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. 

Protein in Horse Feed & Hay

Newly born, Ella takes in her worldHorses of all ages require adequate amounts of protein for maintenance, growth, reproduction and work, with growth and reproduction being the most critical time periods.  Proteins are important building blocks for body cells.  Feed intake, growth, physical activity, physical endurance, condition, production of milk and fetal development can all be impaired if protein intake is inadequate.

Most every horse owner can name the protein level of the feed they are currently using.  “A 12% sweet feed” is a common answer when asked that question – but how important is that protein percentage?  While the total protein in the horses’ diet is important, horses actually require essential amino acids, even though crude protein is what is required by law to be listed in a guaranteed analysis.  Many feed manufacturers are moving towards listing the amino acids on the tag, which can help horse owners to see the quality of the protein sources being used.

Beyond the grain portion of the diet, a major factor to watch for regarding protein in an equine diet is the hay source.  After all, hay makes up the majority of the diet, and thus a lot of the protein in the diet comes from the hay. Horse owners need to figure in what their hay sources are providing, and balance it together with their grain source, to determine what their horses are consuming.

Listed below are protein percentages required by the major categories of horses – please note that these are for the TOTAL DIET, not just the grain portion.

  • Foals: 16-18%
  • Weanlings: 14-16%
  • Yearlings: 12-14%
  • Mature horses: 10-12%
  • Lactating mares: 12-14%

In order to figure out the total protein in your horses’ diet, follow this simple calculation:

( (Lbs Hay x Protein in Hay) + (Lbs Grain x Protein in Grain) ) / Total Lbs Fed = Protein in Total Diet

To have an accurate estimate of protein in your hay, it is best to have it tested.  Check with your local extension office or feed store for labs in your area that will do the testing.  Hay protein can vary dramatically from one cutting to the next, and from one field to the next.  Rainfall, stage of growth when harvested, and a variety of other factors can also influence the quality of the hay.  Alfalfa hays are typically considered to be higher protein that timothy or other grass hays, however if alfalfa is harvested late, perhaps due to weather concerns that make it tough to get in the field, it can have lower proteins than some grass hays that are harvested at the proper time.  Thus, it is always a good idea to know the facts behind your hay source rather than “guesstimating”.

A final point that must be made about protein:  Increased protein levels are not generally responsible for a “hot” horse.  Protein is a very inefficient source of energy, and its main use in a mature horse is the re-building of muscle and other body cells after exercise.  Instead, it is the starch and sugars in a horses diet, as well as the calorie intake to calories used (exercise level) ratio, that are primarily responsible for a “hot” horse.  But that’s a topic for another blog post!

Stretching Your Horse Hay Budget

We all know that next to water, forage is the most important part of a horse’s diet. Without it they just can’t survive.

With the high prices of forage there are a few ways you can get a little more out of the forage you feed.

  1. Start by selecting the best quality hay your budget will allow – higher quality means more nutrition in every bite. 
  2. If practical, weigh out the appropriate amount of hay your horse should eat at each feeding so that the excess isn’t wasted. On average, a horse should eat between 1.5-2% of his body weight in forage per day.
  3. You may also choose a feed that contains yeast cultures (prebiotics) and direct fed microbials (probiotics) like Lactobacillus Acidophilus. These elements will help your horse’s hind gut better digest and utilize the forage it takes in.
  4. If your horse is on pasture, a good practice may be to divide your pasture into sections and rotate sections on a frequent basis to allow for maximization of forage produced.
  5. If hay or pasture is in truly short supply, try utilizing a hay extender product.  While it is always beneficial to keep at least some long-stemmed roughage in the diet, using a hay extender can make the few bales of hay you have last quite a bit longer.

Judging Hay Quality for Horses

Because hay is such a common part of a horses diet, judging quality on visual inspection is important, as lab analysis is not always easily available.  Here are three simple things to look for to help you select the best hay for your horses and your money.

  1. The initial check that most people are familiar with is color and smell.  Horse hay should be bright green and smell slightly sweet.  Brown hay indicates either a problem in the baling process, such as being rained on, or age.  Acrid or musty smells generally indicate the presence of mold.
  2. Another sign of good horse hay is the leaf:stem ratio.  The more leaves, the better, since the leaves are where most of the nutrition in the hay is stored.  Hay that has too many hard, woody stems is difficult to digest.  Even if it cheaper, most horses will pick through and leave the bulk of the stems behind, costing more in the long run.  High quality hay is fine-stemmed, pliable, and full of leaves.
  3. Type of hay is another factor.  Grass hays, such as timothy or orchard grass, generally provide sound basic nutrition.  The higher the concentration of legumes, such as alfalfa or clover, the higher the energy content.  High quality alfalfa is generally better than high quality grass hay, but good quality grass hay can be better than average quality alfalfa hay.

The best thing, in the end, is to have hay tested.  This is not always feasible for every load, but if your hay source is consistent from load to load, this may be a good option to get a general feel for what nutrients your hay contains.