A horse’s forage requirements

A horse’s forage requirements

Forage forms the basis of a horse’s diet: it is the main source of fibre as well as a source of energy. But how much does your horse actually need? Is unlimited roughage all that a horse needs? And what about its nutritional value? In this article we discuss forage, and the concept of forage first, but not forage only. 

Before we go into detail: forage is important. But so is water. Your horse’s basic ration should consist of adequate forage (divided into several portions per day) and unlimited access to clean drinking water. Too little water can lead to dehydration and can also have major impacts on digestion. Sufficient drinking water also ensures the elimination of waste products through urination. Never underestimate the importance of water, as it is essential to your horse’s health.

Unlimited forage? 

The foundation of your horse’s feed ration is forage and water. Therefore, forage and water come first, and anything else (like concentrates and supplements) later. Does “forage first” mean unlimited forage? We say no. Unlimited forage is not good for a horse’s health. Here’s why:

In the past, horses grazed almost day and night, chewing on nutritious grasses and herbs up to 16 hours each day. Although this provided them with lots of fibre, such forage was low in sugar and protein. They also had access to diverse herbs and grasses to meet their vitamin and mineral requirements. The life of a ‘modern’ horse may be quite different today, but its digestive system hasn’t changed. When a horse goes for too long without forage, its risk of health problems increases. Unlike humans, horses need to chew to produce saliva, which aids digestion and keeps stomach acid under control. If the horse stops producing saliva, digestive problems can occur, including stomach ulcers, oesophageal blockages, and colic.   

Today’s forage is much richer in energy and protein. Unlimited forage may cause your horse to take in much more energy than it actually needs, which can lead to health problems such as laminitis or obesity. 

How much forage does a horse need?

It can sometimes be difficult to know exactly how much forage to feed your horse. We’ll make use of various calculations to explain exactly how much forage your horse needs. According to equine science, a horse should eat at least 1.5% of its body weight in dry matter (DM) from forage. How much is that in practice? Let’s work it out!

For a 600 kg horse and hay that’s about 83% dry matter, this means: (0.015 x 600) ÷ 83 x 100 = 10.84 kg hay.

Practical experience shows that 1.5% of body weight in DM is on the high side. Why? With the above calculation, you would give your horse 11 kg of rich hay. This would supply enough fibre, but often too much energy and protein. In addition, it is recommended that horses be kept on straw. On average, a horse eats 2 kg of straw per day. That also counts as roughage.

Cavalor therefore calculates at least 1.25% of body weight in dry matter. For a 600 kg horse and hay that’s about 83% dry matter, this means: (0.0125 x 600) ÷ 83 x 100 = 9.036 kg hay per day. Is your horse kept on wood shavings? Then feed your horse 2 kg of straw per day.

Dry matter content in forage

In the above example, we have calculated using hay that is 83% dry matter. Do you feed your horse preserved forage or grass? Please note that the dry matter content will then be much lower, which will cause the kilos of forage to increase.

For example: you give your 600 kg horse haylage with a dry matter content of 65%. That means: Haylage (65% dry matter) – (0.0125 x 600) ÷ 65 x 100 = 11.5 kg haylage per day. Now let’s look at grass. Pasture grass: (16% dry matter) – (0.0125 x 600) ÷ 16 x 100 = 46.9 kg fresh grass.

In the table below you’ll find an overview of the average dry matter content per type of forage. A forage analysis can give an insight into the exact amount of dry matter in your feed.

DM content Crude fibre content (per kg of product) EWpa (per kg product)  Digestible crude protein (per kg of product)
Grass hay A 845 206 0.63 111
Grass hay B 845 282 0.58 62
Haylage 453 118 0.39 59
Lucerne hay 851 274 0.50 105
Wheat straw 902 377 0.25 7
Beet pulp 914 136 0.91 37
Source CVB 2004 
Only forage?

From unlimited forage to a ration consisting of only forage. What about that? In principle, horses that need to eat only for maintenance or light work may meet their energy needs with forage. However, it is important to realise that forage alone does not meet a horse’s vitamin or mineral requirements. Therefore, supplement the ration with a vitamin or mineral supplement or with a low-sugar, low-starch concentrate feed. Forage is important, but horses in work need more.  Is your horse in (top) sports? Then you’ll need to supplement with concentrates or a balancer to meet increased energy requirements.

Forage analysis: feed as you need

Forage makes up the greater part of a horse’s ration, which is why it is important to know what’s in your feed. This is because the protein, fibre, mineral and sugar content in feeds can vary greatly. A forage analysis gives you insight into the nutrients contained in your horse’s forage. An analysis will show whether you should complement your horse’s feed with a concentrate feed, balancer, or supplements, to cover all daily requirements and prevent an oversupply of nutrients. Feed as you need.

Calculate your horse’s weight

In order to calculate your horse’s forage requirements, you need to know not only the dry matter content of your forage, but also your horse’s weight. You can easily calculate your horse’s weight yourself without the use of a horse scale:  all you need is a (long) measuring tape.

Step 1
Measure your horse’s heart girth. Place the measuring tape around the horse’s chest. Your tape measure should pass just behind the withers and behind the front legs. Measure when your horse exhales.

Step 2

Measure the length of your horse. When measuring, make sure your horse is standing square and looking ahead. Measure your horse’s length from the point of the shoulder to the point of the buttocks.

Step 3
Convert using a formula. Now that you know your horse’s heart girth and length, you can use a mathematical formula to calculate its weight.

Heart girth x heart girth x length in cm ÷ 11.877 = your horse’s weight in kg

Tip: for a reliable weight, measure three times and take the average of the three results.

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