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Issues to consider when feeding horses

When the Humane Society of Utah investigates reports of horses in poor condition ("flesh"), it is not uncommon to find thin horses, even though the owner may have hay on the property. The amount, type and quality of hay being fed has a great impact on the horse’s level of nutrition and the amount of body flesh. If horses don’t receive adequate amounts of hay, they suffer. If they receive what would be the correct amount, but the quality of the hay is inadequate, they suffer. Adult horses require at least 1.5 to two pounds of good quality hay for every 100 pounds of body weight; thus, a 1,000 pound horse, for example, requires about 15 to 20 pounds of quality hay per day.

Common Utah hay forage types include alfalfa, timothy, grass hay, meadow hay and oat hay. It may be wise to feed a quality mixture of these different types of hay to increase the likelihood that animals obtain an adequate supply of nutrients.

Purchase hay that is a bright green color with a sweet smell. It should be dry and clean. This increases the chances that the hay will contain high amounts of vitamins A and D. Choose hay on quality first, although price is an important factor.

Avoid feeding hay directly on the ground. If possible, feed twice a day at 12-hour intervals to enable the animal to more efficiently utilize its ration. Uneaten hay should be removed with each feeding and inspected for indications of spoilage.

An article by J'Wayne McArthur in the September 6, 1984 Utah Farmer-Stockman advised to look for the leafiness of the hay in the bale. It should have over 25% leaves to be considered adequate for a horse feed. The article goes on to advise that rain-damaged hay will contain less digestible energy and will look bleached, the leaves will be browner and dry. It will have a tobacco smell as the leaves will have broken down and started to powder. Vitamin A (or carotene) is lost rapidly when a crop is made into hay and put in storage. Alfalfa will have up to 100% more carotene than other hays put up in equal quality. Rain-damaged hay may have little vitamin A and be high in dust or mold. Moldy hay often contains toxins that are unsafe for the horse also, causing coughing, wheezing, and even "heave lines" from the constant coughing. The article advises, "If you can’t afford good hay, sell your horse."

A handout, EC 385, "Practical Horse Feeding — [F]eed, [D]on't [F]atten", by J'Wayne McArthur and Paul V. Fonnesbeck, Cooperative Extension Service, Utah State University, Logan, states "The stage at which green roughage is cut or grazed has a direct bearing on the feed value it will have. Late-cut hays are not as nutritious and are lower in protein than early cut hays ... The age of the hay since it was harvested should also be considered. The longer the hay is stored, the lower its carotene or pro-vitamin A content ... Always remove moldy hay from any hay being fed."

The article continues: "A bale of hay may weigh from 40 to 100 pounds depending on the variety, condition, and dryness of hay ... Know the approximate weight and age of each animal and feed horse in proportion to size, weight, condition and nutrient needs. Feed each horse as an individual when possible, to insure proper intake of feed ... Feed hay ... in clean feeders ... Never feed moldy, musty, dusty, or frozen feed ... If your horse shows signs of losing weight, ribs showing, stomach drawn up, and coarse hair coat, additional feed or higher quality feed should be provided. If the horse doesn’t start to pick up, you should call the veterinarian."

An article entitled "Fact or Fiction in Horse Nutrition," by Ginger A. Rich, Ph.D., Department of Animal Science, Colorado State University, states: "...[G]rains and hay vary widely in their densities and nutrient content ... The amount of feed needed by the horse can be more closely estimated from the weight rather than the volume of the feed. To determine the correct volume of feed, weigh several bales of hay to find an average weight"...

Feeding a diet of grass hay and grain results in calcium deficiency. Alfalfa hay can supply much more calcium than grass hay and a diet of good quality alfalfa and grain could supply all the calcium needed, but it might still be deficient in phosphorus. It probably would be wise to have your horse rations analyzed for calcium and phosphorus and adjust them accordingly.

An article by J'Wayne McArthur in the November 5, 1987 Utah Farmer-Stockman advised feeding young horses two types of hay: alfalfa in the morning and good quality grass hay in the evening.

Overfeeding horses in Utah may be a more common problem than is under-feeding them. In young horses it may cause skeletal disorders. In mature horses it may increase the incidence of founder and excessive feed bills. It may also reduce fertility and increase foaling difficulties in mares.

As horses age, their ability to utilize foodstuffs changes and their feed requirements may also change. As stated in an article, "Horse’s Age Determines Feeding Ration", in the April 1987 Quarter Horse Journal, "The goal, throughout a horse’s growing period, is to maintain it in moderate body condition," ... "[A]nd that requires the proper ratios of energy to protein and calcium to phosphorus"...

The article goes on to recommend the following rations for younger horses:

  • nursing foals: one to 1.5 pounds creep feed per 100 pounds of body weight
  • weanlings: 1.5 to two pounds of concentrate per 100 pounds of body weight (plus hay at .75 to one pound per 100 pounds body weight)
  • yearlings: 1.5 to 1.75 pounds of concentrate per 100 pounds of body weight (plus hay at .75 to one pound per 100 pounds body weight)

So remember: examine, select and purchase your hay carefully. Store it where it can remain clean and dry until fed. Quality, clean hay will go a long way towards insuring a healthy horse.