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  • June 27, 2024 4 min read

    Forage: Is it All That a Horse Needs?

    Forage is the cornerstone of a horse's diet, providing essential nutrients and satisfying their natural grazing behavior. But is forage all that a horse needs? The answer depends on various factors, including the horse's activity level, nutritional needs, and the quality of the forage available. This article explores the role of forage in equine nutrition, comparing the needs of pleasure horses to performance horses, and examining the concept of a balanced diet, good doers, and the potential for vitamin and mineral depletion in hay.

    The Importance of Forage

    Forage, including pasture, hay, and haylage, is crucial for a horse's digestive health. Horses are designed to graze for up to 18 hours a day, consuming small amounts of fibrous material continuously. This grazing behavior supports the production of saliva, which buffers stomach acid and aids digestion. The fibre in forage also promotes healthy gut function and prevents digestive disorders such as colic and gastric ulcers.

    Forage provides essential nutrients, including carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, and minerals. It is a primary source of energy for horses, especially those at rest or engaged in light work. However, the nutritional content of forage can vary significantly based on factors such as plant species, growth stage at harvest, and soil quality.

    Nutritional Needs and Balanced Diets

    A balanced diet for horses must meet their energy, protein, vitamin, and mineral requirements. While forage can provide many of these nutrients, it may not be sufficient for all horses, particularly those with higher nutritional demands.

    Pleasure Horses:

    Pleasure horses, or those engaged in light to moderate work, often thrive on a diet primarily composed of forage. For these horses, high-quality hay or pasture may supply adequate energy and nutrients. However, it is essential to ensure that the forage meets the horse's specific needs. Regular analysis of hay or pasture can help determine its nutritional content and identify any deficiencies. If deficiencies are found, then it is important to supplement with the appropriate vitamins and minerals to ensure a balanced diet.

    Performance Horses:

    Performance horses, such as those involved in racing, eventing, or intense training, have higher energy and protein requirements. For these horses, forage alone may not provide sufficient calories or essential nutrients to support their activity levels and recovery. In such cases, supplementary feeding with concentrates, grains, or specialised performance feeds may be necessary to ensure a balanced diet.

    Good Doers

    "Good doers" are horses that maintain their weight easily and may even be prone to obesity. These horses often require careful management to prevent excessive weight gain and associated health issues, such as laminitis. For good doers, a forage-based diet can be beneficial, as it allows them to consume enough bulk to satisfy their grazing instincts without excessive calorie intake.

    To manage weight in good doers, it is crucial to provide low-calorie, high-fibre forage. Late-cut hay or mature pasture can be ideal, as it tends to be lower in energy while still providing necessary fibre. Additionally, soaking hay for 30 to 60 minutes before feeding can reduce its non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) content, making it a suitable option for horses that need to control their weight.

    Vitamin and Mineral Depletion in Hay

    While forage provides many essential nutrients, hay can sometimes be deficient in certain vitamins and minerals, especially if it has been stored for an extended period. Key nutrients that may be depleted in hay include:

    - Vitamins: Fresh forage is a good source of vitamins, particularly vitamin A (beta-carotene) and vitamin E. However, these vitamins degrade over time in stored hay. Horses on a hay-only diet may require supplementation to meet their vitamin A and E needs.

    - Minerals: The mineral content of hay is influenced by the soil in which it is grown. Common mineral deficiencies in hay include calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and trace minerals such as selenium and zinc. Regular soil testing and appropriate fertilisation can help improve the mineral content of forage crops.

    To ensure a balanced diet, horse owners should consider supplementing their horse's diet with a vitamin and mineral supplement, especially if the horse is on a hay-only diet. This can help address potential deficiencies and support overall health and performance.

    Forage is a fundamental component of a horse's diet and can provide many of the essential nutrients needed for health and well-being. For pleasure horses and good doers, high-quality forage may be sufficient to meet their nutritional needs, provided it is properly managed and supplemented as necessary. However, performance horses and those with higher energy requirements may require additional supplementation to ensure a balanced diet.

    Regular analysis of forage and consultation with an equine nutritionist can help horse owners create a diet that meets the specific needs of their horses. By understanding the role of forage and the potential for nutrient deficiencies, horse owners can ensure their horses receive the best possible nutrition, whether they are leisurely grazers or high-performance athletes.

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