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  • November 02, 2023 4 min read

    The Hay Essentials: A Guide to Feeding Your Horse Safely

    When it comes to feeding horses, hay is often at the core of their diet. It’s not just a tradition borne out of convenience but a health necessity. Horses have delicate digestive systems designed for constant grazing, making hay – dried grasses or legumes – the ideal source of forage, especially when fresh grass isn't abundant. But not all hay is created equal, and horse owners must be vigilant. Here are some key aspects to consider ensuring the hay you feed promotes the well-being of your horse.

    1. The Scourge of Mould:

    Mould in hay is a serious issue that can lead to respiratory problems and colic in horses. It often arises from baling hay with excessive moisture or improper storage conditions that don't allow the hay to breathe. Hay that has turned musty, black, or grey and feels damp is a red flag. Even hay that appears normal but has a faintly sweet, fermented odor can harbor mould spores. Feeding mouldy hay isn't worth the risk; it's best discarded safely, away from the reach of horses.

    1. Dust Dilemmas:

    Dust is another concern, primarily for two reasons: respiratory health and hidden dangers. Horses are susceptible to respiratory conditions like Recurrent Airway Obstruction (RAO), previously known as heaves, which can be exacerbated by dusty hay. Besides health concerns, dust can also mask other issues like mold or sand, which can contribute to digestive disturbances. To mitigate dust, hay can be lightly soaked or steamed. However, this should be done carefully to avoid inducing mould growth or nutrient loss.

    1. Unwelcome Flora:

    Not all plants are horse-friendly, and some can be downright dangerous. When evaluating hay, look out for unusual grasses or plants that may have crept into the bale. Certain weeds and grasses can be toxic or harmful, such barley grass and others might be unpalatable or cause allergies. Further, it is important to ensure your hay is tested for Annual Ryegrass Toxicity (ARGT) whether it be meadow, wheaten or oaten hay. ARGT can be fatal to horses and other livestock, so ensuring that your hay tests for no presence is vital to keep your horses safe and healthy. A good practice is to familiarise yourself with local flora and consult with hay suppliers about the types of grasses included in the mix. Always opt for hay with a high proportion of quality grasses.

    1. The Menace of Dead Animals:

    Though it sounds morbid, the occasional small dead animal like a bird or rodent can end up in hay during the baling process. This is not just an unpleasant surprise but can also introduce toxins and bacteria. Clostridium botulinum, the bacteria responsible for botulism, can grow in the anaerobic conditions provided by a carcass in a bale. It’s vital to inspect hay during feeding and not just when purchasing or storing it. If you find part of a dead animal in the hay, it is best not to feed that part of the hay to your horse, and to discard it.

    1. Nutritional Composition:

    Horses have specific nutritional needs, and hay quality significantly influences this. Factors like the type of grass, the soil it grew in, and the time it was cut all affect the hay's nutritional value. Early-cut hay typically has more nutrients but can be stemmier, while late-cut hay is softer but might lack in essential proteins and minerals. Testing hay for nutritional content is a wise step, particularly for performance horses or those with special dietary requirements.

    1. Storage and Handling:

    Proper storage is essential to maintain the quality of hay. It should be stored in a dry, well-ventilated area to prevent moisture and heat buildup that can lead to mold. Hay should also be kept off the ground to avoid absorbing moisture from the earth and to discourage rodents. When transporting and handling hay, use gloves to protect against hidden sharp objects like wires or thorns.

    1. Age and Freshness:

    Hay isn't wine; it doesn't get better with age. Over time, even well-stored hay will lose nutritional value and palatability. Try to feed hay within a year of its baling to ensure it retains its quality. If you’re unsure about the age, evaluate its condition and consider having it analyzed if it seems suspect.

    1. Seasonal Considerations:

    The time of year can influence the availability and quality of hay. During the spring and summer, fresh hay is in abundance, but in the winter, options might be limited to hay baled earlier in the year. Adjustments to supplementing the diet with additional vitamins or feed might be necessary.

    1. The Source:

    Finally, where you get your hay can make all the difference. Building a relationship with a reputable supplier ensures a consistent quality. They can provide insights into their baling process and the origin of the hay. A trustworthy source should be transparent and willing to discuss their product openly.

    In conclusion, feeding hay to horses is more complex than simply tossing a bale into the stable. It involves understanding the potential hazards that can lurk within what seems like just dried plants. By paying close attention to mould, dust, unusual plants, contaminants, and nutritional value, and by practicing proper storage and handling, you can keep your horses healthy and happy. Remember that when in doubt, consult with a veterinarian or an equine nutritionist to make informed decisions about your horse's diet. Your horse's health and performance depend heavily on the quality of the hay they consume, so being vigilant about what you feed is an essential aspect of responsible horse ownership.

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