slow feeding

Hay Alternatives for Horses

Most of us understand the importance of having good quality forage for our horses.  Hay or pasture should be the cornerstone of every horse’s diet, and should be fed at 1.5 – 2% of the horse’s body weight each day (in most cases).

Occasionally, a hay substitute is needed though.  Whether you need to make a limited hay supply stretch over a longer period of time or you have an older horse that cannot chew or digest hay well, knowing a few good hay alternatives is important.

What you’re looking for in a hay alternative is something with high fiber and having long- stemmed fiber is a plus as it will provide adequate ‘chewing time’ that the horse needs .  The nutritional value of the hay alternative is also important.

The following are several good hay alternatives for horses:

  • Chopped Forage: This can be used to replace all of your horse’s hay ration, if necessary, but might be an expensive way to do so.  Chopped forage is usually clean, mold-free, and has a high nutritional value making it a top choice for a hay replacer.   It’s also very easy for horses to chew and digest, making it a good choice for senior horses.


  • Hay Cubes (timothy or alfalfa): These are also high in fiber and can replace a horse’s entire hay ration, if needed.  They should be fed soaked to prevent choke.


  • Hay Pellets: While not quite as good of an option as hay cubes, hay pellets can also replace most or all of a horse’s hay ration.  Pellets do not contain long-stem fiber though and therefore won’t provide the ‘chewing time’ that is ideal for promoting a healthy digestive system.  You may want to soak pellets as well to lessen the risk of choke.


  • Beet Pulp: Beet pulp is an excellent source of fiber and contains about 9% protein which is comparable to many grass hays.  It should not replace a horse’s entire hay ration though as it is not balanced in minerals or vitamins (high in calcium, few vitamins) and does not provide ideal ‘chewing time’.  Most beet pulp has added molasses, so rinsing, soaking, and rinsing it again is recommended for horses that are sensitive to sugar.  Beet pulp can be fed dry, but you may want to soak it to increase palatability and reduce the risk of choke.  According to this article, you should feed no more than 10 lbs. (dry weight) of beet pulp a day.  (Read more about beet pulp in this post.)


  • Soybean Hulls: Soybean hulls are high in fiber, contain no starch, and have about 12-14% protein.  They can replace approximately 70% of hay ration, if needed, but do not provide ideal ‘chewing time’.


For older horses, you can also feed a ‘complete’ feed to replace hay, but many of them are high in sugar and starch.  See this post for a complete feed recipe that you can make yourself.  Remember to make any feed changes (including hay and hay alternatives) slowly of a course of 1-2 weeks to avoid the risk of digestive issues.

You can read more in these related posts:

Low Sugar/ Low Sugar Horse Feeds

Benefits of Beet Pulp for Horses

Feeding the Older Horse

Forage: The Most Essential Part of your Horse’s Diet





Six Hay Alternatives for Horses

Stretching your Horse’s Hay Supply During Drought

Hay Alternatives for Horses

Stretching your Horse’s Hay Supply

Soybean Hulls as Alternative Feed for Horses

10 Tips for Keeping your Horse Healthy in Fall and Winter

horse winter 300x224 10 Tips for Keeping your Horse Healthy in Fall and Winter

Here in the northern hemisphere, the leaves are changing and autumn is setting in.  Even though the hours of daylight are dwindling, I love this time of year.  It’s a time to rest, reflect, and plan for the coming year.

As we move into the colder months though, I’ve learned that there are some important things to remember to ensure our horses stay healthy.   Most horses are naturally well-equipped for cold weather, but they can benefit from a little help on our part.

Here are ten tips for keeping your horse healthy this fall and winter:

1.  Invest in heated water buckets or a stock tank heater.  Horses tend to drink less when it’s colder outside and this can lead to serious problems–aka, impaction colic.  To encourage your horse to drink, provide a warmer water source for him.  (I love the heated buckets!)  Water between 45 and 65 degrees farenheit is best.

2.  Feed loose salt either free choice or in your horse’s feed ration to encourage drinking.  This should actually be done all year long to meet the horse’s sodium and chloride needs.  Some people may assume that since the horse isn’t sweating in winter, he doesn’t need salt.  This is not true and could be detrimental for your horse.

4.  Feed a high-quality pre- or probiotic as your horse transitions from grass to hay.  Probiotics add beneficial bacteria in the gut to aid the digestive process.  Prebiotics, on the other hand, are basically food for those good bacteria (so they can do their job).  Either one of them can help with feed transitions such as that from grass to hay.  You can read more about pre and probiotics in this post.

5.  Don’t blanket a healthy horse.  Yes, you read that right!  If a horse is allowed to grow a good winter coat, it will be just as good, if not better than a blanket.  Additionally, don’t trim the hair in your horse’s ears, around his muzzle, and on his fetlocks, as this hair helps to keep the horse warm too.  (Read more about blanketing horses in this post.)

winter ponies 10 Tips for Keeping your Horse Healthy in Fall and Winter

6.  As temperatures drop, increase your horse’s forage, not his concentrates to help him stay warm.  Here is an excerpt from an article published by The University of Maine:

“Forages contain a much higher fiber content than grains. Fiber is utilized through bacterial fermentation within the cecum and large intestine. Much more heat is produced in bacterial fiber fermentation than in digestion and absorption of nutrients within the small intestine (cereal grains). This results in a greater amount of heat being produced through the utilization of forages than utilization of grain. Thus, a horse’s increased energy requirements are better met by providing horses all the forage they will consume without waste.”

When temperatures really drop, here is a good rule of thumb:  For every 10 degrees F it is below freezing (32 degrees), increase your horse’s hay ration by 10%.

7.  Provide shelter of some sort for your horse.   Horses do not need to be stalled in colder weather, but they do need access to some type of shelter from the wind and rain.  Shelter can be a barn, lean-to, or even a thick grove of trees.

horse shed 10 Tips for Keeping your Horse Healthy in Fall and Winter

8.  Monitor grass intake (especially in the fall) for horses with insulin resistance, equine metabolic syndrome, or who are laminitis-prone.  Near or below freezing temperatures stress the grass and cause a rise in non-structural carbohydrates (NSC’s).  Don’t assume grass is safe just because it’s brown!  At-risk horses may need to be muzzled or kept off pasture, even during colder weather.

9.  Maintain regular hoof care.  Just because you may not be riding your horse as much doesn’t mean you should neglect your horse’s hoof care.  Horses’ feet continue to grow in the fall and winter (although many say at a slower rate), so they will still need regular maintenance trimming.  Barefoot hooves provide the best traction in ice and snow, so if your horse is shod, pulling the shoes is a very wise idea.

10.  Pay extra attention to older horses who may have trouble maintaining their weight in winter.  Older horses may have trouble eating and digesting hay, so hay substitutes such as hay cubes or beet pulp may be needed.  If needed, you can make your own ‘senior feed’ by mixing 2 parts alfalfa pellets, 1 part steamed oats, 1 part beet pulp, and 1 part wheat bran.  Feed 12 lbs of this mix per day (divided into 3-4 meals) for 500 kg horse.

winter horse 10 Tips for Keeping your Horse Healthy in Fall and Winter




Winter Care for Horses




Selecting Hay for Horses: Which Type is Best?

horseshay 300x130 Selecting Hay for Horses: Which Type is Best?

Most of us know that forage should be the cornerstone of any horse’s diet, but when it comes to hay, which type is best for your horse?  Knowing some basic information about the different varieties of horse hay can help.  And while many of us may be limited to the hay that is available in our particular area, some of us have a few choices.

The most important factor in choosing any horse hay is that it be clean–free of mold and dust.  Having no or relatively few weeds is a good thing, too.  The maturity of the hay when it’s harvested is important as well.  The earlier a hay is harvested (within the life cycle of the grass), the more nutrients will be available to the horse.  Late-harvested hays are usually coarse and thick and are lower in nutrients as well as palatability than hays harvested in early to mid-bloom.

Legume vs. Grass Hays

There are two general types of hay:  legume and grass–but sometimes hay can be a mixture of both.  Legume hays (such as alfalfa) are higher in protein, calcium, Vitamin A, and digestible energy than grass hays.  While growing horses, pregnant/ lactating mares, and equine athletes may need a higher energy source such as that provided by legume hays, many horses do not.

While lower in protein and energy, grass hays tend to be higher in fiber than legume hays and can sufficiently meet the majority of nutrient needs of most horses.  Grass hays can be further divided into cool and warm season grasses (depending on where they thrive), with cool season grasses typically being a little higher in sugar and energy content (and palatability) than warm season grasses.

There are also cereal grain grass hays, such as oat, barley, rye, and wheat–these hays are usually higher in starch and nitrates and should only be fed to horses with caution or in limited amounts.

Here are some common types of horse hay along with some basic information about each:

Legume Hays:

  • Alfalfa: Alfalfa is high in protein and calcium but low in sugar. Most horses love it, but not all can tolerate it well.  Alfalfa generally contains about 15-20% crude protein, making it one of the highest protein hays.  It is generally recommended that alfalfa not be fed as a horse’s sole forage ration though (see this post to learn more.)

alfalfa grass 300x224 Selecting Hay for Horses: Which Type is Best?

  • Clover: This is a highly palatable hay with a protein content usually running between 13-16%.  There are several different types of clover used for hay, but red clover is the most popular.  However, clover can be affected by a mold that causes horses to salivate excessively–giving horses the “slobbers”.  A few other complications have been associated with clover–see this article to read more.

red clover 300x225 Selecting Hay for Horses: Which Type is Best?

Warm Season Grass Hays:

  • Coastal Bermudagrass:  Bermudagrass is very popular in the southern United States, including where I live in Oklahoma. The protein content of bermuda hay ranges from about 6-11% and it is highly digestible.  However late-harvested (overly mature) bermudagrass hay has been associated with ileal impaction colic, so use caution when purchasing or feeding bermudagrass hay.

bermudagrass 300x199 Selecting Hay for Horses: Which Type is Best?

  • Bromegrass: Bromegrass is best when harvested at mid-bloom stage.  It’s highly palatable and has a nutrient content similar to bermudagrass.

bromegrass 300x225 Selecting Hay for Horses: Which Type is Best?

  • Prairiegrass:  This is actually a mixture of native grasses grown in the Midwestern U.S.  It’s protein content is typically between 6-8%.  Prairie hay is known to be fairly low in nutrients, however the quality can vary depending on the grass species in the hay.

prairie grass 300x200 Selecting Hay for Horses: Which Type is Best?

Cool Season Grass Hays

  • Orchardgrass: Ranging from 7-11% crude protein, orchardgrass is typically grown in the northwestern and northeastern U.S.  This is a fairly good hay for horses if cut in the early bloom stages.

orchard grass Selecting Hay for Horses: Which Type is Best?

  • Timothy: This is a very popular grass hay which is highly digestible.  It is known to be low in protein (7-11%), but high in fiber.  Horses tend to like the taste of Timothy hay as well.

timothygrass 300x225 Selecting Hay for Horses: Which Type is Best?

  • Tall Fescue:  This type of hay is commonly grown in the Midwestern and southeastern U.S..  Protein content is on the lower end of the scale at 5-9%.  Many horses do not find tall fescue hay palatable, however.  This type of hay is also linked with an endophytic fungus which commonly grows within the grass and can cause prolonged gestation, difficult birth, thickened placenta, and lack of milk production in mares.  The fungus may also cause decreased digital circulation and lameness in horses (see this article I wrote for The Horse.)

tall fescue 300x225 Selecting Hay for Horses: Which Type is Best?

Whichever type of hay you go with, getting it tested is the best way to know if it will meet your horse’s nutritional requirements.  Many people also choose to mix hay types (such as legume and grass) to meet nutrient needs as well.  To learn more about hay testing and how to do it, see this post.




HAY QUALITY & NUTRITION: Evaluating Your Horse’s Nutritional Needs

Choosing Hay for Horses

All About Hay

Ileal Impactions

Selecting Quality Hay for Horses

What You Need to Know about Horse Hays

Selection and Use of Hay and Processed Roughage in Horse Feeding

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.

DSC03328 300x225 Forage Only Diet for 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.





Avoiding Winter Colic in Horses

Colic is a condition that many a horse owner dread, and if you’ve had horses for any length of time at all, chances are you’ve dealt with it.  I’ve had my fair share of colic episodes throughout the years and five years ago, I had to make one of the most difficult decisions any horse owner could face:  to have colic surgery performed or to put my horse down.  I chose the former, and Bob is still alive today because of it.   I’ve since educated myself as much as possible on the number one (medical) killer of horses.

Colic often rears its ugly head during the winter months, and this is due mainly to three things:  reduced water intake, reduced movement, and increased feeding of concentrates.   By being aware of the causes of colic, you can help reduce your horse’s chances of developing the condition.

Here are a few tips for avoiding winter colic in horses:

  • Always have fresh water available for your horse.  When freezing temps occur, providing warmed water is important.  You can do this with heated buckets, tank heaters, or by carrying out warm water from your house several time a day.


DSC033661 225x300 Avoiding Winter Colic in Horses

Heated water buckets are well-worth the cost!

  • Provide loose salt or electrolytes in your horse’s feed.  This encourages drinking.


DSC03372 300x225 Avoiding Winter Colic in Horses

  • Don’t increase the concentrates; increase the fiber  instead.   By feeding more hay (or something like chaff or beet pulp), you will decrease the chances of colic.


DSC03369 300x225 Avoiding Winter Colic in Horses

Add another flake instead of increasing grain

  • Turn your horse out.  Increased movement encourages good digestive health.  (I wrote an article about a study on this last year.)


DSC03371 300x225 Avoiding Winter Colic in Horses

Some other year-long colic prevention tips include:

  • Always make feed changes slowly.
  • Deworm your horse (recommendations are changing–instead of deworming on a consistent schedule, many experts now recommend getting a fecal egg count done yearly and deworming each horse according to the results.)
  • Keep your feeding schedule regular (same times every day)
  • Spread concentrate feeding out to 2-3 small feedings per day (remember–concentrates aren’t always necessary though!)
  • Avoid feeding horses on sandy soil.  If your horse lives in a sandy environment, feeding psyllium can help.
  • Maintain regular dental care for your horse.

Colic is also linked with stress, which is sometimes out of our control.  Moving to a new home is stressful for horses, and this was the case when Bob colicked.  He had colic surgery only one week after I purchased him.  Of course, stress, mixed with changes in feed/ hay, and possibly reduced water intake (this happened in January) could have all played a part as well.

On a final note, the more you know about what can trigger colic, the more likely you will be able to help your horse avoid it.  Providing the most natural living conditions for your horse is key.  When we impose our schedules and ideas of how we think the horse should live, we inrease the chances of conditions like colic.  Remember to treat your horse like a horse!