Now the grass has lost it`s nutrition, we all turn to feeding forage, and then argue over the best feed, the best method of feeding it, and how much and how often. Everyone has their own opinion, but we should remember that horses are grazing animals, and designed to be eating for eighteen hours a day, and by limiting their intake we are putting them at risk of developing colic or other digestive problems, such as gastric ulcers.
What`s the choice of forage?
Hay. This is the obvious choice for many horse owners, as it is easily obtained, and at a relatively cheap price. Hay is more expensive in wet years as there is less availability, because it needs four or five days of warm, dry weather to be cut. The first cut (May/June) is higher in nutritional value. I remember in my later years in Wales not getting out hay delivered until August as it`s been so wet. Later cut hay is better for the overweight horses or laminitics as it has lots of indigestible stalks and a lower nutritional value. Hay can also be easily soaked, so removing most of the nutritional content for those suffering from laminitis. Soaking hay removes dust for those horses with respiratory problems, but as it also reduces nutritional value it isn`t the ideal solution. Some hay can become dusty or mouldy when stored, so bales should be checked upon opening.
Haylage. This has a higher water content, but also a higher nutritional value, and is less weather dependent on cutting. This means that the price is less likely to fluctuate with the weather. Because of the moisture content it is less dusty, meaning it is better for horses with respiratory problems. As with hay, the small bales are easy to transport and store. I have recently been exposed to large bales of hay, haylage, and straw. I am not a fan. I have to peel off slices, pull apart slithers making a complete mess, and if I run out I have to go and get the tractor! You can buy branded bags of haylage, which have an analysis (same as hard feed) on, so you can work out how much you should be feeding, as the moisture content affects the quantity fed. One major problem with haylage is that it needs to be used quickly; open bales will go off, dry up, and then spores shrink and are inhaled instead of ingested, leading to lung problems. Mould will also grow quickly on open bales of haylage. This isn`t a problem if you have a herd like my riding school, but if you have your horse on it`s own, then you should avoid using haylage.
You can also feed straw (oat straw I think it is, that is more edible and palatable to horses). Silage is the main forage to avoid at all costs, as it has such a high moisture content it puts horses at risk from botulism.
Don`t forget that the chaff and sugarbeet you put in your horse`s hard feed counts towards his daily fibre intake.
So what is the best method of feeding forage?
In the stable, hay was traditionally fed in hay rack, but we have moved away from this for several reasons. Research has shown that eating with their heads in an unnatural position causes respiratory problems as dust is inhaled and goes down the trachea with gravity, rather then, if the horse is in the grazing position, being snorted out through their nostrils. Additionally, holding the head in an inverted way inevitably leads to an overdevelopment of the dreaded underside muscles of the neck (a dressage rider`s darkest fear). Plus, the reason I opted for the stable without the hay rack, is that by throwing the slices of hay up there you end up showering yourself in the stuff! Highly attractive…
The next method, is one of the most time consuming, but it allows you to monitor what the horse is eating, and to slow their rate of eating, is the haynet. Now these come in all sizes, and with a variety of sized holes. Eventually though, all haynets end up with a couple of large holes. The small holes are great for horses who gorge, or those that you want to remain occupied for a long period of time (e.g. overnight) whereas the larger holes are better for those horses who need to get as much fibre into their system as possible. I hate haynets; they`re time consuming, and there`s always the risk it hasn`t been tied securely and the horse either unties it as they eat and drag it round their bed, or it sinks to the floor as it empties and they get their hoof stuck in. I remember having to rescue a child`s pony that had the haynet between his hoof, and the shoe. It took a lot of cutting, swearing, and wriggling to free him. However, they do have their benefits with those fatties who like to scoff their dinner.
My preferred method of feeding forage in the stable is a hay bar, or hay manger. I chose to use it with my horse because it encouraged him to stretch down to eat, in a hope to reduce his underside muscles, but without the waste of putting it on the floor. It`s also super quick to fill up. The only problems I`ve come across are those fussy riding school horses who flick the haylage out onto the floor, before mincing through it then peeing on the rest. There`s nothing wrong with the haylage, I`ve had it tested. The other problem is that some horses gorge, then stand for hours through the night with empty stomachs. Obviously increasing their risk of stomach ulcers. My horse, as well as several of his neighbours have a munch, then stand back to digest it, and come back when they`re peckish again. For this reason I never worry if I accidently put too much in, or if any if left over. I know he`s had sufficient.
In the field you can give hay in massive mangers, but that assumes the horses are all amenable, or in small piles around the field. We do this for the riding school, pushing it off the back of the vehicle as we drive along. But since recent research into atypical myopathy and fungus on the ground, owners should be moving away from feeding on the ground. There are many gadgets on the market, such as hay boxes. These are lightweight boxes in which hay is put, keeping it dry and mud-free, but the horse can eat it through a hole. Other methods I`ve seen are filling builders sacks along the fenceline, or using large rubber mats. Horses should be given forage in the field twice a day during the winter, to ensure they are mimicking their natural grazing lifestyle, but also to ensure they are keeping warm, producing exothermic energy as they digest the food (Sugar beet is particularly good at this).
Ultimately it depends on your horse as to which method you prefer, but it is vital that your horse never goes too long without forage of some description. This may mean feeding more of a lower nutritional value, to keep the guts ticking over, or using smaller nets, or putting hay into his stable at regular intervals throughout the day.
Some livery owners I know weigh their haynets religiously. It`s a good thing, but it doesn`t account for the nutritional quality, or the moisture content of the forage. I also think it can lead to owners under feeding their horse, which is never good at this time of year. For example, if you`ve worked your horse a bit harder the last couple of days, his dietary requirements will go up, so by giving him a bit more forage, you are reducing the risk of increasing the hard feed, and also keeping him content. I personally prefer the ad lib approach, so long as the forage isn`t wasted, and the horse isn`t fed excessive amounts.