Considering horses are grazing herbivores and their digestive tract is designed for almost continual trickle feeding (16-18 hours a day) of fibrous feeds, what best suits the equine physically and mentally as a primary source of forage?
Read on to learn the pros and cons of the various forms of grass hay.
Grass Hay - Pros
Higher Fiber Volume
Hay provides the largest volume of fiber overall compared to hay pellets, cubes and chopped hay due to its natural particle size (longer leaves and stems) and requires longer chew time per pound. Chew time is critical mentally and physically for grazing herbivores. Horses, donkeys, mules and their miniature counterparts produce gastric acid 24/7 in preparation for constant food uptake. Chewing activates saliva production (an alkaline substance), which buffers the gastric acid. In addition, the digestive tract depends on a steady flow of fiber to:
Maintains Lower Glucose Concentrations
Bacterial fermentation of insoluble carbohydrates in the hind gut (cecum, large colon and small colon) produces volatile fatty acids (VFA’s) and lactic acid. Production of VFAs and lactic acid results in a slower energy release, compared to the quick breakdown of soluble carbohydrates in the foregut (stomach and small intestine). The continual intake of small amounts of high-fiber forage helps to prevent large swings in blood glucose concentration.
If your horse is overweight or Insulin Resistant, a slow feeder paired with tested, low nonstructural carbohydrate grass hay (10% or less NSC’s) can help increase the fiber volume without increasing weight.
Easiest to Assess Quality
You can visually asses the quality of grass hay because it has not been processed in any way (pellet, cube, chopped). Quality forage, for all intents and purposes, is free of adverse odor, dirt, mold, weeds, trash or other foreign materials with acceptable color.
Increases Chew Time
The particle size (length of stem and leaves) requires far more chew time per pound than hay pellets, cubes and chopped hay. Increased chew time (chewing and swallowing activate saliva production) produces higher saliva to forage ratios. Saliva aids in digestion, maintains a higher pH in the stomach and assists in lubrication of the digestive tract. Under natural conditions with free-choice forage, the horse will produce about five gallons of saliva every day and eventually “recycle” much of the water content via re-absorption prior to excretion.
Increased chew time also facilitates the natural wear of teeth when eating at ground level. A natural grazing position allows the mandible (jaw bone) to come down and forward in the atlantoaxial and temporomandibular joints. This enables the mandible to move up and down, side to side, forward and back without any restriction; facilitating optimum mastication and reduction of particle size.
Keeps Horses Warm in Cold Weather
Forage (hay or pasture) provides large amounts of insoluble fiber, which is primarily digested in the hindgut (where bacterial fermentation produces internal body heat). High fiber feeds produce long lasting internal body heat to maintain core body temperature. The hindgut is your horse’s furnace! Keeping it stoked with fuel (forage) helps to keep them warm internally.
Keeps Horses Occupied
Due to the amount of chew time grass hay requires, they stay occupied for longer periods of time per pound. Horses sleep only 3 to 4 hours in a 24-hour period and usually no longer than 20 minutes at one time.
Grass hay is a more convenient form of forage to offer in multiple locations by scattering piles of hay or multiple slow feeders. Multiple feeding stations keep your horse moving, which mimics grazing behavior and promotes gut motility.
Encourages Water Consumption
Fiber consumption increases water consumption and the extra water is held in the cecum until absorption. The equine cecum serves as a storage site for water and electrolytes, if forage is present. During exercise, when dehydration may be an issue, the cecum can help keep the horse stay hydrated and supply him with electrolytes that are lost in sweat. Bottom line – forage encourages water consumption and creates a reservoir of fluids in the cecum.
The minimum sodium requirements should be fed daily in supplements to encourage a natural thirst response.
Helps Prevent Gastric Ulcers
Gastric ulcers can develop in as little as 24 hours - and recur in 24 hours respectively. The most common causes of gastric (stomach) ulcers are lack of forage and stress.
Foraging throughout the day and night maintains a higher (more alkaline) stomach pH because chewing and swallowing activate saliva production – which buffers gastric acid. Horses, donkeys and mules produce gastric acid continuously in preparation for constant uptake. The average 1,000 pound horse produces 16 gallons a day of gastric/hydrochloric acid. That equates to .66 gallons per hour (16 gallons divided by 24 hours).
The stomach only has a 2 to 4 gallon capacity and can empty in as little as 15-20 minutes or when it becomes 2/3 full. If the stomach becomes empty, unbuffered gastric acid accumulates potentially burning holes in the stomach lining. Learn more: How Forage Buffers Acid.
Numerous Slow Feeder Options
For those whose horses do not have access to forage (pasture or grass hay) 24/7, grass hay slow feeders are available in a variety of designs and mesh sizes. Most slow feed manufacturers are willing to share their knowledge and suggest the best options for your unique environment and weather conditions - call them and take advantage of their expertise.
Grass Hay - Cons
Hay waste can occur if blown away by wind, trampled in mud or if your herd picks through the strands consuming only the most palatable pieces. Slow feeders can dramatically minimize wasted hay by keeping it contained and alleviating the ability to pick through it.
If you currently offer free choice loose hay, slow feeders with larger mesh sizes will dramatically reduce wasted hay and avoid frustration. Learn more: Choosing A Mesh Size.
If your horse cannot masticate properly due to dental challenges (aged or misaligned incisors or molars), large particle sizes may induce colic, choke or weight loss.
Any condition causing pain can discourage the required chew time necessary for proper digestion. Optimal mastication (grinding) requires significant unobstructed motion of the jaw.
Miniature breeds are especially susceptible to genetic deformities. They have the same number of teeth, but whether they all fit in the reduced head size and line up properly is of concern. Find more suggestions for minis here: Feeding Miniature Horses & Donkeys: Why Slow Fed Forage is Best
Hay Pellets, Cubes & Chopped Hay - Pros
Alternative for Horses with Dental Challenges
Forage is the healthiest choice as a core diet for equids. The longer the chew time, the greater the saliva production and the better the digestion. However, for animals with dental challenges, pellets and chopped hay may be easier to chew and absorb. It is important to note that all forage based diets should include supplementation of major and micro minerals, vitamins, salt and a healthy source of omegas (flaxseed or chia).
Assist in Weight Gain or Maintenance for Horses on Grass Hay
Pellets, cubes and chopped hay can be consumed considerably faster per pound than grass hay. They are also better prepared for digestion and assimilation of calories. For all intents and purposes, they are predigested to a degree prior to ingestion. As the particle size increases, so does the requirement for mastication and fermentation.
Can Balance Nutrition
Hay cubes and chopped hay are available fortified with vitamins and minerals balanced to a nutritional analysis of the hay used. This offers balanced nutrition.
If good quality hay (protein, mineral and digestibility) is not available for individuals without dental challenges, cubes and chopped hay can be used as the core diet. Be sure to have hay available for additional chew time.
Ideal Carrier for Supplements
Soaked pellets or cubes are ideal as a carrier for supplements without adding concentrated sources of calories. You can easily mix in concentrates, salt and flaxseed or chia for individuals currently on a grass hay diet.
Hay Pellets, Cubes & Chopped Hay - Cons
Difficult to Assess Quality
The quality of hay is not visible once the pelleting, cubing or chopping process has been completed. Some visible contributing factors in determining the quality of hay are:
Most Contain Binding Agents
Most processed or pelleted hay contains binding agents. Molasses is probably the most common binder. Barley, wheat, various oils/fats and lignasol (lignosulfonate and polymethylolcarbamide), an artificial binder, can be present in bagged/processed forage. These are typically not required to be listed on the ingredients tag if they are less than 1% of the product.
Hay pellets without binding agents are available. These use only steam and high pressure to form the pellets. Brands include Mountain Sunrise and Haystack.
Lower Saliva to Forage Ratios
Due to the decreased chew time of processed feeds, less saliva is produced. If not soaked prior to feeding, their digestion requires absorption of bodily fluids (to compensate for lower saliva amounts) as it travels through the digestive tract. Often times the foodstuff expands as it progresses along. This compensatory function can dehydrate your horse.
If feeding pellets or cubes, soaking them prior to feeding is recommended. Soaking cubes or pellets one- to two-parts water to one part pellets or cubes for 20 minutes - 2 hours can help slow the rate of consumption and provide hydration.
If soaked in water, grass hay pellets typically expand 2 to 4 times in volume. The amount of expansion when soaked decreases relevant to the particle size. Cubes average 1.5 – 3 times in volume and chopped hay 1 – 1.5, respectively.
Note: Individuals with dental challenges may not be able to properly masticate dry dense pellets or cubes.
Pelleted, cubed and chopped forage costs more per pound than baled grass hay.
Challenging to Slow Down Consumption Rate
Feeding smaller particle sizes does pose challenges if you want to slow down your horse's consumption rate and increase chew time. Slow feeder options for pellets, cubes, and chopped hay are limited.
Helpful How To Resources
About the Author:
Monique Warren invented the Hay Pillow® slow feeder and is the owner of Hay Pillow Inc.
Warren has been an equine guardian for over forty years and slow-feed advocate for over 10 years. She contributes equine nutrition and digestive and hoof health articles to publications such as The Naturally Healthy Horse, Natural Horse Magazine, Nicker News, Horse Back Magazine, The Horse's Hoof, and Miniature Horse World Magazine. Equine nutrition and horses feet are her passions. She resides in Southern California.
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Monique Warren invented the Hay Pillow® slow feeder and is the owner of Hay Pillow Inc.