Up until a few years ago, I had a common solution when my horses’ weight seemed to drop off (which was usually at the onset of winter)–increase the concentrates! I believed what many horse owners are led to believe: concentrates provide the majority of the horse’s nutrition. I thought hay and grass were mostly fillers. It never occured to me that forage is where a horse gets (and should get) most, if not all, of his nutrition. I’m a little embarassed to admit that I had these assumptions, but I’m sure it’s fairly common.
I now know better. For your horse to maintain his weight, he needs to consume about 2% of his bodyweight per day. If your horse weighs 1,000 lbs, he would need to eat about 20 lbs. If you’re feeding a coffee can of grain or some other type of concentrate a couple times a day, it should be pretty obvious that the feed isn’t making up those 20 lbs.
If a horse is losing weight, the most logical thing to do is to increase the amount of forage. Of course, some older horses could have problems eating hay, and may need a hay alternative, such as beet pulp, soaked hay cubes, etc. But assuming there are no dental issues, feeding more good-qualtiy hay should help solve the problem.
‘But my horse needs a concentrate!’ many people may say. And in a few cases, they may be right. But in many cases, it’s simply not true. Not only are concentrates unneccesary much of the time, they can actually cause problems. The horse’s digestive system isn’t set up to handle large amounts of concetrates, for one. By feeding this way, you could be increasing your horse’s chance for colic or other digestive disorders.
I’ve purposely sought out studies that focus on a forage-based diet, and I’ve written about several of them for The Horse. My article, Forage-Only Diet for Performance Horses Evaluated, is based on a study that makes a logical and persuasive case for the forage-only diet, even for top equine athletes, such as racehorses. I highly recommend reading it.
Another article I wrote, Study Examines the Most ‘Physically-Effective Fiber’ for Horses, focuses on a study that shows even the act of eating forage seems to be more beneficial for the horse than eating concentrates. Very interesting!
My point in all this is that we, as horse owners, should be taking a closer look at our horse’s forage. It isn’t just a filler! It’s the most important part of his diet. Seeking high-quality hay is important, and consistently assessing your horse’s body condition score (BCS), especially during the winter months, is key, too. If the BCS decreases, it’s time to increase your forage!