Forage-Only Diet for Horses?

As horse owners, it seems we are constantly being told something different in regards to which feed is best for our horses.  Many feed companies are now making specially formulated feeds to address problems like obesity, insulin resistance, colic, and laminitis.  But do you really need a specialized feed or a concentrate at all?  New research in equine nutrition is saying ‘no’–a forage-only or mostly-forage diet is healthiest for mature horses.


I made the switch to a mostly-forage diet with my horses several years ago.  I can’t say “forage-only” because I feed a small amount of soaked beet pulp (considered a forage alternative) along with something like hay pellets or rice bran (something tastier than BP) as a carrier for my minerals.  But their diets are about 98% forage.

I have my pasture and hay tested by Equi-Analytical every year so I know which minerals I need to supplement.  Many people are under the impression that forage cannot provide enough protein for their horse.  It’s simply not true.  I calculate my horses digestible energy and protein needs (as well as individual mineral needs) according to the National Research Council’s requirements for horses.  Only twice has my hay come up a bit short on protein–and that is due to the recent drought in the Midwest, no doubt.  My pasture, however, has always proven to be sufficient in protein.

Some people might be thinking, ‘my horse needs a concentrate–he’s a performance horse!’  Interestingly enough, I wrote an article for The Horse not long ago that was about a study looking at a forage-only diet for race horses.  The researchers found that there were actually some advantages to this type of diet over the traditional forage/ concentrate diet, even for race horses.


Here are some reasons why a forage-only diet may be best for the mature horse:

1. Forage is the horse’s natural diet; horses in the wild have thrived on it for millions of years.

2.  The horse’s digestive system is designed to constantly digest small amounts of forage, but its relatively small stomach can’t handle large amounts of concentrates at one time.

3.  Increased forage and reduced concentrate consumption reduces your horse’s chances for colic.

4.  As shown in my article on another study, the act of eating forage (the chewing) increases salivary flow (more than eating a concentrate), which in turn helps support a healthy digestive system and reduces susceptibility to ulcers.

5.  Overconsumption of grain can lead to issues like insulin resistance,laminitis,or colic.  (Overgrazing on lush, green pasture can cause these as well–so grazing should be limited for at-risk horses.)

It’s important to note that not just any forage will suffice if you intend to feed a forage-only diet–it needs to be high quality hay or pasture.  Getting your forage tested is the only way to know for sure if it meets your horse’s nutritional needs.  Continually assessing your horse’s body condition score (BCS) can also tell you a lot.  You might be surprised to find that forage covers many nutrient needs though.  If it doesn’t, feeding individual minerals or a ration balancer would be called for.







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

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