Grass and hay

The ‘art’ of feeding a horse: the first food is roughage


  • #management
  • #feeding

The scientific studies and researches about feeding of the horse has been carried out during the last fifty years, even if the method of feeding horses has been practised for over 3.000 years. Anyway, the horse has not basically changed in many thousands of year… His instincts and behaviour as a nomadic, gregarious herbivore, his appetite and his digestive system have not altered over the centuries. Even if nowadays the horse is mainly an athlete, he is still constructed and ‘programmed’ by nature to survive by eating vegetations and, although the vegetation to which he has access has changed, he always need to eat them.

Horse needs good food for maintenance of life, growth and work, wellness. Food is a source of energy. Energy is needed to sustain life, and for production and repair of all body tissue. Energy is needed for the maintainance of muscles activity, digestion, excrection, reproduction and all body processes. The modern horse’s food can be divided into four groups: Roughage, concentrates, succulents, additives and supplements. Because of his nature as herbivore, he needs mainly roughage.

Grass is the most natural food for horses. If the quality and quantity are adeguate, in nature grass is a complete maintenance food from April to September. This is why, if not otherwise organised by man, mares have their foals in late spring. Even if sport horses feeding is various and complete with all nutrients they need, to eat grass in the field is a physical and mental horse’s need. This is a basic need for every horse and equide. Grass is conserved by various means so that it is available as a basic ration throughout the year. The earlier in the spring it is cut, the higher the protein value.
Hay is dried and conserved grass: grass is cut, allowed it dry in the field, baled and brought under cover.
The way the hay is made is of almost more importance than anything else. If it’s rained on, this washes out valuable nutrients. It should be dry when it baled otherwise mould spores will generate insides the bales. Hay baled too wet may also cause the bales to overheat and some stacks can even catch fire. The quality of hay is very important for horse’s health. Judging the quality only by looking is very diffcult, quite impossible. In a large stable, particularly one with competition horses, where a large quantity of hay is bought as one lot, it’s well to analyze the hay. If you don’t do analysis (because it’s very expensive…) the hay can be judged by the following criteria:
- It should be a good colour. Hay varies from green/grey to pale fawn but the greener it is, the better.
- It should smell pleasant, not musty.
- It should shake out well and not stick together.
- It should be free from dust and disintegrated leaf.
- It should not have any trace of damp or mould. It is essential to check the centre of the bale.
- It should have a good proportion of flowering heads.
​- It should be free from weeds such as docks, thistles, nettles, bracken and ragwort. Ragwort when dried becomes palatable to horses but it is very poisonous.