How to Feed Your Horse

Roughage - in the beginning and always

HorseFeathers Veterinary Service, PLLC 1

Long before there were any feed stores or the mixed feed that comes in the bag of your or your horse's choice, there was roughage.  The horses of ages ago and in the wild today survive on what grows in the ground.  Their gastro-intestinal tracts have evolved to process grasses.  The animal in general does best if you follow the lead that nature has given and offer your horse roughage.

The horse, in the wild will eat a little, walk a little, eat a little, walk a little, eat some more, then take a short nap.  Then, it is back to the above - eat a little, walk a little, eat a little . . . The horse has an incredibly small stomach for an animal its size.  There is almost no correlation between how a horse needs to be fed and how a cow needs to be fed for example.  The horse's small stomach needs to be fed a small amount of low protein food (roughage) in small amounts, often.  It is a pipeline that needs to be fed a little, a lot.  That, in general, is not consistent with the scoops of high protein feed that is so convenient for us as horse owners.

The simplicity and consistency of the above is brought home again and again.  This past year was one of drought beyond imagination.  No water means not much roughage is growing.  Grass isn't available.   Hay is remarkably expensive and as any horse owner, one begins to look for any alternative.  Again and again, I need to learn this lesson.  The horse needs roughage.  The horse's gastro-intestinal tract is uniquely oblivious to the fact that the price of hay is skyrocketing. The horse needs roughage.  If you just watch how your horse's body is changing, it will soon become apparent that despite what the bag says ( recall above where it was noted that horses existed long before feed stores did ), horses need roughage.

There is a medical term called 'scratch factor.'  That refers to how the ingesta interacts with the insides of the horse's intestines.  It is normal for the horse to chew the grass or hay till she's done then swallow.  This swallowed food is not totally soft and gooey.  There are intermittant pieces of the roughage that provide a 'scratch' to the inside of the horse's intestine.  No matter how you make it, I cannot imagine a pelleted mix being able to provide this scratch factor.  Having watched too many horse on less than optimal roughage, but plenty of concentrate, I can only propose that the scratch factor does stimulate the horse's gastro-intestinal tract to elaborate some element that causes the whole system to work more efficiently. 

As horses live longer, we do have to supplement the roughage they eat with some sort of prepared food, some bagged feed.  As we do so, we would do well to keep some order in what is more important and what is the supplement.  Horses need roughage first.  Grass is best.  Good quality hay is best ( this is not equivalent to pure alfalfa).  Good quality fescue hay is just fine as long as you are not feeding a pregnant mare.  If that is not enough to maintain a good weight on your horse, then it is time to have a veterinarian examine your animal.  Teeth could be a problem.   Deworming could be a problem.  A good veterinarian check up will bring many things to light.  After all that has been accomplished, then adding in a prepared food would be appropriate.  And, remember the above, a horse is built to eat a little bit often.  They are not the most convenient animal to feed for the working owner.  But, they are built the way they are built.  In order for them to thrive, things just seem to work best when you work in concert with nature.       HorseFeathers Veterinary Service, PLLC 1