What Do You Feed Your HAY?
When I look at a horse's nutrition plan, I spend a great deal of time looking at the forage, all for good reason. Forage makes up usually 70-100% of the horse's diet. Horses require it to sustain themselves. Even horses that have lost their teeth and cannot chew properly have a substituted forage product blend to meet their needs, which includes a modified forage source. For the average horse, approximately 1.5-3.0% of their Body Weight is consumed in forage. So it stands to reason that a horse's nutrition plan should focus a great deal on the forage, the kind it is, the quality and what is in it.
After looking at hundreds of forage tests, I can honestly say that there is no one "perfect" hay, nutritionally complete, to meet the needs of the different classes of horses (ie. maintenance, light to very heavy work, pregnant, lactating, stallions, young growing horses). It would be a rare find if there is one! So it is always best to assume that the hay is "incomplete" to meet the horse's nutrient requirements. But how much is it incomplete? This is where a hay analysis comes in - it tells a lot! Now for those that feed just hay, water and salt for their horses with nothing else, you are missing a very important component in nutrition: supplementation. Supplementation is always required - you need to "feed" your hay. If you do not boost your hay's nutrient content, then the hay remains deficient and so will your horse be. Your horse will be "surviving" not thriving.
You need to first feed your hay to make it "horse quality hay", appropriate to your horse's minimum nutrient requirements (NRC's Nutrient Requirements of Horses) or better. Beyond that, you supplement for specific horse needs. This perspective changes the emphasis off of "feeding your horse" (and all the crazy marketing that goes with it) to "feeding your hay" - taking a closer look at the forage nutrition profile and correcting it as much as possible. (So for those that take things literally, I am not saying that you actually "feed" your hay, but rather you feed the horse the supplement based on what your hay is lacking, not what your horse is lacking.)
And yes, I realize that looking at a bale of hay is not flashy, shiny or beautiful like the horse pictured on the feed bag, or that it doesn't make your heart race, but let's put marketing hype aside for a moment. If we focus our attention on fixing our hay's nutrient profile properly, then chances are really good that our horses will reap the benefits and will shine from the inside out. And as crazy as it seems, you might then end up looking at hay a little differently!
Here is an example of what I mean, using hay as the forage type: A + B = C
Well, how simple is that! If A is your hAy's nutrient profile (which we know is incomplete for horses), and B is what we have to add to the hay's profile to Balance it, then C is the hay that becomes ideal for your horse, and for the most part nutritionally complete for major nutrients, with mineral ratios in good standing. It is Corrected, and the horse is healthy and happy. Good quality hay or forage usually meets horses' requirements for energy and protein, so no worries there. It's usually the minerals and vitamins that are of concern - we want to avoid excesses and deficiencies as much as possible to keep horses thriving, not just surviving. That is why we need to analyze the hay, especially for the mineral content.
Now you may be thinking why not just add any mineral or commercial feed mix to the diet which will help the hay? Unfortunately, it is not that easy. There is not a one size that fits all when it comes to correcting deficiencies and mineral imbalances in forages. That is because all forage analysis come in different from one another. In fact, choosing any commercial feed mix without testing your hay can make matters worse! This is why I do what I do - by looking at what the hay has and doesn't I develop a nutrition plan that "fixes" the hay so that it works for your horse. Once we reach the "C" point, the rest is easy. In fact, many healthy horses thrive very well just on Corrected Hay.
Developing the Diet Further: Adding "D" into the Diet For Excellence C + D = E
While many horses do very well on this "C" or Corrected Forage, some horses require more nutrients or have special needs due to health issues. Some require special health supplements. In other words, we need to "Develop" the diet over and above what the corrected forage provides - a "top-up" if you will. Think of it as "Excellence" achieved. Again, relatively simple.
Where horse owners/barn managers run into issues is that they skip right over the "B" (hay booster supplement) and go straight to the "D" (a general commercial feed mix, or a supplement) hoping to have that optimal feeding program. Many still believe that the nutritional value of hay is not important, but rather, a "magical" feed or supplement exists to fix everything up for their horse. Such a thing does not exist to my knowledge. The magic actually happens when you fully take into consideration the nutritional value of your hay and correct it.
So before you go buy that bag of feed or bucket of supplements, slow down, take a breath, and give your Hay the love it deserves. You will be all the wiser, and your horse healthier and happier. And more than likely, you will have saved yourself some dollars.
To book your hay analysis and have your horse's diet evaluated to achieve optimal diet, health and performance, please contact me. I would be happy to help.
Photo: Graph shows my recent hay analysis indicating in yellow, deficiencies in Phosphorous, Copper, Zinc, Selenium, Vitamins A, D, E. The first step in balancing out a hay/forage is to try to get the nutrients in the "acceptable range". I use the Feed My Horse® Equine Nutrition Software to develop nutrition programs for horses.
Interested in taking the next step in your horse's nutrition? Do you need help in determining the best combination? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and share your story!
Jean Klosowicz, Equine Nutrition Consultant & Educator
Superior Equine Health and Nutrition Inc.
Bruce Mines, ON
Healthy Horses. Happy Owners. Superior Results!
Superior Equine Health and Nutrition Inc.
www.SuperiorEquineNutrition.com ~ SuperiorEquine@gmail.com
The articles contained in this column are for the purpose of education and are not intended to take the place of proper veterinary care. They may be used in conjunction with such care to facilitate healing and maintain health of the horse.