Do Horses Need Hay Around the Clock?

Do Horses Need Hay Around the Clock?

By Clair Thunes, PhD

Q. I have heard that horses need hay kept in front them all the times, but also that they don’t need 24-hour access to hay. I feed my 20-year-old horse 8 ounces of protein feed in the morning with two to three flakes of hay, and then turn him out on the pasture in afternoon until it gets dark. Now that it’s dark at 5: 30 p.m., I bring him in but don’t give him any hay for the night. Am I feeding him enough?

A. Accurately evaluating if you’re currently feeding the right amount of hay is challenging because I don’t have all the information I need about your horse and what you’re currently feeding. There are really two ways to look at your question:

1.      The first is are you feeding enough to meet your horse’s nutritional requirements; and

2.      Are you feeding enough to maintain gut health?

I will try to address both using some general considerations and hope you’ll find it helpful.

You’re correct that some owners/barns keep forage in front of their horses 24 hours a day while others meal feed. If you think back to where horses come from, they evolved in an environment where they could eat around the clock. Because available forage was low in nutritional value, they had to eat a lot of it, and their digestive tracts evolved accordingly. As a result, their digestive tracts are set up to receive small amounts of food almost constantly and always secrete stomach acid; most of their digestive tract volume is dedicated to forage fermentation.

Traditionally, our domesticated horses were fed in the morning before they went to work. They might receive a meal during the day in a nose bag or similar and then would receive another meal or be turned out on return from work at night. Meal feeding has remained our model for feeding horses even though few horses work all day and this pattern of feeding goes against how their digestive tracts are designed. Feeding this way was a necessity of the lifestyle, and meal feeding remains a mainstay of feeding practice in many barns.

When we apply these considerations to your horse, you’re doing a combination of both as you meal feed, but your horse also gets access to pasture for at least some of the day. It sounds as though your horse likely has feed for most of the daylight hours, assuming the morning hay lasts until turnout. However, overnight there is no feed available. Having no forage available overnight goes counter to the way your horse’s digestive tract is designed. Yet it’s how many horses are fed.

That said it’s also true that the risks of developing issues such as equine gastric ulcer syndrome and some forms of colic increase when horses are meal fed and go for long periods without forage access. So feeding some forage after return from pasture might benefit gastrointestinal health especially now that you are bringing your horse in earlier and the time spent in the stall without forage has increased.

This brings us to the other consideration: Are you feeding enough to meet your horse’s nutritional needs? The first consideration, and what I am going to focus on here, is calories–are you feeding enough calories to maintain body condition? Reducing your horse’s turnout time on pasture means less time for him to consume pasture and the possibility he’s consuming fewer calories. I say possibility because horses have actually been shown to consume the greatest amount of pasture when they are initially turned out, so reducing turnout time might or might not have a significant impact on total pasture intake.

However, at this time of year pasture quality drops off considerably. Rate of plant growth is reduced, so there’s a strong likelihood that your horse is not getting the calories from the pasture that he did over summer and early fall. This could lead to a loss of condition. Not knowing what condition your horse is in currently, I can’t determine whether this would actually be beneficial or not for your horse.

If current condition is ideal, then a loss of condition should cause concern and would require that these missing calories be provided some other way such as additional hay. This could be achieved by feeding some hay when you bring your horse in which would also help solve the issue of the long overnight period without feed.

If your horse needs to lose a little weight, or the reduction in pasture intake does not cause a loss of condition, then you could look at restructuring your current feeding program to spread out the hay you are feeding throughout the day and overnight. Instead of increasing hay intake in this scenario you could feed some of the morning hay in the evening.

Whether you feed more total hay or spread out the current hay fed, consider using a slow feeder so that it takes longer for your horse to eat the hay you are feeding. Some horses can handle constant access to forage without gaining undesirable weight. This typically requires finding an appropriate hay that has low nutritional value and restricting access with slow feeders. However, not all horses adjust to this even when the hay is of low nutritional value and display undesirable weight gain and therefore must have their intake limited.

One last general rule of thumb to keep in mind when debating the issue of whether you’re feeding enough total feed is how much feed your horse is consuming as a percentage of body weight. Research suggests that most mature horses in grazing situations consume 1.5-2% of their body weight per day as dry matter. While studies have shown wide variation in the amount consumed by each individual, veterinarians and nutritionists typically recommend a minimum of 1.5% of body weight as dry matter to maintain gut function.

Hopefully as you consider these general guidelines and your current feeding program they will help you to determine how best to make feeding adjustments if you decide changes are necessary.


Rules for Managing the Overweight Horse

Rules for Managing the Overweight Horse

 By Juliet M. Getty PHDhorse-eating

Like a person, a horse has his own metabolic rate and genetic tendencies. Add in lack of exercise, too many treats, overfeeding, and stress, and the easy keeper becomes an overweight horse at risk for hormone imbalances, arthritis and laminitis.

METABOLIC CONSEQUENCES Too much fat leads to insulin resistance, a hormonal disorder also called metabolic syndrome. It’s like Type II diabetes in people, and equally serious. An insulin-resistant horse is a strong candidate for laminitis. Elevated insulin levels also can cause hyperlipemia, a damaging liver condition. Ponies, miniature horses, donkeys and mules are particularly prone to it, but no horse is immune.

Watch for fat accumulation above your horse’s eyes, on his rump, along his neck (“cresty neck”) or in a fatty spinal crease down his back. All overweight horses have some degree of insulin resistance, so feed the easy keeper on that assumption to be on the safe side.

RULES OF PROPER WEIGHT MANAGEMENT The fi rst step in any weight management program is to have your horse thoroughly examined by your veterinarian, including a complete blood count and chemistry panel tests, to rule out any underlying medical disorders. Then take a hard look at your horse’s feeding and exercise regimens.

RULE #1: Avoid weight loss products and drastic diets. Reducing calories is fi ne, but taking away forage is not the way to help your horse lose weight. In fact, it does just the contrary. For the most part, healthy horses become obese because they are

Like a person, a horse has his own metabolic rate and genetic tendencies. Add in lack of exercise, too many treats, overfeeding, and stress, and the easy keeper becomes an overweight horse at risk for hormone imbalances, arthritis and laminitis.

RULE #2: Avoid feeding cereal grains and sugary treats. “Grain” is commonly used to describe any concentrated feed, but it really means cereal grains such as oats, corn, barley, wheat or pelleted feeds that contain cereal grains. Stay away from these. Fortunately, there are many safe low starch feeds made from other ingredients (alfalfa, soybean meal, fl ax and beet pulp). The high sugar in carrots and apples increases blood insulin levels. Avoid them, as well as any commercial treats made from cereal grains and molasses.

RULE #3: Consider an all-forage diet. Depending on your horse’s age, workload and condition, an all-forage diet can be very healthful. You may not need to feed him any concentrate at all. But have your hay tested for sugar, fructan and starch levels. Strive for a non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) level of less than 12%. Be careful when feeding high-calorie hay such as grain hays (oat, crested wheatgrass, rye) and grass/legume combinations (Timothy/alfalfa mixes). Alfalfa is a wonderful feed, but it’s higher in calories than grass, so limit it to no more than 20% of the total forage ration.

Alfalfa boosts the protein quality in the forage mix. High quality protein maintains immune function, protects the vital organs, keeps bones, muscles and joints strong, and builds healthy hooves, skin and hair. Low quality protein is unusable and can be stored as fat.

RULE #4: Feed free-choice. All horses, regardless of their weight condition, should have forage 24/7. Your horse’s digestive tract is designed to have forage moving through it consistently throughout the day. Horses on pasture self-regulate their intake. The free-choice adjustment for stabled horses takes about a week, during which the horse may initially overeat, but he will soon trust the hay to be there, and will moderate his consumption. At that point, you can measure his regular intake to make other feed calculations. And look for a bonus: fed freechoice, horses generally become calmer and more tractable.

RULE #5: Choose safe grazing times. Grass has the lowest sugar, fructan and starch levels in the early morning. As it is exposed to sunlight, it produces more NSC, making the late afternoon the most hazardous time for the easy keeper. Grass is also more dangerous in the early spring and late fall when the thermometer dips below 40°F overnight; this also raises the NSC levels.

A grazing muzzle may seem ideal, but it can be counterproductive by causing stress and slowing the metabolic rate. So watch your horse; if a muzzle is frustrating him, it’s not helping.

RULE #6: Offer a balance of vitamin/mineral supplements. Live grass offers an abundant supply of vitamins and minerals, but the nutrient content in hay diminishes over time. Minerals remain, but vitamins are very fragile, so hay only diets require supplementation. Offer these in a small non-starchy carrier meal. Avoid supplements with a molasses base.

Most comprehensive products contain a balanced mixture of vitamins and minerals. If your horse’s diet contains more than eight pounds of alfalfa, choose a supplement designed for alfalfa-based diets; it will be lower in calcium. A caution about iron: too much may increase insulin resistance as well as depress immune function. In any case, forage is iron rich, making supplementation unnecessary.

RULE #7: Add or increase exercise. Exercise reduces insulin resistance, builds muscle mass and burns more calories. And since muscle is more metabolically active than fat, more muscle means more calories burned.


Light your Horses Fire but make sure your have water to put it out!

By Sharon Biggs Waller who is a freelance writer for equine ­science and human interest publications and Diane Weinmann

Fuel the FurnaceHorses_eating_hay

People often think a nice restoring cup of hot tea, coffee, hot chocolate or a steaming bowl of oatmeal will warm us on cold days, but it doesn’t work that way for our horses. Hot food, such as a warm bran mash, might temporarily knock the chill off, but it won’t help him stay toasty throughout the night. I used to make a hot bran mash using peppermints melted in water that I heated up then I threw in bran and sweet feed with some apples or carrots. Now that was a treat and it keeps horses tummies warm and everything else moving well if you get my drift…..But what will really help keep those fires stoked is– hay.

It’s been said that “It is how they digest hay that creates the heat”—but did you know that the hay you provide to your horse is fermented in the hindgut, and that fermentation gives off a long-lasting heat. It works just like the steam that rises from your fermenting manure pile. Mmmm, just breathe deep (HA HA HA).

According to vets, horses use that heat to maintain their core body temperature. So as a horse owner, you’re stoking the furnace by feeding them a good quality hay that they can digest and gather nutrients from.

Of course it goes without saying that the forage has to be of good quality. The better the quality of the forage, the more they can eat and the more they will eat.

Any good-quality hay that you can get locally will fit the bill. Just note that as long as it wasn’t overly mature when it was harvested and has a high leaf-to-stem ratio, and absolutely no dust and mold it will work.   If you are in an area where you can get reasonably good alfalfa/orchard grass hay, that would be great. If you are in an area that allows for growing high-quality timothy hay, then that is equally good.

Grain still has plenty to offer in winter, if the quality is good. However, many people think that grains, particularly corn, are “warming” feeds. The truth is, a small amount of high-energy feed will only keep a horse warm for a short time. With hay you get calories, but also heat from digestion.

According to vets, grain helps, but it’s easier to break down and it won’t cause that heat of fermentation, There are readily available calories from a grain that should be part of the maintenance pack, but it still behooves you to base your horse’s diet largely on hay.

What Role does the Water Play?

To help your horse keep his core body temperature up, you must make sure that his digestion is able to function at its peak. That means making sure he has a readily available source of drinkable water which does NOT include snow.

Horses need to have a certain amount of water for the digestion process. If you are in a position where your horse is being fed hay and he has to eat snow for his water, he won’t be able to eat enough snow to compensate for the amount of water he needs for digestion and hydration. Then he may get an impaction…the dreaded COLIC!

In the old days, it was believed that eating snow cooled the horse’s body, but studies done with beef cattle showed that lots of snow had to be consumed at one time before the core body temperature was cooled. Cold water, however, is a different story.

There are some water sources that horses will drink from that may prove the cooling theory correct. If you think how cold some water can get before it freezes, a belly full of that would probably change his core temperature—I mean it would yours’— right?

A bucket of half-frozen water will not fulfill your horse’s needs; he needs unfrozen water that is free of slush and snow. It’s even better if you have taken the chill off. If your horse is going to winter outside, you’ll need to invest in an automatic waterer with a heater. Vets have suggested that you set the water temperature to 37-40°F (2.7-4.4°C).

The colder the weather gets, the more calories your horse will burn to stay warm. If you see the thermometer dropping, the best way you can help your horse stay warm is by tossing him another flake of hay.

Do you hear that barn owners and horse lovers????? Warm your horse with love, treats and HAY (but provide lots of drinkable water)!