I’m guessing that you probably know at least one “Skeeter”...your horses may even live like Skeeter does.
A horse’s diet should be based as much on forage as possible.
I cannot stress this enough!
Many horses, unless they are in moderate or heavy work will thrive very well on hay/pasture and some type of vitamin and mineral supplement.
However, there are instances when a complete hay/grass diet cannot meet the caloric demands of a horse, and that is when concentrated feeds should be added to the diet.
Now back to Skeeter...Skeeter’s lifestyle exhibits many of the problems that today’s horses face:
1. Horses usually go too long without hay or grass
Horses are designed to constantly have hay moving through their system...meaning they are designed to be eating all day. Ideally they should go no longer than 4 hours without hay in front of them. Unfortunately, this is not the case for most horses...
2. Horses today often don’t get enough forage
Horses need a bare minimum of 1% of their body weight in hay or grass each day to maintain gut health and motility. That is a minimum of 10 pounds for a 1000 pound horse.
1.5% is recommended for easy keepers, and closer to 2% is recommended for all others.
Free choice hay/pasture (keeping hay or pasture in front of the horse all day every day) is ideal for most horses except some easy keepers.
However, there are a number of things that Skeeter’s owner (and you!) can do to fix these problems:
1. WEIGH YOUR HAY...
This is the best advice I can give you and the best place to start.
When talking to people about their horse’s nutrition, I often come across people who tell me repeatedly that they “KNOW 100% sure that their hay weighs ‘x’ pounds”, and their horse is getting enough -- even though they haven’t weighed it. 9 times out of 10 they are short of the actual weight of their hay...usually by 40% or more.
I’ve also seen one case where an owner was OVERestimating the weight of her hay...she swore up and down for months that her horse was getting about 1.5% of his body weight, or about 15 pounds of hay each day.
When she was finally convinced to weigh her hay out, she was feeding that easy keeper THIRTY pounds of hay a day -- DOUBLE what she thought!
So, weigh your hay!
Quick note: It can be safely assumed that horses out on good pasture for at least 8-12 hours each day are consuming adequate amounts of forage. However, if they are only out for 12 hours or less, they should be given some hay while stalled, to prevent going more than 4 hours without something in front of them.
2. Provide enough forage for the horse.
In many instances, people are limited because they can only feed twice a day, or the barn only provides “x” amount of hay...
In the first instance, I would tell them to feed more at each of those two feedings...my horse gets 8-10 pounds of hay at each feeding, which is about 1/3 of my bale. It looks like a lot, but he cleans it up before the next feeding. If he wasn’t an easy keeper I would be feeding him just enough so that he had a little bit left over from the last feeding when I fed him the next feeding.
In the second instance, I would say provide your own hay (or substitute), assuming a request for the barn to provide more hay has been denied. Communicate with the barn owner that you expect them to still feed their hay on the same basis (you are, after all, paying for it in your board bill), and then provide your horse with other hay (or substitute) that you buy on your own to meet his requirements.
This is a situation ideal for supplementation with beet pulp or hay cubes -- both of these feeds can be fed with a concentrate feed (or alone) at regular meal times and come packaged in 50 pound bags like other feeds. This will provide your horse with additional forage while avoiding the hassle of buying and transporting your own hay to the barn.
3. Provide forage more often
Often by ensuring that your horse has enough hay, you will usually automatically take care of the third problem of him not having forage in front of him long enough. Since you are feeding more, it takes him longer to eat it.
If he’s still not keeping enough forage in front of him, consider feeding more often (even if it means feeding a small amount every 4 hours) or getting a “filler” hay.
Filler forages are lower-quality grass hays as opposed to alfalfa or high quality grass hay.
This lets you feed more of it and provide less calories at the same time, since it is often not practical for owners to feed their horses every 4 hours.
Notice that I did NOT say LOW quality hay...I said LOWER quality. Your hay should still smell fresh and be mold-free, it will just provide fewer nutrients and calories than other hay.
I often use hay that is 1-2 seasons old that has been stored well as filler-hay...it works well for that purpose and is often less expensive than newer hay.
Now that we have looked at forage as the base of your horse's diet, its time to look at other aspects of the diet.