Are You Feeding Enough Forage?

There was a time when I didn’t think much at all about how I fed my horses. I would just dump a can of whatever feed I felt was best at the time and throw some hay out twice a day. And as long as they looked good and were performing well, I didn’t worry too much about it. Though things were certainly easier back then (ignorance is bliss, right?), I can no longer, in good conscience, feed that way. Not after learning what I know now.

Forage is defined as hay, pasture, and/or other types of edible plants which are high in fiber (especially when compared to concentrates). And though forage has always been the cornerstone of my horses’ diet, I now pay a heck of a lot more attention to how much, how often, and the manner in which I feed it (or allow access, the case of pasture).

As we move into the coldest part of the year, I believe it’s very important for all horse owners to understand just how important forage is and determine if they’re feeding enough.




Why is Forage so Important?

Despite widely held beliefs, forage (as opposed to concentrates) is what the horse’s digestive system is perfectly designed for. In fact, the horse’s stomach and small intestine can receive a near-constant supply of small amounts of forage. And when this supply is cut off for a period of time (hay runs out/ horse put in dry lot, etc.) this is when problems can occur. Not only is gut health compromised, but this scenario can also lead to the development of stable vices or behavioral problems.

Gastric ulcers are a common issue seen in horses who don’t have continual access to forage. When the horse chews forage, saliva is produced. This saliva then travels to the stomach where it neutralizes the constant supply of stomach acid. No forage = increased production of stomach acid, which in turn, can easily lead to gastric ulcers. (check out this article I wrote a while back.)

Another reason why forage is so important, especially in winter, is that the act of eating and digesting it actually helps to keep the horse warm. Forage is digested (for the most part) by microbes in the cecum and large intestine. This act, in and of itself, actually produces heat. It’s true that the digestion of concentrates also produces some heat, but since concentrates are digested much more quickly, they don’t produce near the amount that forage does.


How Much Forage Does My Horse Need Exactly?

This will involve some math. (I know, not my favorite thing, either, but it’s important!) You will first need to calculate your horse’s approximate weight (or how much you’d like him to weigh if you’d like to add or decrease weight). I explain more about how to measure your horse in order to calculate his weight in this post. But once you have the measurements, you will use this formula:

weight in lbs = (heart girth2 x body length) / (330)


weight in kilograms = ( heart girth2 x body length) / (11,880 cm3)


Once you have the weight, you can then calculate the amount of dry matter (DM) intake your horse needs. Dry matter is everything in hay/feed other than water. It includes protein, fiber, fat, minerals, etc. The dry matter intake of an adult horse in light work (1-3 hours exercise per week) should be approximately 1.8% of his body weight per day. This percentage will increase if your horse is exercised more (or if he needs to gain weight).

So for example, if your horse weighs 1000 lbs exactly and is in light work, you will need to feed 18 lbs of DM each day. Both hay and grain typically have a DM of around 90%, so if feeding an all-hay diet, you would need to feed 20 pound of hay to your 1000 lb horse. (If feeding a concentrate, you can calculate that in and decrease hay amount as needed).

I don’t weigh my hay every day, but in order to get an idea of how much 20 lbs of hay is, I suggest using an inexpensive fish scale (like this one). Put your hay in a hay bag and then weigh it. Chances are 3 or 4 flakes don’t equal up to 20 pounds!

In colder weather, you will need to feed more hay (remember eating forage generates heat!). It’s generally recommended that you increase the amount of hay fed by 1.4% for each degree below 18 degrees.


Making Hay Last

I’m fortunate in the fact that we bale our own hay, and so long as we aren’t in a drought, I always have plenty of good-quality square bales. Because of this, I can afford to feed hay free choice, and I often feed more than what my horses actually need. In the winter, I make sure my horses always have hay available. I spread a bale out in the pasture and also make sure they have hay in their stalls (they come into the barn as they please). But I know this isn’t feasible for everyone. If you need to make your hay last, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of using a slow feeder.

Slow feed hay nets are not the same as your typical hay nets. They have smaller openings or employ some method to make hay slightly more difficult to get at. Therefore, horses can’t scarf it all down in a short amount of time. (I’ve also written an article on this–check it out if you’d like.)

Whether you make your own slow feeder or purchase one from a company like Handy Hay Nets or The Hay Pillow, slow feeders can really help to make your horse’s hay last. Just make sure that he’s still able to eat the amount he needs in the course of a 24 hour period. If not, you may need to provide loose hay as well.







Sources and Further Reading:

Digestion in the Horse

Keeping Horses Healthy: An Update on Equine Gastric Ulcers

Why Is Forage So Important for Healthy Horses?

Cold Weather Feeding Practices for Horses

Flakes of Hay: How Much to Feed Your Horse

As Sampled Vs. Dry Matter Results



Hi! My name is Casie Bazay. I'm a mom, a freelance writer, and a certified equine acupressure practitioner.

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7 Responses

  1. Kim says:

    Does my horse need supplemental greens in the winter? Dandelion perhaps?

    • Casie says:

      Hi Kim, it definitely wouldn’t hurt if you could get your hands on some. Hay is is lacking in some vitamins (and sometimes minerals, too), so adding live plants and a vitamin/ mineral supplement is a good idea.

      • Kim says:

        I just bought him in June (my first horse! Yay me!) He has been on a muzze while out on pasture as he is prone to laminitus and the grass in SW PA just would not stop growing until a few weeks ago. So Im thinking the reason he gets pushy w/me when he gets near grass is that he is lacking enough greens in his diet. I have transitioned him to all natural supplements, including a liquid vitamin/mineral supplement. I’ll start w/a little bunch & build up gradually to a nice handful each day. Are there other greens suitible for a horse?

        • Casie says:

          Horses love green grass also because it can be high in sugars (that’s how horses can get laminitis from pasture), so that’s probably why he’s wanting it. 🙂 Do a search for herbs and also whole foods on my blog and you’ll find several lists of things safe to feed. Congrats on getting your first horse AND on doing the research on how to feed him right!

  2. Shona Douglas-Coulthard. says:

    This is s agood topic today as we are in minus 24C here in Manitoba Canada.Both of our horses live out all year round.I would love to have a barn but don’t so have a shelter and feed hay in winter and grass in summer.Both horses are well and don’t get ridden as much as they should but we give them a mineral supplement ,free choice and hay ,both with a little alfalfa and some grass hay too.They do not get grain as they don’t have a lot of work so are good on just hay.They get thick hair in winter and as long as they get shelter they seem to be O.K.Is this enough for them?

    • Casie says:

      Hi Shona,

      As long as they have a place to get out of the wind and rain/ snow and have plenty of good quality hay and access to water, they should be fine.

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