Feeding Fiber to Horses

Do you know the fiber level in your current feeding program?  If you don’t, you are not alone.  Few horse owners can answer that question, and even fewer understand why it might be important or where fiber comes from.  The first and foremost source of fiber in a horses’ diet is their roughage, or hay, source.  Secondary to that is what is present in any supplemental grain sources.

First of all, let’s define what fiber is:

  • Fiber is a measure of the plant cell wall, or the structural portions that give the plant support. 
  • Main components of fiber are the digestible cellulose and hemicellulose, and the indigestible lignin. 
    • As a crop of hay matures, the lignin content increases and the cellulose and hemicellulose decrease.

Here’s what happens as a horse consumes roughage:

  • Some quick digestion occurs in the stomach and small intestine, allowing starches and sugars to get digested as the forages pass through this portion of the digestive system. 
  • The fiber begins to get digested as the feed passes into the hindgut, or the cecum and colon. 
  • Fiber is digested well here is because of the presence of billions of microorganisms (bugs) whose sole function is to digest fiber. 
  • These microorganisms break down fibrous feeds into short chain volatile fatty acids, which are a source of energy for the horse. 

Here is why it becomes important to feed a high-quality, early-growth-stage roughage.  As a plant matures, the lignin portion increases, reducing the energy available from that roughage.  Add that to the other benefits of high-quality roughage for horses, namely the greater availability of other nutrients, and it is easy to see where spending a little more money for better hay is better in the long run for your horse.

So what does it all mean for your horse?  A horse consuming 1-1.5% of it’s body weight per day in quality roughage sources will meet its fiber needs. 

16 thoughts on “Feeding Fiber to Horses

    • Hi Sue,
      Thanks for the question. We would generally recommend against that – bran, when used as an ingredient in a fully balanced ration, is just fine, however when added on it’s own without accounting for some of it’s nutritional inadequacies, it can cause trouble over time.

      We’ve got a couple articles on feeding bran or bran mashes, read these and let us know if you have more questions! Feeding Bran Mashes to Horses, and Warm Mashes for Senior Horses.

      Thank you ~ Gina T.

  1. Do you mean that I should purchase regular table salt and offer it in a bucket? When you say watch the consumion, how much is too, much? I didn’t realize loose salt was better in the cold months. Thanks
    Sue

    • In the winter months we find that many horses reduce their salt intake. To keep their diet properly balanced two ounces per day of table salt, can be added to the daily grain ration. This will also encourage your horse to maintain adequate water consumption during the winter months.
      Thank you ~ Emily L.

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  3. Hello, I am doing research for feeds for my horse; I found a feed that I really like, but it has 18.5% fiber. What does this mean exactly? How does it affect her? She is on alfalfa hay now, but is in low amounts at the moment due to stomach upset if not introduced gradually.

    • Hi Kristina, thanks for the question! Not sure if you have already, but if you haven’t, please click here and read this article on fiber in horse feeds, that may help answer your question.

      Generally speaking, higher fiber level in a concentrate means lower energy levels in the feed, but not always, as it depends on the ingredients used to achieve that fiber level. However, other parts of the diet, such as fat level, can be used to compensate for lower energy from fiber. Without knowing a lot more about the feed, it’s tough to attribute what effect that specific fiber level will have on her, as you have to look at how the total diet will impact her.

      Hope that helps, please let us know if you have more questions! Thanks ~ Gina T.

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  7. A TV Show, The Horse Show, had a segment on fiber in a horse’s diet. The Vet on the show talked about making sure the animal has a lot of fiber and to cut back on the ceral grains, oats, corn, etc. She mentioned supplementing grasses with rice or barley products.

    1. Does this same apply to donkeys?

    2. What is the best feed supplement for them, knowing they are both over weight and would like to help them loose weight? I know I have to pen them up, but will a supplement help them burn fat?

    Thanks

    Gary

    • Hello Gary, thanks for the question! Yes, it is important for donkeys to have sufficient fiber in the diet which will come mainly from hay for easy keepers.  As for the grains, if a horse is not being very active and is not a hard keeper, then no, they typically dont need much grain. Performance horses and hard keepers (horse or donkey) may need them, though. Empower Balance is the best recommendation for your donkeys, along with grass hay to reach vitamin/mineral requirements as well as amino acid (protein) requirements – it is very low in calories and has a very small feeding amount, so provides the nutrition they need without impacting them like a traditional horse feed would.

      It is very important to note that a feed or supplement will not help with burning fat – controlling their intake, and exercise, are the things that will help them to burn calories and fat, and thus lose weight. Since you mention you keep them penned up, you likely need to get them some more regular exercise to help them get to a good body condition.

      Thanks ~ Gina T.

    • Hi Sally, If you are feeding a commercially available glucosamine supplement according to the directions for your horse’s age and weight and activity level, then yes, it is safe!
      Thank you ~ Gina T.

  8. Hey there. Have a fresian tb cross. 10 yrs. Breathes like he’s panting sounds like he can’t catch his breath. Been scoped. All good. Doesn’t sweat, thought about being a puffer. Its fiber plus feed good for him?

    • Hello Jenn,

      So “Puffer” is lay term for anhidrosis, and your horse’s panting could be an alternative way to attempt to cool body temp, although is ineffective for the most part. Signs of anhidrosis would be panting, lack of sweat during and after exercise and/or in hot humid weather, dry flakey skin and possibly hair loss especially around the eyes. Because the industry does not understand the mechanism that causes anhidrosis, there is no recommended feeding program to manage it. Dr. Beadle at LSU has a theory that a hormonal/metabolic imbalance brought on by stress due to hot environment, training, respiratory infection, may be the culprit. The stress is thought to increase production the hormone epinephrine, and when that hormone remains elevated under stressful conditions, shuts down the beta receptors or messengers on the sweat glands that results in no sweat being produced. Other theories include low thyroid (hypothyroid) function may contribute (assessing hypothyroidism and treatment should be done under supervision of trusted veterinarian). There are tests to diagnose anhidrosis that a veterinarian can perform.

      Nutrena ProForce Fiber, or similar fiber feed, would be a good feed for your horse assuming target body condition and topline can be maintained. A concentrate that provides optimal amino acid and trace mineral nutrition as well as being fat/fiber based where most of the calories are supplied by fat/fiber will be a “cooler” feed (product less heat from metabolism) than a higher NSC feed. If the horse is an easier keeper and needs fewer calories, I would recommend good quality forage and a ration balancer such as Nutrena Empower Topline Balance or Progressive Proadvantage Grass/alfalfa (depending on the type of forage your horse gets). You also would want to ensure that free choice white salt and fresh water is available at all times. If your horse is in work, use of Progressive Aqua Aid (electrolyte supplement) has been supportive in select cases of non-sweaters. Other supplements and acupuncture have anecdotally been reported to help, but no research to back up claims is available (One-AC, Guinness beer, etc.).

      Typically severe sweaters do not fare well in hot humid climates if they are expected to work/perform, and often get re-homed to cooler northern climates if they are severely affected, or are very carefully managed until cooler fall/winter weather sets in. Other management tips include providing shade/cool misters/fans during hot parts of the day, exercising very early or late in the day when temps are at their lowest and monitoring body temperature closely on hot days and/or during/following exercise to avoid dangerous temperatures that could result in heat related injury/illness, and minimizing any stress as much as possible.

      Best of luck!
      Emily L.

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