Back before horses were domesticated by humans, they mostly wandered the plains, grazing on different grasses and foods all day long. Because of that, many people today believe that horses should go back to the basics and eat a forage-only or forage-based diet. But with the ways humans have changed modern horses’ lifestyles, is a diet without grain really in a horse’s best interest, especially a working athlete like a Western performance horse?
Quarter Horse News spoke with Dr. Tania Cubitt, Performance Horse Nutritionist at Standlee Premium Western Forage, to find out why forage-based diets have become popular and how to formulate one appropriately for your horse.
Performance Horses Aren’t Wild
Much like the popular “grain-free” and “raw” buzzwords heard in the pet food industry today, forage-only diets, or diets consisting of just hay, forage cubes or pellets, are a fad increasing in popularity. These diets avoid feeds formulated with corn, barley, oats and other cereal grains.
Forage is the foundation to any horse’s diet, Cubitt acknowledged, but there are some things you need to take into account before removing grains and commercial concentrates completely from your horse’s feed.
“Our horses are not wild,” Cubitt said. “They live in stalls, we ride them and we do all these things that are not natural. A wild horse lives until he’s about 12, only has to outrun the slowest horse in the herd, and he doesn’t always look the best. We need to realize that the demands we put on performance horses require a whole lot more nutrition.”
Forage-Only Diets Require a Veterinarian or Nutritionist’s Expertise
Horses that perform quick bursts of speed as part of their job, like reiners, cutters and cow horses, must have carbohydrates in their diets to execute those maneuvers. These sugars and starches typically come from cereal grains, whereas fiber and fat, which are in plentiful supply in forage, build up slow twitch muscle fibers that can keep a horse working, albeit at slower speed, all day long.
“If you don’t have any carbohydrates in your diet, you’re going to have a fat, shiny, beautiful horse, but he is not going to have the stamina or energy to do anything fast,” Cubitt said. “That’s where you get caught between a rock and a hard place, wanting to do right by the horse to be healthy, but also wanting him to go fast for you.”
To help your performance horse thrive on a forage-only diet, the first thing you will need to do is consult an equine nutritionist or a veterinarian that specializes in nutrition to help formulate a diet that meets your horse’s needs. From there, you will need to take a look at your forage’s quality and note any deficiencies.
Hay Analyses Are Vital
Since hay is the basis of a forage-based diet, knowing the quality of the hay you are feeding is crucial to your horse’s health. Most horse owners’ primary source of hay is a local hay that may not be the highest in nutritional value, so ordering a hay analysis on your forage will tell you exactly how it should be supplemented.
“The gold standard is a lab in New York called Equi-Analytical, and that forage analysis will run you anywhere from $30-$70, depending on how in depth you want it to be,” Cubitt said. “The information you get from it is invaluable. It will tell you exactly what’s in your hay, the protein content, energy content, and vitamin and mineral content, and measures of fiber fractions that are indicators of palatability and digestibility.”
The results of the hay analysis will determine if your grass hay needs to be supplemented with alfalfa for extra protein or if it’s deficient in certain essential vitamins or minerals, for example. Such deficiencies can be detrimental to any horse, especially a performance horse that is in heavy daily training.
Supplemental Concentrates Are a Necessity
Horses in work need a certain amount of energy and protein to do their jobs, and in a forage-based diet, that means you will need to feed an appropriate amount of hay. The general recommendation is 2.0 to 2.5% of the horse’s body weight, which for a 1,000-pound horse comes out to 20 to 25 pounds of hay per day. This amount of hay can’t be fed in two feedings, so the horse will need access to it throughout the day.
Even the correct amount of hay, though, will be deficient in certain minerals like selenium, copper and zinc. This deficit can be made up through the use of a ration balancer or a vitamin supplement.
“I lean toward ration balancers because they’re widely available from any kind of commercial company,” Cubitt said. “Typically, they’ve got no grain in them, and you feed one to two pounds a day to your horse, so it’s going to give them all the vitamins and minerals they need. Some also have varying levels of protein, so depending on your hay quality, it can help balance that out.”
Your Pasture Probably Isn’t Meeting Your Horse’s Needs
Turning a horse out in a large pasture might seem like it would be enough for a forage-based diet, especially in the spring and fall when grasses aren’t fried. The reality, though, is that most people don’t have enough pasture to supply a horse’s needs, and the pasture they do have is likely deficient in certain minerals.
“The general rule of thumb is: to have enough pasture to fulfill one horse, you must have two acres per horse with 70% coverage of actual grass — not weeds — and it has to be at least six inches tall across that 70%,” Cubitt said. “There’s very few horses that have access to that because we live in populated areas.”
If your horses do mostly eat pasture, you can have a forage analysis done to see how the pasture needs to be supplemented, then add in ration balancers or supplemental hay that is higher in quality.
Remember: a knowledgeable nutritionist will read forage analyses and calculate the nutrition your horse is getting out of the diet compared to what it actually needs to perform. That way, you can feel good knowing you’re making the right dietary decisions for your horse based on his lifestyle and performance.