You’ve heard it before, or perhaps you even do it. Feeding ad lib hay is often thought to be the most natural way to feed forage. Well that depends entirely on the horse you’re feeding. Feeding ad lib hay can be a big mistake for some horses and ponies. Especially our Native breeds.
Our Guest blogger Nicola Kinnard-Comedie from NKC Equestrian Training talks about when ad lib works well, and how and why it often doesn’t.
When is ad lib hay just too much?
Many horse owners will be aware that it’s essential to provide your horse with sufficient forage (hay or haylage), but how much do they actually need? It is popular with some owners to feed ‘ad-lib’ hay, but what does this mean and is this the best option for your horse?
Why would I want to give my horse ad-lib hay?
We know that the horse is a ‘trickle feeder’ designed to be eating for around 18 hours in a 24 hour period. The horse needs to chew to produce saliva and this has a healthy effect on the digestive system, buffering the naturally acid areas of the stomach where gastric ulcers can occur. Life is quite different for the domesticated horse which may be turned out in a small paddock and stabled for 12-18 hours a day. It is well documented that feeding restricted amounts of hay can raise cortisol levels, increase incidences of gastric ulcers and induce stress related behaviour such as crib biting.
In an attempt to replicate more natural feeding behaviour lots of owners want to give their horse a large quantity of hay, so that it doesn’t run out and the horse can be constantly eating. This sounds ideal, and many argue that the horse will only eat as much as it needs so that it will maintain a healthy weight. But is this true for all horses?
I have a good-doer… can he have ad-lib hay?
This is where feeding ad-lib hay becomes problematic, and for a horse that is overweight allowing free access to hay is not recommended.
It is important to note that each horse will have individual requirements for how many calories they need in a day, just like people. Whilst forage should make up the majority of any horse’s diet, providing an all day ‘hay buffet’ is just not suitable for a good doer or an overweight horse or pony. This includes your native types who are more inclined to hold on to extra weight, and are not designed to metabolise the amount of calories provided by ad lib hay.
There are many reason ad lib may not work for your horse, but we will look at two big ones.
Firstly hay significantly differs in nutritional value and unless you have each batch of hay analysed you don’t really know how much sugar, starch and calories you might be providing. Hay made earlier in the season will be more calorific, hay made from predominantly ryegrass will contain a lot more sugar than hay made from a meadow grass mix. It’s worth remembering that hay is a farmed crop. It is fertilised and tended to provide maximum nutrition. This is a long way from the natural forage (gorse, bark, moss, different grasses, reeds weeds and scrub) that our native breeds thrive on in their natural environment.
Secondly your horse may not be able to regulate thier intake as well as owners assume. Horses are meant to have ‘nutritional wisdom’, selecting the nutrients and quantities that they need, but there isn’t actually much empirical evidence to support this idea. Horses which are overweight, or good-doers, may also be insulin resistant, which means that will also be resistant to another hormone called Leptin. Leptin is a useful hormone which tells the brain that the horse has had enough to eat. The overweight horse effectively doesn’t have this ‘off- switch’ so it will continue to eat….and eat…and eat!
Which horses can have ad-lib hay?
For horses that are the correct body weight and in regular exercise, or have increased nutritional requirements providing free access to hay can work well. For example horses living out may have access to a large round bale of hay in the winter months, and provided they aren’t overweight they will regulate their intake reasonably well. For those living out they will also be moving around more, inevitably spend time away from the hay and will have increased energy requirements from the cold.
Horses which are stabled can either guzzle their hay too quickly, or waste it turning it into a bed if providing with excess. The best way to provide continual access to forage for a stabled horse if to divide the hay up into smaller quantities, (feeding some at 4pm and more at 8pm), and to use a system designed to slow the horse down, such as a Trickle Net. This allows the benefit of much longer time to access forage but prevents the horse eating it too quickly.
How much hay does my horse need?
Your horse needs 1.5%-2.5% of their ideal body weight as food intake. Depending on your horse, it’s health status and your pasture grazing alone may provide sufficient intake for the Spring and Summer months.
For the rest of the year, and for horses who have restricted access to grass, you will need to provide this as hay.
If your horse is overweight, it is recommended to feed 1.5% of his/her body weight. So for a 650kg horse, that’s 9.75kg per day. Many owners have no idea how much hay they actually feed- do you weigh hay out?
I hope you have found this blog useful in helping you decide how much hay your horse should receive. Please remember to consider how much hay your horse actually needs, the type of hay you are feeding, and don’t forget ways to provide more access to forage without allowing your horse to overeat and become obese.