It’s no secret that feeding horses is one of my favorite things to do. With a vast spectrum of breeds, disciplines, environments, and body types, formulating the right diet for any horse can be a bit of an art. However, there is a constant across all feed programs that gives horses shiny coats, proper muscling, healthy GI tracts, and strong immune systems. This constant is feeding good quality hay!
Horses are designed to eat small amounts of forage all day long. This is a simple fact, but it carries SO much depth when we look at optimal digestive function, preventing ulcerated stomach lining, and maintaining microbial health in the cecum and colon.
Looking at a horse’s ability to break down nutrients from a feed stuff, we see that a foraging horse takes small bits at a time, chewing extensively to tear up the hay. When he does this, the horse creates a large surface area that digestive enzymes and later microbes can reach to break the hay down to individual nutrients. Paired with the fact that the horse introduces the feed stuff to each section of intestine a little bit at a time, the hay offers a bio-available form of nutrients.
The stomach appreciates the hay as well, as it drops from esophageal sphincter into the stomach softly and slowly due to the hay’s shape and low density. This action prevents acid splashing as the feed stuff hits the stomach. Hay also creates a nest looking web in the stomach, floating at the top of the acid. This hay mat prevents further acid splash back from fast movement or concentrated feed stuff dropping into the stomach. This is why hay should ALWAYS be fed before a grain meal.
As horses are designed for hind-gut fermentation (microbial digestion in the cecum and large colon) (#PrimarySiteOfDigestionByVolume) (#MostImportantSitesToFunctionEfficiently), it is imperative to keep microbes fed and comfortable in their environment. The bacteria, protozoa, and fungi that make up the microbial population live healthiest on fiber, a carbohydrate prevalent in the structural make up of hay.
Ergo- The more good hay going through a horse, the happier these microbes will be. Optimum microbial population and health are SO important because these little guys dictate the horse’s GI comfort and efficiency, immune system function, and fiber breakdown and absorption (most of what the horse eats).
Something so often overlooked when we talk about meeting horses’ nutrient requirements is that it’s not all about grain! Think about it, if a 1,100 lb horse is eating 18 lbs of hay and 6 lbs of a concentrate formula everyday, why are we so concerned if the grain is 12% protein instead of 14%? If we need more quality protein a diet, feeding a more nutrient dense hay would be much more effective.
[6 lbs of 12% Concentrate=327 grams CP, VS 6 lbs of 14% concentrate= 381 grams CP]
[18 lbs of 10% Late Maturity Grass Hay= 818 grams CP, VS 18 lbs of 13% Mid-Maturity Grass Hay= 1063 grams CP]
*Concentrate Change offers a 54 gram increase in Crude Protein, while hay quality change offers a 245 gram increase in Crude Protein*
If I needed more protein in the horse’s diet, I would feed higher quality hay!
One of the most significant points in a discussion to feed better quality hay concerns the bioavailability of the nutrients. Vitamins, minerals, and amino acids makeup of protein are all essential in a horse’s diet, and while these nutrients are often fortified in concentrate products, they may not be completely bioavailable in that form.
If you look at the ingredients listed on the back of an average concentrate bag, you might see things listed like L-lysine, Magnesium Oxide, and Menadione Sodium Bisulfate Complex (synthetic form of Vitamin K). The problem here is that inorganic or synthetically formulated nutrients like these may not be recognizable to a horse’s biological enzymes. This not only prevents digestion and absorption of these nutrients, but may stimulate an immune reaction if the immune system is sensitive enough to recognize these ‘man-made’ nutrients as foreign bodies (hence food sensitivity and GI inflammation).
Good quality hay on the other hand, is full of organic forms of amino acids, minerals, and vitamins. Ergo, the more good hay that makes up the diet, the more bioavailable nutrients that will run through the horse’s system.