respiratory problems such as COPD
BUT, horses that are in training or work may not be able to derive sufficient energy on a diet that is based on hay alone therefore they require alternative energy sources to supplement their diet. Good grass hay should be soft, green and leafy, with a sweet smell. Hay that is mouldy or dusty can cause respiratory problems such as COPD.
Haylage is a popular alternative to grass hay in the U.K. Usually, haylage has a higher digestible energy level than hay, which means that less concentrate feed can be fed to meet energy requirements.
BUT, haylage spoils quickly and must be fed soon after opening, usually within 3-4 days. Do not use haylage that smells rancid or has a wet or slimy mould on it (white mould is usually normal). Always avoid bags that have been punctured or split.
Fibre Cubes or pellets are another great way of providing forage to horses, especially older horses that can no longer effectively chew hay or haylage. Despite their non-traditional form, fibre cubes or pellets can provide adequate fibre to horses, allowing the gastrointestinal tract to function uninhibitedly, but they should not form the sole component of the horse’s fibre portion of the diet. They must only be used as a PARTIAL hay replacer.
Fibre cubes are also easier to measure, feed and store than baled hay. Minimal dust levels in fibre cubes and pellets also make them ideal for horses with respiratory problems. BUT, cubes and pellets usually take less time to chew and therefore saliva production is reduced, which can increase the risk of choke. REDUCE THIS RISK by dampening high fibre cubes and mixing them with chaff. Soya oil is used within the cubes to help support optimum skin and coat condition. The high-fibre content make Super Fibre Cubes ideal as a partial hay replacer at times when hay is either scarce, expensive or of poor quality. As Super Fibre Cubes are dust-free they are an excellent choice to help maintain respiratory health. They can also be easily soaked to form a mash for horses with poor dentition.
How Much Fibre Should I Feed?
The general recommendation is that horses should receive a MINIMUM of 1.5kg forage per 100kg bodyweight (1.5% of BW), e.g. 500kg horse should receive a MINIMUM of 7.5kg forage daily. Bear in mind however that this is the minimum amount you should be feeding and ideally forage should be fed on an ad-lib basis. This means that if grazing is poor there is always access to hay or haylage in the field, and if the horse is stabled there is always some hay in the stable in the morning showing the horse has had enough to last him through the night. Having said this with ‘good-doers’ and particularly greedy horses, this is not always practical, so don’t hesitate to seek professional advice in these cases.
The following tips may help to ensure that your forage goes further:
- Consider buying some good clean oat straw to supplement with your hay N.B this must only be provided for horses with good dentition.
- Partial hay replacers such as Saracen Super Fibre Cubes can be used to reduce the amount of hay fed, but note that these are not designed to be used as complete hay replacers. They can be placed in a treat ball, or sprinkled through a pile of hay to extend eating time and encourage natural foraging behaviours
- Place a large bucket of chaff, such as Dengie Hi Fi Lite, in the stable alongside the hay to provide a further source of forage.
The table below outlines some examples of different forage rations based on an intake of 1.5% bodyweight for a 500kg horse
|Saracen Super Fibre Cubes||2.0kg||1.5kg|
|Dengie Hi-Fi Lite||1.0kg||2.0kg|
|Total Forage Intake||7.5kg||7.5kg||7.5kg||7.5kg|
*These recommendations are meant as a guideline only and may need to be adjusted according to the horse’s body condition, work levels, general health and quality of pasture. We ALWAYS recommend contacting an experienced equine nutritionist to discuss your horse's unique individual needs when formulating fibre intakes.
Need more guidance?
For a detailed, personalised feeding plan for your horse to ensure optimum fibre intakes, please complete our simple and free Feed Advice form and we will compile a detailed ration using our tailor made formulation software. Alternatively, if you would prefer to speak to one of our qualified nutritionists for some immediate advice, please call our feed advice line on 01622 718 487.