Do Horses Need Forage in Their Diet?

Is it safe to feed your horse alfalfa pellets and grain alone? An equine nutritionist weighs in on the subject.
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alfalfa pellets
Alfalfa pellets typically have about 90% dry matter content. | Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Q: Is it safe to feed horses alfalfa pellets and grain alone with no forage? I feed a high-quality, low-sugar pellet and grain supplement but no hay, and my horses have always been healthy; however, I’ve been told they need the forage for dental health, among other things.

A:  What a good question, and one that no doubt will stimulate much discussion among horse owners. The short answer is horses can adapt and do fine eating pelleted hay or a completely pelleted ration that provides the appropriate amount and types of fibers to replace long-stemmed hay.

Forage in the form of pasture, long-stemmed hay, chopped hay, hay cubes, hay pellets, or complete pelleted feed should be fed at a very minimum of 1 pound of dry matter (DM) per 100 pounds of body weight per day (10 pounds of forage DM for a 1,000-pound horse). In most cases horses should be eating between 1.5 and 2.5 pounds per 100 pounds of body weight in forage DM daily (15-25 pounds of forage DM for a 1,000-pound horse). Which end of that range is best for each horse depends on the forage quality and the horse’s metabolism and activity level.

Dry matter content varies significantly between different forage sources. Pasture is generally higher in moisture content, typically running between 15-30% DM. Cured, baled hay should be 85-90% DM, and hay cubes, pellets, and complete feeds will average closer to 90% DM. A horse needs to eat 30-60 pounds of pasture grass, 11-12 pounds of long-stemmed hay, and 11 pounds of cubes or pelleted hay to consume 10 pounds of DM. Haylage isn’t as commonly fed in most areas but typically runs 50-70% DM, so it would take 14-20 pounds of haylage to supply 10 pounds of DM.

When pasture isn’t available or doesn’t provide adequate daily forage DM intake, horses require harvested forage of some type. Long-stemmed hay would be considered ideal for most horses due to the time spent eating it and the amount of chewing required relative to eating pelleted forages. In some situations, however, pelleted hay might be the best option: When long-stemmed hay is not readily available, is of poor quality, or is exceptionally expensive or if horses have poor dentition or certain digestive health issues.

Horses will eat pellets faster than long-stemmed hay, so they spend less time chewing and have more time with nothing to eat, chew, or do. Chewing serves multiple important purposes for the horse: It combats boredom, lubricates the esophagus, and buffers gastric acid. Boredom and empty stomachs can contribute to horses developing unwanted behaviors, such as cribbing, weaving, and chewing wood, tree bark, and other horses’ tails. Providing horses with plenty of exercise, turnout, and enrichment activities can help reduce boredom and the resulting behaviors.

Feeding management practices can also help reduce the risk of horses developing problems associated with the more rapid rate of intake of pelleted hay. These include making the change to a pelleted hay very gradually over seven to 10 days, dividing the daily ration into three to four meals per day, and feeding in a large feeder, placed low to the ground so pellets can be spread out and horses can’t bolt them when they eat. Multiple, smaller meals spread throughout the day reduce the time between meals when horses have nothing to eat or do. You can also use feeders with cups in the bottom or you can place large rocks or obstacles for horses to eat around that can help slow the rate of intake.

There is limited research on the effect of eating pelleted forage on dentition in horses. Grinding and pelleting forage reportedly reduces abrasive effects on teeth, encouraging the development of sharp cusps and uneven wear. In one study researchers reported mandibular (jaw) motion to be significantly greater in all directions when horses chewed hay versus pelleted feed. Horses with good dentition are quite effective at mastication (chewing) and grinding fiber to shorter lengths. Fecal fiber lengths are reported to be significantly shorter 15 days after dental correction than when measured prior to dental work. Regardless of the type of hay they’re consuming, all horses should receive routine dental exams. Dental exams might need to be more frequent for horses eating primarily pelleted forage. That would be something to discuss with your veterinarian.

The quality of hay used to make pellets is what affects the pelleted hay’s nutritional value most. Fiber digestibility in ponies fed chopped hay was reportedly no different than that of the same hay fed after being ground and pelleted. While scientists have established the minimum fiber length to provide a “scratch-factor” for optimal digestion in ruminants, research investigating the need for larger particle sizes in horses is lacking. The significant difference in dental and digestive architecture would suggest horses and cattle certainly chew and digest forage differently.

So while long-stemmed forage might be considered ideal, many horses never eat long-stemmed hay for a number of reasons. With proper feeding management, pelleted hay can provide adequate, consistent fiber to replace hay or pasture when needed.

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Written by:

Karen Davison, PhD, director of equine technical solutions for Purina Animal Nutrition, earned her Master of Science and PhD degrees in equine nutrition from Texas A&M University. Davison’s research included some of the early work investigating the use of added fat in horse diets. She spent eight years as an associate horse specialist with Texas Agricultural Extension Service, developing and teaching youth and adult education programs, prior to joining Purina in 1993. Davison has guest-lectured at universities and veterinary schools, is published in scientific research journals and magazines, has authored book chapters, and presented at regional and national veterinary meetings on equine nutrition topics. She and her family are involved with training and competing in the cutting and rodeo performance horse industries.

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