Individualized Hay Feeding Program Best for Horses

Just like people, some horses have a high metabolism and can eat more food without becoming overweight. Therefore, it is important to tailor each horse's feeding program to meet his individual needs, according to the results of a recent study by a team of Icelandic researchers.

The researchers compared the ability of two breeds--Icelandic horses and Standardbreds--to digest and use nutrients from two types of grass haylage--which is hay that has been fermented as silage. They found that the Standardbreds required more feed and better hay quality to maintain weight than the Icelandic horses, and that the Icelandic horses were able to get nutrients from poorer quality sources.

According to Carey A. Williams, PhD, equine extension specialist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, the findings of the study emphasize the need for every horse to have an individualized hay feeding program to ensure they maintain a proper body weight.

"Some barns try to feed a cookie-cutter feeding program," Williams said. "Different breeds metabolize food differently, which is the biggest reason why horses need to be fed as individuals. More fibrous or poorer quality hays might not be appropriate to feed a Thoroughbred or Standardbred, but might actually be more appropriate for other breeds."

"Horses will eat between 1.5% and 3.5% of their body weight in dry matter-feed without water," she continued. "Some of the more obese horses will consume more than they should. I always recommend starting off feeding 2% of their body weight and then, based on the horse's body condition, adjust the feeding program as needed about a month into it." Always start adjusting the forage first, she added.

Although some horses might need supplementation, Williams said this is not always the case. "I am a firm believer that if you have good quality hay, you will not need anything else. However, if your horse is exercising he might need additional energy. I like diets that include more fat to be more energy dense, especially for the intensely exercising horse. This way you will not need as much grain to supply the same amount of energy."

The study, "Comparison of grass haylage digestibility and metabolic plasma profile in Icelandic and Standardbred horses," was published in August online ahead of print in Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition.

The abstract is available on PubMed.

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.