Avoiding a Hay Belly

I’ve often heard, ‘my horse has a hay belly, what should I do differently?’ Or,” he’s really big in the belly but he doesn’t have good muscles.”   Apart from a broodmare belly, post-colic surgery effects or a parasite situation, the answer sounds like a nutritional imbalance.  The good news is, once you know what a nutritional imbalanced hay belly is and what causes it, you can make adjustments in your program and avoid it in the future.

What does it look like?

Willow has had 4 foals, and as a result, tends to show characteristics of a hay belly.

Willow has had 4 foals, and as a result, tends to show characteristics of a hay belly.

Have you ever seen a young or growing horse with a big belly while the rest of their body looks small? Or a mature horse that has a midsection that hangs low, while ribs are visible and muscles along the back and hindquarter are hard to find?  How about the ‘pregnant gelding’ situation?  All of these are describing a hay belly.  On a regular basis, you should conduct a body condition score on your horse to check for muscle mass as well as appropriate fat deposition in key areas.  It’s important to check all areas indicated, since a rib or belly check alone doesn’t provide all the information.

What causes it?

When too many low-value calories are consumed without adequate protein (including essential amino acids), the body stores the calories as energy in cells yet the needed protein isn’t available to maintain muscle mass. In the absence of adequate protein, muscles atrophy while stored energy increases. Over time, a hay belly emerges as muscle mass over the top is lost and gut size may expand.

The biggest factor is overfeeding fiber high in Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF) while under feeding adequate levels of quality protein. NDF is a measurement of cell wall content in plants such as grasses.  As the plant matures, it builds up stronger cell walls so that it may hold itself upright.  The stronger these walls, the less digestible these cells are for a horse.  So when fed very mature hay, your horse is less able to digest that hay, as compared to hay with a lower NDF value (less mature).  In addition to being higher in NDF, the grasses also tend to be lower in the quality proteins; important nutrients for developing and maintaining muscles.

How to prevent a hay belly

First, feed the best quality hay that you can find in the correct amount for your horse’s body weight, age and activity level. The hay that is smooth and ‘leafy’ tends to have levels of NDF that are better for the horse to digest. Hay that is pointy to the touch or looks like it’s a green version of straw should be avoided as it simply offers little nutritional value for the horse.

How do I get rid of a hay belly if my horse has one?

First, check the quality and quantity of hay your horse is eating. If the quality is adequate, then it’s time to reevaluate the quantity fed.  A horse should be fed 1.0-1.75 pounds/100 pounds of body weight of hay per day.  Not a fan of math? Yea, me neither.  Here’s a quick answer: for a horse weighing 1,000 pounds, that would be between 10-17.5 pounds of hay each day, ideally divided into 2 or even 3 feedings. Check to be sure you’re not inadvertently overfeeding, or underfeeding if your horse is actually bigger than 1,000 lbs. Learn to estimate your horse’s weight accurately here.

The last piece of the puzzle is feed. Make sure that the concentrate you provide is offering adequate quality protein.  Total protein alone can’t support or develop ideal muscles.  The right balance of amino acids is needed to build and maintain muscle quantity and quality.  Look for feeds that guarantee levels of Lysine, Methionine and Threonine.  These three key amino acids are the most important for your horse. And lastly, check to be sure you’re feeding the appropriate amount of concentrate.  Feeding a balanced diet and adding some exercise to help develop muscle mass and tighten up that tummy is a great way to reclaim that belly!

Group Feeding Tips for Small Facilities

Feeding TimeWe are a far cry from a fancy operation with four horses on my property to manage.  The horses in our herd live outside in one of two paddocks with fulltime access to a run-in shed which is divided in half.  They get rotational turn out onto the pasture whenever possible.

With the variety of horses we have, our little operation is anything but simple.  And oh how they vary!  One is a 32-year-old hard keeping Arabian mare with a princess complex who has progressively lost dentition efficacy in the last few years.  Next is her 14-year-old gelding son who is an air fern, aka quite possibly the world’s easiest keeper.  Finally the two Warmblood geldings, half-brothers both in light work.  One is a 16 hand, 10-year old fair doer while his brother (12 years) just under 16 hands, tends to be higher strung and a notch or two closer to being a hard keeper than his half-brother.

We feed good quality grass hay in small squares as we don’t have the storage space, equipment or desire to feed rounds. With these parameters, in combination with our variety of personalities, feeding time can be quite….interesting.  Over time, we’ve developed some strategies for making this living arrangement work.  Here’s a few you might consider if you have a similar herd situation:

  • Divide your herd by feeding needs and behaviors
  • Separate the bully of the herd.
  • If possible, put harder keepers with harder keepers, easy keepers with other easy keepers.
  • Keep an eye over time as the herd dynamics shift, the bullies can easily become bullied and go from ideal weight to underweight if you’re not checking regularly.
  • Check body condition score on a regular basis and be prepared to move horses around if dietary needs change.
  • Provide at least as many feeders as there are horses.  More if you can. Divide the ration of hay evenly among them.  This allows those who are bullied by others the chance to get what they need.
  • While on pasture, use a grazing muzzle on the easy keepers so that the harder keepers can have sufficient time with the forage.
  • When it comes to feeding concentrate, use paddock, pasture, round pens, arena etc.  to separate the herd.  This way, those who need a different feed type (example: ration balancer versus a senior feed) can get what they need and have time to eat it.
  • If you don’t have facilities to separate during the time to feed concentrate, consider guarding the slower eater so they can get sufficient time to eat their full ration. This may add time to the chore schedule, but it will help to ensure all horses are meeting their unique nutritional needs.

Keeping multiple horses with a variety of nutritional needs in a smaller space can be a challenge.  But with a little creativity and the right tools, you can be assured everyone gets what they need.  What ideas do you have to manage the variety of horses in your herd?

Hay or Grain First?

A friend recently asked me what was the correct feeding order, hay George eating hay in his paddockfirst or grain? This is a great question, and despite the controversy, I cannot find any hard data that suggests feeding hay first will have an effect on the horse’s health, unless over 50% of the diet is concentrate per feeding.

First, you need to look at the big picture. Horses by nature are grazing animals, not meal eaters. A horse should be provided with 1.5 to 2% of his total body weight per day in forage, i.e. a 1000 pound horse would receive 15-20 pounds of hay per day, depending on caloric needs and type of forage. To minimize waste I like to see the forage placed in a slow feed net, this also helps to replicate grazing.

The dietary needs are then balanced with a concentrate that may vary in weight from 1 pound to no more than 5 pounds per feeding. This where you really need to pay close attention to the feed rate and directions on the product you select. Due to the small size of the horse’s stomach, it is never recommended to feed more than 5 pounds of concentrate at any one feeding.

Horses are continuous grazers, and will graze 18 hours in a 24 hour day. To maintain normal gut function, saliva is produced up to 30 gallons in a 24 hour day, during this gazing period. This helps the horse maintain normal gut function, stabilizing the intestinal pH and keeping ulcers in check. Not to mention the periodontal impact.

Having forage first can be a benefit for those horses that tend to bolt their feed or concentrate. Again we need to look at the big picture and time between feedings. I also realize that for large farms and commercial operations it may be more labor intensive to make the feeding process a two-step program. If you board your horse a great treat is providing a serving of an additional forage source, such as a hay extender.

So hay or grain first is really not the issue, rather a balanced feeding program and feeding schedule is key.

Prebiotics and Probiotics in Horse Feed

Have you ever wondered if you should be using prebiotics or probiotics in your horse feed? The info below helps explain the benefits of both!

the effects of prebiotics and probiotics on horse digestion, prebiotics and probiotics in horse feed

Click the image to be able to zoom in.


What’s the Shelf Life of Horse Feed?

Textured Feed PouringFeed freshness is a concern for many horse owners.  We all want to feed our horses the best we can.  When it comes to freshness there are several factors involved, one of those being the expected shelf life of feed.  Horse owners and barn managers who understand these factors and practice good inventory rotation will be able to provide their horses fresh feed on a regular basis.

Shelf Life

First, what is shelf life?  Shelf life can be described as the length of time a feed is considered to have the nutritional quality and physical characteristics as intended when it was produced from the manufacturer.

In food terms, you may see ‘Best if used by’ or ‘Sell by’ followed by a date.  Human food is tightly managed and there are regulations that food processors, distributors and retailers need to follow to make sure that the food they put on their shelves is within date.

Most horse feeds do not have a ‘Use by’ date due to the process of manufacturing as well as the different storage conditions that feed is exposed to from when it is made to the time it is in your scoop.  Therefore, understanding what affects the shelf life can help you to provide your horse with fresh feed on a regular basis.

Feed Form

The form of feed you purchase has an impact on its shelf life. For example, a feed in the form of a pellet has undergone a process which involves cooking with heat and steam, followed by the use of centripetal force to push it through a die (think Play Dough machine) before it is cooled and dried.  This high temperature cook and cool helps to make the nutrients more available for digestion as well as improves the shelf life (cookie dough is only good for a few days, but baked cookies stored properly can last up to 2 weeks – well, not in my house!).

On the other hand, ‘textured’ or grain-based feed (where you see the oats, barley or cracked corn) which has had oil and/or molasses added has not undergone the same amount of ‘cooking’ as a pellet and therefore has a shorter shelf life.  Alone, the dry grains have a good shelf life, but when oil, molasses or other liquids have been added, the shelf life is shortened.

Generally speaking, a pelleted feed stored in ideal conditions won’t begin to lose nutritional quality until it is approximately 6 months old.  That’s a long time for a feed to still be good!  On the other hand, textured feed tends to lose nutritional quality around 90 days from date of manufacture.


One of the biggest risks regarding storage of feed is the potential growth of molds.  Molds are present in low levels all around us, but when exposed to certain conditions, molds can proliferate.  Molds love an environment that is warm and moist therefore, feed should be stored in a cool, dry place.

So what can you do to make sure your horse gets the best nutrition from the feed you buy? 

  • Feed makers and retailers set their own guidelines for shelf life of their products and they vary by the product.
  • Warm or humid temperatures will speed up the deterioration of quality as well, so pay especially close attention in the summer, and possibly even purchase less feed on a more frequent basis during those warmer months.
  • When you purchase feed from your retailer, ask how long they have had the bag of feed and under what conditions it has been stored.
  • When you get feed home, be sure to inspect it, looking for bugs or mold.
  • If you see indications of either, take the bag back to your retailer immediately.
  • Do not feed moldy or bug infested feed to your horses.

Any feed you store on farm should be kept in a cool, dry place, protected from infestation of pests.  Read here for tips on how best to store feed on your farm.

Do You Know the Feeding Rate For Your Horse Feed?

scooping feedI was visiting with some friends at a recent horse owners meeting. I saw a trainer I had visited several times in the past few years, answering nutrition questions and making recommendations. I asked how his horses were doing and if he had made any changes to his feed program. He replied that he had switched to a competitor’s product a few months ago and the results were terrible. His horses had lost weight, their coats were dull and he went back to feeding his old mill mix.

I asked which product he was feeding in particular and if he was feeding it to all of his horses? He had chosen a product that was designed for maintenance level horses, not show horses or breeding stock. For horses working harder an added supplementation and proper feed rates would be imperative.

Although I was disappointed he hadn’t tried Nutrena products, I went on to ask if he followed the directions on the tag? He responded that he can never figure out all that garbage on the tag and fed his horses as he always does. There was part of the problem!

A feed tag will give you a statement of purpose, what type of horse and life style it is formulated to be fed. Next it will list the recommended feed rate. This can vary from 1/4 pound to 2 pounds per hundred pounds of body weight, depending on the fortification and quality of nutrients.

I was familiar with the product he had tried and their feed rate for horses working at a performance level would be 1.5 pounds per hundred pounds of body weight, or 15 pounds per day for a 1000 horse. This would have to be broken down into 3 feedings to be fed at a safe consumption rate, and could also mean added labor for his farm, not a bargain.

When I mentioned what I believed was the recommended feed rate for the product he was surprised. He said he would never feed that much of a concentrate to any horse. Again, he reiterated he doesn’t have time to read tags and do the math. I told him it is like making a box cake. You need to follow the directions, if you don’t use the entire box of cake mix, you won’t get the desired results. He did laugh at my remark, but I also think he understood the concept.

Feeding the Maintenance Horse

Vitamin in half

Feeding below the recommended amount of a particular horse feed, is analogous to only taking half of your daily vitamin.

I am fortunate in my job to speak with horse owners face-to-face on a frequent basis. During these conversations, I enjoy hearing about the horses they own and how great their horse’s look and perform.

Occasionally, I will hear someone mention that their horse looks great on hay alone and they only feed a ‘handful’ of grain in the morning and night, just for the vitamins and minerals.

I delicately point out that the analogous human activity would be chopping your daily vitamin into pieces and taking a fraction of one a day. This is an opportunity to discuss feeding rate, calorie requirements, muscle and hair coat quality, and making sure owners have selected the right feed for their horse.

In many of these instances, the horse in question is an adult in good body condition, on a good quality forage and light work load; in other words, a horse at maintenance activity level.  Even though this horse may be able to keep a good body condition score, without balanced nutrition, they will exhibit less-than-ideal muscling, hair coat and hoof quality.

A well-intentioned owner of this kind of horse might feel they need to provide some form of nutrition supplementation to their hay, as they should, but may not fully understand what is needed or the appropriate quantities. Feed, being as complicated as it can be, is often misinterpreted and either under or over fed. Here’s where we can help!

If a maintenance horse is in good or better-than-good body condition (a 6+) from their hay or pasture alone, they really don’t need more calories in the diet. But they do need something to fill in the gaps that the hay or pasture is not providing. These include vitamins, minerals and quality proteins (amino acids) their body needs for normal tissue repair, hair growth and muscle maintenance.

For this horse, a ration balancer is the ideal solution. A ration balancer (sometimes called diet balancer) is a concentrated form of feed without the energy provided by fats, fibers, starch and sugar of a regular feed. Ration balancers tend to have higher guaranteed levels of nutrients, but significantly lower feeding rates. Don’t panic! A protein level of 30% with a feeding rate of 2 pounds per day means your horse gets 0.6 pounds of protein. Compare that to feeding 6 pounds of a 14% regular feed = 0.84 pounds of protein per day. When you do the math, it’s really in line with a “normal” diet.

If this same horse would be slightly below ideal body condition, a feed designed to be fed to maintenance horses would be appropriate for calories and the balance of other nutrients. Be sure to follow the feeding rates and keep a close eye on how your horse responds to the feed, as you may need to adjust within the feeding rate guidelines.

When it comes to calorie management of the maintenance-level activity horse, remember to watch out for those treats, too. Calorie levels can vary widely so all the work you’re doing to manage intake with the feed scoop can easily be washed away with an indulgence in treats!

Feeding a horse at a maintenance activity level doesn’t have to be complicated. With a few pieces of information and the right feed, your horse can look and feel their best, even if they aren’t heading for the show pen.

5 Things I’ve Learned Working for a Feed Company

I am fortunate to count myself among those who grew up with horses.  My mother had grown up with a horse as her pet (Babe was her name) and much of what I learned came from how she had managed her horse.  This meant that I grew up with a …how to say….‘traditional’ mindset about nutrition; ‘hay and sweet feed now and then is all any horse needs’ and that is what my horse was fed….until I started working for a feed company.  Then, my nutritional education hit the fast lane!  Here are the top 5 things that I have learned about nutrition and management as a result of working for a feed company.

1. The purpose of feed.  Growing up, we’d use feed as bait to bring the horses off the pasture, a reward after a good ride (after properly cooling out of course) or on very cold days, but certainly not every day.  Most feeds are designed to provide a horse with the nutrients that hay or pasture alone cannot.  Many people think of feed as simply providing ‘energy’ which, many of them do.   When it comes to feed, you generally get what you pay for, so very often, the less expensive feeds are designed to provide the minimum amount of nutrition.  That’s why it’s important that you select the right feed for your horse so that they are getting the balance of nutrients that fit their needs, be it energy, biotin or high quality proteins, fed consistently.  Once you find the right nutrition for you horse, you might be amazed at how good they look and how happy they seem.

2. Paying more for feed can save money in the long run.  I used to feed an inexpensive sweet mix to my horse and spent my money on supplements to provide what the feed didn’t, as opposed to feeding her a fully fortified feed.   For the most part, a high quality, fortified feed that is fed at the right amount removes the need for most supplements and, you might be surprised to find it can be cheaper.  There are a few exceptions where it is either illegal or extremely difficult to include specific nutrients in a feed, such as joint support (it is against the law to include any ingredient that is considered a drug in horse feed).   In those instances, it does make sense to add a supplement to provide what the feed can not.

3. Feeding directions do make a difference.  Feeding directions matter because most feeds are formulated to provide a specific concentration of nutrients based on the pounds (not scoops) that are fed, which is a ratio of your horse’s weight.  In order to feed at the recommended levels, you need to know how much your horse weighs and how much your feed weighs.   Growing up, we just fed a ‘scoop’ regardless of the horse or feed.  Taking this approach will often mean under or over feeding your horse. If you start to feed at the recommended feeding levels and notice your horse not being in ideal body condition, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate whether you’re feeding the right feed.

4. Those extras actually do count for something.  I used to think that some of the extra ‘stuff’ that was provided in a fully fortified feed was just foo-foo dust or tag dressing. One of my biggest ‘ah ha’ moments came when I realized that (at least with Nutrena feeds) it’s not just adding another line to the guaranteed nutrients tag; it’s really providing a benefit to the horse.  I saw it when I switched my horses away from a local mill sweet mix.  The little things that are added do make a visible improvement in hoof quality, hair coat and even muscling.

5. Knowing your horse is the best way to feed him.  Horses are individuals; as a rider, that is evident.  However, I used to think that when it came to nutrition, there was very little variation.  How wrong I was!  Unlike production animals, humans have been selectively breeding horses for attributes other than feed efficiency.  Therefore, the general horse population has a wide range of nutrition needs from the easy keeper to the hard keeper and everything in between.  Staying closely tuned into your horse, changes in his performance, attitude and body condition score throughout the year and how he reacts to his feed and forage is all part of managing him as an individual.  When his job changes (increase or decrease in workload) or he reaches the next life stage, it’s important to reevaluate his feeding program to provide him what he needs.

I have learned so much about nutrition and management during my time as an employee of a feed company.  My assumptions have been challenged.  My knowledge expanded.  Thanks to scientific research, my horses now enjoy an improved level of nutrition, performance and appearance, and so can yours!

Following Feeding Recommendations

Is anyone taking a road trip this summer? Chances are, if you are heading somewhere in your car you will probably consult a road map or at least plug the destination into your GPS or smart phone. We do this so we can get where we want to go and do what we have planned. The same can be said for directions on horse feeding. They help us get our horse in the condition we want him to be so that we can do the events or activities that made us get a horse in the first place.

We have a pretty good road map attached to every bag of horse feed that is purchased.  Feed tags not only list ingredients & guaranteed analysis, they also give detailed directions for feeding.  The normal result of shortcuts during a road trip is usually being somewhere you don’t want to be. With your horse, taking shortcuts when it comes to feeding rates can mean a horse who is underweight or overweight, getting too much or being fed insufficient levels of vitamins and minerals, among other issues.

My challenge to you is this – look at your feed tag and consider the following:

After you establish the above items…

  • Is the amount I am giving my horse within the tagged recommendations according to weight and activity level?
  • Am I feeding to accomplish something with my horse? (ie: weight gain or weight loss, lactation, etc.)

If you are in the parameters set by your feed tag on what you are giving your horse, good for you! If you are not, you need to ask some follow up questions:

  • Am I willing/able to change my feeding to match what the tag recommends? If the answer is no, then the question becomes:
  • Am I willing to change my horse’s feed to match how I am feeding him?

Many times we continue to do something just because it is what we’ve always done. By answering the questions above, it may become clear to you that your best feeding option may be changing feeds. Sometimes, this may mean switching to a feed with a lower feeding rate and higher fortification in order to accurately meet your horse’s needs (for example if you are currently underfeeding a senior horse).  Other times, you may find that you don’t really have an easy keeper – you are just feeding him a bit too much. Don’t neglect the feeding directions on your feed tag – they are the road map for a long, healthy life for your horse.