Forage: Is it the Base of
YOUR Horse's Diet?

Forage should be the base of every horse’s diet. Because of the way the horse digestive system is designed, they cannot easily tolerate high levels of concentrated feeds in their diet, or low levels of hay or grass.

Instead, their tracts are designed to have small amounts of feed moving through at all times.

Forage should be the majority of a horse's diet

When forage is mentioned, most horse owners think of hay and grass. However, options are more extensive than that, including the following:

Please note: A lot of times throughout this page I will mention a specific forage, such as hay or grass. Any of the feeds listed above can be interchanged with the one I mention.

Another thing to note is that when I talk about forage on this page, I am referring to long-stem forage. It is these feeds (listed above), with long particle sizes, that keep the gut healthy and moving.

This is the reason that alfalfa and grass hay cubes appear on the above list, but alfalfa pellets do not. The pellets have particle sizes that are too small to help with gut function and motility, so they are not considered long-stem forage.

It is a common misconception that alfalfa pellets can replace hay in an average horse’s diet and maintain digestive system health. Though there are a few instances where this may be necessary (horse cannot chew hay properly, etc) for the average healthy horse, alfalfa pellets should not be used as a hay replacement.

Before we go any further, I’d like you to meet “Skeeter”, a horse who is stabled like many horses today. Notes about Skeeter appear in gray, and will help clarify some areas of the following discussion.

Skeeter’s owner boards him out because she doesn’t have the land to keep him at home. He is turned out in a paddock for 2 hours every day, and there is a little bit of grass in the paddock.

The barn has their own feeding program, and feed 2 flakes of alfalfa hay twice a day -- once at 7 am, and once at 7 pm.

They also feed an mid-quality sweet feed if requested...but that’s not the important part of this particular discussion.

I’m guessing that you probably know at least one “Skeeter”...your horses may even live like Skeeter does.

Now, let’s head back to the original discussion for a minute...

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...

...Skeeter often goes 8+ hours without hay in front of him.

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.

Skeeter’s 4 flakes of hay weigh approximately 2-3 pounds each, so he gets 8-12 pounds of hay a day -- barely meeting the bare minimum he needs for basic health.

However, there are a number of things that Skeeter’s owner (and you!) can do to fix these problems:


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.

Skeeter's owner has weighed the hay provided by the barn and found that he is getting between 8-12 pounds/day.

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 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.

Skeeter's owner has requested more hay be fed, and though the barn said they would, they have not been. She decides that she will buy her own alfalfa cubes and feed 4 pounds/day of them. This will bring him up above the minimum and closer to the recommended daily amount.

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 works well for that purpose and is often less expensive than newer hay.

Skeeter's owner talks to the barn owner, who agrees to feed the alfalfa cubes to Skeeter at noon. Though he will still be going a little longer than the ideal 4 hours without forage in front of him, he will be much closer to the ideal, and as a result, have a healthier digestive system.

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.

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