Normally a horse would get enough nutrition by just eating grass and/ or hay, that is what they eat in the wild and that is how evolution intended it. In the wild horses don’t eat grain, grains are too easy to digest for horses, it is very important horses get enough roughage for their digestive system. Inadequate roughage is linked to many equine vices such as cribbing, weaving, wood or manure eating. It’s also a cause of ulcers.
Unfortunately nowadays, because of intensive farming and other causes, our grass and hay often does not have enough nutritional values anymore. We will have to make sure they do get what they miss (often with a salt block and vitamin pellet. But don’t overdose with vitamins either, this can give problems as well).
Another danger of modern grass is that they do are too rich for our horses (remember, horses come from the prairie, not a lot of rich grasses there). Brood mares, growing horses and athletes in training may benefit from the high carbohydrate, improved forages being developed today. But what is good for one type of horse may be too much for another.
Many of our horses, ponies and donkeys are pets, pasture ornaments, or only get ridden lightly on weekends. Some people have a wrong idea of a healthy horse and they let their horse get to fat in summer, this can be devastating on their health!
Most important is probably the fact that horses needs 24/7 access to roughage but it is not wise to let your horse graze more than 3 hours a day on modern grasses! Best grazing time in summer is before 10 AM, since that is the time the sugar content of grass is the lowest. The rest of the day you can feed hay with low level of sugar. http://www.safergrass.org talks about the dangers of to rich grass and hay (!) and what you can do to prevent fat horses, founder and laminitis.
To ensure your horse meets his nutritional needs without getting to fat, or even gets founder or laminitis it is wise to take a soil sample of your fields and a hay sample. This can be done at WVU Extension.
WVU Extension did a study on hay in West Virginia and their nutritional values. They sampled grass and hay from 1994 to 2006 and did extensional research on it. Their final report from 2008:
The report talks about the different kind of hay and haylage. It also talks about the differences in nutrition with different kind of hay management. When energy or protein quality of hay does not meet the animals’ nutrient requirement, improved harvest management will often improve the hay’s nutritional quality so that less purchased supplements are needed. This gives us a reason to inquire about how your hay provider manages his or her hay cutting. Keep in mind though; the report talks about nutritional value for beef. Nevertheless does it give some information about the nutritional value of hay in WV.
The report combined with the website about ‘safergrass’ (which does talk about horses) should give a good basic understanding of feeding your horse all year round here in WV.
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