Small Changes in Hay Have a Big Impact on Your Horse

102_2349 (Small)You just received a new load of hay in to your barn. It smells so good, and looks just like the last load you got from your regular supplier. But is it really the same? While it might be similar, growing and harvesting conditions vary with every single cutting, and that can have an impact on the nutrition contained in that sweet-smelling pile of bales in front of you.

Generally speaking, the differences aren’t going to be very big – but the next time your horse mysteriously starts losing weight, or losing muscle condition over his topline, you might want to question your hay supplier or get your hay tested.

For example – if your hay got rained on after it was cut, the rain can shatter the leaves, which is where much of the highly digestible protein is found in your hay.  And given how much of your horse’s daily diet is made up of hay, a small decrease in protein can have a big impact.  Let’s take a look at the math behind this:

A 1000 lb horse should eat 1.5-2.0% of its body weight per day in forage – that’s 15-20 lbs!

  • Hay A has 10% protein: 20 lbs of hay x 0.10 protein = 2 lbs of protein intake per day
  • Hay B has 8% protein: 20 lbs of hay x 0.08 protein = 1.6 lbs of protein intake per day

In this scenario, you’d have to feed an extra 5 lbs of Hay B per day to be feeding the same total protein as Hay A provides!

But how much difference does this really make, you ask? If your horse’s intake is already on the low end of protein requirements for his size and activity level, then a 2% drop in hay protein would potentially show up in 2 to 6 weeks. Over that time, all else being consistent, a decrease in general muscle tone, and muscling over the topline, will start to appear. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to combat – in many cases, simply tossing in an extra flake or two of hay per day, or adding a ration balancer or 1 – 2 lbs of grain per day, at feeding time will combat the decreases – and what horse won’t love you for that?

When Is It Time for Senior Horse Feed?

One question I am frequently asked by horse owners is “when should I switch my older horse to senior feed?”

It is interesting to note that 30-35% of the current horse populations in the US are “Seniors”. Surveys show 54% of all horse owners own at least 1 “senior” horse. By age definition “senior” horse has been defined as 15+ years of age.

Due to improvements in veterinary care and nutrition, horse routinely live 25-30 years of age, some into their 40’s. It is not uncommon to see horses in late teens and twenties performing at high levels. The key is that we need to treat horses as individuals. So when is a “senior” feed required?


Quidding of Hay

The result of quidding.

Signs that your senior horse may need a senior diet include:

  • Weight loss
  • Poor topline condition
  • Hoof quality and hair coat tell a story
  • Dropping feed while eating, may be a sign of dental issues
  • Loose stools
  • Quidding – dropping partially chewed hay out their mouth while eating.

As the horse ages, nutrient absorption and utilization decrease due to breakdown of the digestive system with age. Research has shown that senior horses experience poor nutrient absorption, which occurs particularly with phosphorus, vitamins and protein. Enzyme production may also decrease.

When we look at a senior diet there are some key points to consider. You want to choose a feed that is:

  • Highly digestible to accommodate less efficient digestive system.
  • Look for higher and improved protein quality to make up for small intestine inefficiency.
  • Does the feed contain higher fiber, and can it be fed as a complete diet, to make up for decreased large intestine efficiency, and possibly replace hay if the horse has dental problems.
  • Higher fat helps provide added safe calories.
  • Enhanced vitamin and mineral fortification are needed because of loss of digestive efficiency.
  • Use of pre- & probiotics in senior feeds can aid in gut health and the digestion of fiber.
  • Does the feed have the ability to be served as a mash? Not only are senior feed mashes highly palatable, but they also kelp keep the senior horse hydrated.

Below are the results of a recent feed trial. Cleo is an 18 year old Quarter Horse mare. We changed the diet from a maintenance level feed to senior feed. The results after 6 weeks were impressive!

This is Cleo, 45 days after starting on SafeChoice Senior horse feed.

This is Cleo, 45 days after starting on SafeChoice Senior horse feed.

This is Cleo, on her "maintenance" feed diet.

This is Cleo, on her “maintenance” feed diet.

Transitioning Your Horse to a New Feed

You may be thinking your horse is in need of a senior diet, or perhaps there is a new feed available that you believe is even better for your horse.  Maybe you are no longer happy with your current feed.  Or, your retailer no longer carries the product you were using.  Whatever the reason, switching your horse to a new feed is a change that requires care and know-how.

It’s important to transition your horse gradually over a 7 day period, gradually increasing the new feed and decreasing the old.  Throughout the process, you’ll want to watch your horse’s body condition and adjust feeding rates as needed.

Mixing with Current Feed – The Ideal Process

If still have some of your current feed, transition as follows:


Current Feed

New Feed

Day 1-2



Day 3-4



Day 5-6



Day 7


No Current Feed Available

Whether you just simply ran out, or your favorite feed has been discontinued or no longer carried by your retailer, sometimes you may not be able to mix their old and new feed slowly.  While not ideal, if no current feed is available, you can still safely transition to the new feed.

Because you don’t have any of the old feed to mix, you’ll want to reduce the total amount you feed your horse and gradually increase it again over 7 days, using the new feed.  It is a good idea to offer some extra hay or pasture-time during this transition, as well.  Feed your horse the new grain as follows:


% of recommend feeding rate of the new feed

Day 1-2


Day 3-4


Day 5-6


Day 7


Flash Fred – Our Inherited Horse

We inherited Flash Fred (my daughter has a creative naming process) from a friend of ours. This horse was slowing down in his old age and could no longer keep up with the rigorous lifestyle required on a full scale cattle ranch. In return for a good place to live out his last years we obtained this 20 year old (give or take a few years) sweet and gentle gelding for our girls. For us it was the perfect arrangement.

The horses that help our kids love horses are truly priceless.

Fred arrived in the middle of July and he was in surprisingly good body condition; I rated him about a 4.75. The problem was, we didn’t know anything about what he had been eating or what his previous history was, other than when we picked him up he was in a partial drylot but had just come in off of dryland pasture.

We decided to start Fred off slow. We had some irrigated grass pasture that we wanted to utilize but we didn’t want to turn him loose on it until we saw how he handled feed. For the first week he stayed in a drylot pen at our barn – he had plenty of room to wander around and get used to his new surroundings. We also gave him free choice plain white salt and plenty of clean, fresh water. For feed he got 2% of his bodyweight in medium quality grass hay and a ration balancer with a full vitamin and mineral package. He tolerated all this well (he also tolerated our 2 and 4 year old pretty well, which was great news!), so after the first week we worked on turning him out to pasture.

This was a slow process – many times new horses have a long history that new owners know nothing about: a tendency to colic, a predisposition to laminitis, allergies to certain leaves or weeds,  and the list goes on and on.

We didn’t want to take any chances with Fred, so his first taste of freedom in the irrigated green grass was a measly 20 minutes. He looked at me like I was crazy when I caught him right back up and put him in his pen! The next day he was out for a little bit longer, and gradually as the days went by we increased his time on grass by 20 minute increments until we had a good idea that he was doing well and not having any digestive upsets. To get him on a full day’s turn out took over two weeks – but keeping him healthy was definitely worth it. We continue to make sure that he always has access to clean, fresh water, plain salt and we give him a small flake (about 5 lbs.) of hay when we bring him in at night along with the maintenance ration of balancer. We score his body condition once a month, and so far the grass is agreeing with him! 

Today Fred is thriving – he is enjoying his relaxing grass pasture and our little girls are enjoying him! As the weather turns cold and the grass goes away, we will get him going on a senior type feed – so stayed tuned for that journey!

Ration Balancers vs Regular Horse Feeds

Gayle shows off her horse, IM ALittle Too Kool~ who is in wonderful condition thanks to a very well balanced diet!

I recently received a call from a horse owner that said she needed to put her horse on a diet. Her 1000 pound mare is a body condition score of 7. Her vet had recommended she put the mare on a ration balancer. When she priced products at the local feed store she thought that the price of a balancer was too high. Since her mare has free access to pasture, she felt that 1 pound a day of an economy feed would be good, with a few supplements. She was wonder what supplements would be best for her mare?

I told her she was on the right track to reduce the horse’s calories, but there was an easier way to put the mare on a healthy diet. I pointed out that the feed tag on the product she was feeding had a feeding rate of 0.5 pounds of feed for every 100 pounds of body weight. So, for her mare to get the proper fortification of vitamins and minerals listed on the tag, she would need 5 pounds per day.

Cutting the ration down to only 20% of the required feed rate and adding supplements could get costly, as well as establishing an imbalance in micro and macro minerals. I suggested she consider a ration balancer. The concentrated nutrient levels allow for low feeding rates. A good quality balancer will contain prebiotics and probiotics to help support nutrient digestion. They will also feature guaranteed levels of biotin to support muscle, hair coat and hoof development. In addition they will also have guaranteed levels of amino acids to support muscle maintenance and development. Not to mention that a quality balancer will also use organic trace mineral complexes to increase bioavailability and protein utilization.

When we compared the balancer to top dressing the economy feed, the balancer was a much better value on a cost per day basis.  That’s why it’s always important to do the “cost per day” math, rather than getting fixated on the price tag on the bag, and remember to include the cost of supplements needed if a lower-quality, less expensive feed is being investigated.

Unbalancing a Balanced Horse Feed Diet

I was helping a colleague do a horse nutrition training seminar the other day and the question came up “Is it okay to supplement a commercial feed?” Specifically, this person was feeding half oats and half SafeChoice to her horse. My colleague had a great answer for this. He picked up a half full glass of Coke – “Pretend this is SafeChoice. Balanced perfectly to provide just the right things in the right amounts.” Then he picked up a pitcher of water – “Now pretend this is the oats. Not nutritionally balanced, low in protein and high in starch.” He started pouring the water into the glass until the mixture reached the top. The result was a watered down, light brown mess that looked unappealing and I am sure tasted the same way. The message here is simple – commercial feeds are formulated to be complete in their vitamin/mineral content, protein level, energy and fat levels. When fed at the recommended amounts per day based on work level you are meeting your horses’ nutritional requirements and delivering a specific and targeted amount of nutrients. There is no need to add/substitute/mix anything else. If you take that same feed and mix it (with things like straight grains, sweet cob, etc) – the result is an unbalanced feed that does not meet the needs of the horse. The protein gets lowered, the vitamin and mineral contents become diluted and things like calcium and phosphorous and copper and zinc can get out of balance. What you get is a diluted mess that is only doing half the job. To get the full benefit of a commercial balanced feed, use it according to tag directions and resist the urge to dilute it with anything else!

When Should I Feed a Complete Horse Feed?

A complete feed is a fortified grain/forage mix that is formulated with high quality fiber sources to raise the total percent fiber in the feed, so that reduced hay feeding can be done safely. Some fiber sources in complete feeds include alfalfa, beet pulp, and soy hulls. These are all good digestible fiber ingredients for horses.

Here are some of the many reasons why you might decide to feed a complete feed.  

  • You have a horse with poor teeth or no teeth that can no longer chew and swallow hay. This can be a young or old horse.
  • Good quality hay is hard to find, obtain, or pay for. This situation will most likely occur in:
    • Drought situations when plants aren’t growing or they are very mature when they get tall enough to cut. When a plant gets too mature it has high levels of lignin that can’t be digested by the horse leading to digestive upsets or increased risk of colic. Plants also lose nutrient content the more mature they get.
    • Extremely wet conditions because it may be more mature by the time a farmer gets good weather to cut it and flooding can also bring debris onto fields that can be harmful to your horse.
    • Situatinos where hay gets more expensive as fertilizer and fuel costs rise.
  • There is a lot of hay wasted from handling, transporting, ect. More hay is wasted when horses are fed round bales. When hay is expensive and there is a lot of waste, complete feeds may be more cost effective.
  • Hay is hard to handle and round bales/large square bales require a tractor for handling and other equipment such as a flatbed trailer. Equipment requires fuel, tires, maintenance, ect. The cost of handling hay should be brought into consideration when cost is a major factor in feeding.

Long stem forage is an important part of the horses diet and a good source of forage should comprise of at least 50% of the horses daily intake when possible. However, when any of the above conditions exist it may be necessary to feed a complete feed only or reduce the amount of hay being fed. A horse that can no longer chew hay will need to get all of his daily requirements from a complete feed that is easy to eat such as a senior complete feed with softer pellets that can also be fed as a wet mash. If hay shortage, hay cost, or drought is the reason you feed a complete feed you may want to continue feeding some hay in the diet for long stem forage if possible.

It is important to read and follow the feeding recommendations when buying a complete feed, and they should list the recommended feeding amount both with and without hay on the tag. As you decrease the amount of hay, you will need to increase the amount of complete feed. Here are two examples of complete feeds and how much to feed a 1,000 lb maintenance type horse with no hay and with hay/pasture.

  • A senior horse feed – generally a highly digestible and highly palatable product that can be fed as a complete feed, and is designed for older horses. 
    • A 1,000 lb maintenance type horse would receive 12 – 14 lbs of a senior feed, if no additional hay is fed.
    • The same horse, if it was being fed hay, would receive 5 – 7.5 lbs of the senior feed.
  • A traditional complete horse feed – known as “hay replacers” or “hay stretchers” – are a complete feed that combines high quality roughage and grains in a pelleted form. It can be fed as a complete feed or with forage. 
    • If no hay is fed, a maintenance type horse would receive 1.5 lbs per 100 lb body weight. A 1,000 lb horse is recommended to get 1,000/100 = 10 x 1.5 lbs = 15 lbs of a complete feed.
      When feeding along with hay or pasture, a typical recommended amount to feed a maintenance type horse 0.5 lb per 100 lb body weight or 5 lbs.

Whether you chose to feed a complete feed with hay or without, it is important to feed the recommended amount and make adjustments as needed depending on if your horse is an easy or hard keeper. It is also important to provide free choice salt and clean, fresh water at all times. Complete feeds should be split into two or more feedings. Horses should be switched slowly from one feed to another and also when eliminating hay from the diet. When reducing the amount of hay fed, it is recommended to reduce hay over 1-2 weeks.

Feeding Tips for Stall Rest

Regardless of the diagnosis, when stall rest is on the treatment list, adjusting your feeding program to match your horse’s lack of activity can improve the experience for both you and your horse.

Horse on stall rest

As a curious 2 year old, Toby injured himself and landed in stall rest-land.

Whether recovering from an injury, surgery, or other, stall rest is generally prescribed to limit the movement of your horse to aid in the body’s natural healing process.  Often times, when a horse’s activity level moves from work or competition to that of quiet stall rest, it takes a period of adjustment for him to settle into the new routine.

Altering his feeding program to match this now sedentary lifestyle will help him make the transition.  Please note: all feed and forage changes should be made gradually through a period of 5-7 days so as not to disrupt the digestive system.

For the horse sentenced to a period of stall rest, the name of the game is energy management.  If he is an athlete who is used to getting high calorie feed and plenty of exercise, transition him to a lower calorie feed or ration balancer, with a high quality grass forage.  Reducing the energy he receives from his feed will help manage his weight and behavior.

Selecting a feed that is balanced for amino acids will offer the body aid in the development and repair of tissues, especially muscle and connective tissue. Fortified, balanced levels of vitamins and minerals will aid in immune response as well as minimize bone density loss.  Feed that is fortified with prebiotics, such as yeast culture, and probiotics can aid in the balance of the gut bacteria, overall absorbtion of nutrients and supports the immune system. Omega 3 fatty acids in the feed can also provide support for the immune system as well as help manage inflammitory response in tissue.

Monitor his body condition score and weight throughout stall rest and make feed amount adjustments as needed.  If he begins to gain weight, reduce his feed amount to the lowest advised amount from the feed manufacturer.

If he drops too much weight, slowly increase the feed amount, making sure to stay within the feeding directions.  Increasing the amount of hay can also provide benefits, though keep watch that he doesn’t start wasting.  Health complications or hay quality concerns aside, uneaten hay is an indication that he is being fed too much per meal.

In addition to providing much needed fiber and calories, hay in the stall can also provide a distraction,  curbing destructive behavior such a cribbing, weaving and pawing.  Consider providing stall toys, such as a ball or treat roller to keep his mind occupied and prevent bad stall habits from forming.

Pending the doctor’s orders, hand walking is a common method of providing limited exercise while reducing the chances of further damaging the injury or wound.  Hand walking is also a great way to spend time with your horse, especially if stall rest has taken him away from his normal job.

Once the period of stall rest is completed and he goes back to ‘work’,  transitioning his feed back to the ‘normal’ energy levels should be done with even more caution than transitioning the energy down.  For advise on your specific situation, please discuss with a qualified feed consultant or your veterinarian.

How to Transition a Horse’s Feed

You may be thinking your horse might be in need of a senior diet, or perhaps there is a new feed available that you believe is even better for your horse.  Maybe you are no longer happy with your current feed.  Or, your dealer no longer carries the product you were using.  Whatever the reason, switching your horse to a new feed is a change that requires care and know-how. 

Changes to feed, pasture or hay in general should be made over a 7 day period, gradually increasing the new and decreasing the old.  For example:

Day 1: 80% of old feed / 20% of new feed

Day 2: 70% of old feed / 30% of new feed

Day 3: 60% of old feed / 40% of new feed

Day 4: 50% of each

Day 5: 40% of old feed / 60% of new feed

Day 6: 30% of old feed / 70% of new feed

Day 7: 20% of old feed / 80% of new feed

Moving from a feed higher in Non-Structural Carbohydrates (NSC) to one that is lower can be done relatively easily by following the instructions above.  If you are moving your horse from a ‘low’ NSC feed to one that is higher in NSC, feed changes should happen over at least the 7 days recommended above, if not longer. 

Research has indicated that horses fed pre and probiotics are better able to handle changes in diet than horses that are not. 

Changes in hay, though generally not given much consideration, can have as much of an impact if not more than changes in feed. If possible, try to follow the same steps as above when transitioning your hay.  Hay that is harvested from the same field, but in different cuttings will likely vary in nutritional content. Hay testing is available from many University Extension offices.  Check with your area extension office for more information.

Pre and Probiotics in Horse Feed

While scanning information about various horse feeds, you may have come across the phrase ‘contains prebiotics and probiotics’….Hmmm, sounds impressive, but what are they, what do they do for your horse, and why are they important?  Pre- and probiotics are considered “functional ingredients” that are added to horse feed to provide benefits to your horse. Here is some information about them and what they can mean for the digestive tract and overall wellbeing of your horse.

Healthy, inside and out
Rosie shows a dappled coat, indicating good health shining from the inside out.

It starts with the gut. The environment of the intestine (a.k.a. gut) contains naturally occurring beneficial microorganisms commonly called  ‘bugs’. Gut bugs are found in all species, including humans, and are essential to the digestion process. For the horse, gut bugs work to break down components of forage and feed as they pass through the digestive tract.  The bugs deconstruct complex molecules within feedstuffs, which releases nutrients and allows the synthesis of energy substrates and important vitamins. Those nutrients are then absorbed through the intestines into the bloodstream, where they become available to cells in the body to support basic maintenance, growth and activity.

Feed that is broken down and digested more completely allows for more nutrients to be readily available for absorption.  This is essentially what probiotics do. Adding probiotics to a horse feed means adding more beneficial bugs to the existing population in the horse’s gut. Probiotics such as yeast culture, work with the naturally occurring bug population to enhance the digestive process, further breaking down complex protein and fiber fractions in the gut and making them more available for absorption into the blood stream. As a probiotic, yeast culture has also been shown to balance and stabilize the digestive microbial ecosystem in the cecum of the horse, as well as help prevent the colonization of bad bacteria in the gut.  A stable microbial ecosystem is beneficial to the horse beyond improvements in digestive and absorption efficiency, it also reduces the risk of digestive upset, such as gas colic, that a horse might experience with changes in feed or hay, or while under stress from transportation, shows, changes in weather or other.

Prebiotics can be thought of as an energy jolt for the gut bugs.  Prebiotics are a rich nutrient source for the gut bugs (e.g. lactobacilli, bifidobacterial) which in turn stimulates their growth and activity, making them more effective at their job. Research has shown that prebiotics help stabilize the population of gut bugs even through sudden changes in the diet, which helps to reduce incidents of digestive upset.  For performance horses who require energy dense diets that include higher levels of starches and sugars, prebiotics can help reduce the incidence of digestive disorders and support optimal performance.  Prebiotics such as inulin and oligofructose are selectively fermented by the gut bugs, stimulating their growth and activity, which benefits the horse by enhancing the absorption and retention of certain minerals, which in turn can support the immune system, skeletal tissue, and more.

The population of bugs in the gut are sensitive to changes in their environment brought on by stress, illness or the ingestion of undesirable materials .The addition of pre- and probiotics to a diet has been shown to be beneficial in reducing the incidence of digestive upset, namely diarrhea. For senior horses, the use of pre- and probiotics in feeds has been shown to improve the digestibility and absorption of nutrients, which can translate into an enhanced quality of life.  In summary, pre- and probiotics work with the naturally occurring gut bugs to support optimal gut health, aid in the digestion process, as well as provide a buffer against negative bacteria.