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Choosing the best forage for your horse

June 12, 2014

Choosing forage  

Good forage, what to look for and why your horse needs it.

There are many different opinions on what to look for in hay and they change depending on who you ask. Some of the factors people look at to determine if hay is good are subjective and often have no basis on the quality of the hay. This article will cover the things you really should be focusing on when choosing hay and forage for your horse, the things to avoid, and why forage can help your horse.

What to look for in hay

Lab analysis: Out of all the things you can look at to determine if a certain forage is good for your horse, the lab analysis is the most crucial. If a hay producer cannot show you a lab analysis for a crop of hay then the chances are high the hay was not intended for the delicate digestive system of horses but likely meant for cattle. When looking at a lab analysis the most important thing to look at is the protein level of the forage. Good forage can be either lower in protein or higher in protein, which one is best depends on the activity level of a horse. Lower protein hay should be around 9% and higher level protein hay around 12%. A mix of higher protein hay and processed feed than can be bad for a horse. At ETA-Equine we also have a bailing and drying method for hay that allows us to bale at a much higher humidity level and still have a hay that cures perfectly. Allowing the production of the finest hay specifically formulated for horses. Hay for cattle is normally not able to reach such high humidity levels when baled and still be safe for a horse to consume.

Consistency: It is important that hay fed to a horse is consistent year round. Their delicate digestive system can be shocked if their diet changes suddenly, a leading cause of colics. ETA-Equine ensures consistent quality hay to all the equine athletes it supplies, ensuring peace of mind to owners and riders.

No dust: Dust can be present inside of a bale of hay either due to the environment where it was baled or due to legumes (alfalfa) present in the hay when baled and dried. These legumes dry up and fall apart creating dust inside the bale. Any form of dust can be hazardous to a horse’s respiratory system.

Not wet inside: Hay can be a challenge to bale since it requires time to dry in the field once cut, and even more time to dry indoors afterwards. Hay not given enough time to dry properly or baled in the rain will form fungus and mold inside the bale. This can be fatal to a horse.

No musty or salty smell: A musty or salty smell present inside a hay bale, usually accompanied by a caramel brown colour, indicates that a bale cooked on the inside. This usually happens when hay is improperly baled and improperly stored. hay like this is bad for a horse and should be avoided. Good hay will have that fresh hay smell all horse owners and riders know and love.

Green colour: a nice green colour to the hay is normally preferable though not a perfect indicator of hay quality. yellow hay on the outside of a bale indicates light sun damage. As long as it is still green under the yellow hay then it is still good. If you are looking at potential hay to buy and some of it is yellowed on the outside, take a few clumps of hay out of the yellowed side with your hand to see if it is still green underneath.

Leafy & long stemmed: Hay that is leafy has a better protein level than non leafy hay with big heads, all the energy is located in the leaf of the plant. Long stems are also important to provide a horse with something they can chew for long periods. This allows the forage to absorb enough saliva during chewing to counteract the buildup of acid in their stomach, helping prevent gastric ulcers.

Types of hay to avoid

Silage hay: Silage should not be fed to horses, doing so means risking the horse suffering botulism poisoning which will kill a horse. Silage is accomplished by baling and wrapping freshly cut hay before it has a change to dry. This allows the hay to ferment and when done properly preserve the hay longer than normal even in weather conditions less than ideal such as rain and snow. If any tear occurs in the wrapping, a mouse is trapped inside and dies, or one of any other factors happens then the hay will spoil and turn poisonous to horses. Cattle will have no problem eating the hay though, their digestive tracts are hardier and they benefit from multiple stomachs. This is why Silage hay is usually reserved for cattle and not horses.

Pure alfalfa & cubed alfalfa: Alfalfa is not actually a forage but a legume, which is the reason it has such a high protein level. This makes it ideal as a treat for a horse due to its natural sweetness, but beyond that it is not ideal for a horse. Horses whose diets consists primarily of alfalfa are more prone to colics and gastric ulcers.

Benefits of good forage in a horse’s diet

A horse that has a diet of good forage benefits from controlled energy levels and has an easier time regulating the body temperature. They stay more easily between their lower critical temperature (LCT) and their higher critical temperature (HCT). keeping a horse at a body temperature they are comfortable at allows them to conserve energy, perform better and maintain a calm disposition. Horses that are calm thanks to normal energy levels are also less prone to stall vices, not to mention a more controlled weight. Long stemmed forage will also reduce the occurrence of gastric ulcers unlike an improper diet of high amounts of concentrated feeds or alfalfa. Long stem hay also promotes more chewing of the forage and can help horses that are prone to choke slow down while eating.

Regardless of the kind of horse in question, forage is absolutely needed. The horse has evolved over the years to feed off of forage. A diet that uses only processed feed for a horse is bad for their health. Some horse owners may find that feeding a horse only hay is boring for a horse, but horses are creatures that crave the same boring routine. It reassures them to know their routine and keeps them calm. Their digestive system also needs the same constant routine, sudden changes send the digestive system in a panic and can cause colics. That said; processed feed is useful in adding a little extra energy to a horse’s diet or to bulk them up, especially with very active horses. It should not however replace forage in any circumstance.

ETA-Equine’s premium horse hay blends are grown to the highest standard and provide the best hay possible for all types of horses consistently year round. Both the Township Blend and the Appalachian Blend are grown to meet the strictest conditions, and are horse hay certified. When our Masters Circle team riders order ETA-Equine hay they know they are consistently getting the best hay to meet their standards and the taste standards of even the pickiest horses.

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