Hay may not be among the things that common people think of daily, but in the equestrian world, the importance of hay in your horse's diet to help support gastric health cannot be understated.
Horses are natural herbivores and have evolved with time to utilize hay and other forage as primary sources of nutrition, making them the most crucial parts of your equine's diet. Not only does hay provide the essential fiber for giving horses their energy, but it also provides fill in the intestine (especially the colon and cecum, collectively referred to as the hindgut). This fill helps to keep the food moving through the digestive tract.
The recent hype in the feed industry about the possibility of improving your horse's gastric health through feeding hay is actually not new knowledge. In fact, the capacity of fiber to support and protect the healthy digestive tract is the basis of sound nutrition for every horse out there!
Why Is Hay So Important For A Horse's Gastric Health?
Horses, just like humans, need a healthy diet to thrive and live life to their full potential. The main building block of a horse's diet is hay and forage. It comprises a majority of their nutrition and yields both psychological and physical benefits.
Some of the reasons why hay is so important to maintain a horse's gastric health, along with their overall health, are:
Helps Promote Gastric Health
Research suggests that horses fed a high-fiber diet have witnessed fewer incidences of gastric ulcers. Your horse's stomach is quite complex and requires a large amount of fiber to function properly.
The fibrous material of hay digested and fermented by your equine helps maintain a healthy bacterial population in their digestive tract. All in all, creating a nutritional diet built upon a base of hay and pasture can reduce the chances of a horse developing gastrointestinal issues or gastric ulcers.
Provides Necessary Nutrients
Hay intake provides several essential nutrients for your horse, including fat, protein, vitamins, carbohydrates, and minerals. Depending on your horse's daily activity level and other duties, they may require a larger amount of forage to provide adequate energy.
Moreover, the inclusion of necessary vitamins and minerals in hay, including potassium, phosphorus, and calcium, helps your equine maintain healthy electrolyte levels.
Promotes a Healthy Disposition
Hay not only plays a vital role in a horse's physical health but tends to have psychological benefits as well. Horses are considered trickle feeders, which means that they spend a large amount of their time feeding and chewing.
Providing an ongoing source of hay (24/7) helps to provide a balance within their sensitive digestive system and allows your horse to graze continuously and consume forage naturally, a little at a time. This will help to keep a constant stream of saliva, which helps to neutralize/buffer stomach acid.
A horse that does not have anything to chew on will chew whatever they can — fences, trees, sometimes even their own manure. A horse's stomach produces acid even when their stomach is empty. Chewing on non-food items can induce stress and discomfort in a horse as it goes against all their natural instincts.
As a result, having sufficient and quality hay to chew on can help reduce aggression, stress levels, and acid levels in your horse. It is important to remember that horses require the mental stimulus of grazing and forage feeding in the form of hay to live a balanced life.
Importance of Hay Quality for Horses
Horses naturally spend up to 16 hours of their entire day foraging. Therefore, it is important not to limit their hay intake and provide quality hay that matches their needs. The type of hay best to fulfill your horse's nutritional requirements entirely depends on age, physiological level, exercise level, and health.
Growing, breeding, and competing horses have very different requirements as compared to horses in maintenance. Horses with dietary sensitivities and other health conditions may have even more unique needs.
Hay quality and appropriate hay selection can help in supporting your horse's gastric health and maintaining a healthy hindgut.
Consider the following when deciding your horse's core nutritional needs:
●Signs of digestive and gastric health issues
●Signs of poor development
●Dull coat, poor hair growth, or skin problems
●Brittle or malformed hooves
●Listlessness or poor work attitude
The above-mentioned signs could indicate that your horse is not getting the key required nutrients from his current diet. Based on the signs observed, you can choose hay that contains higher levels of nutrients needed to aid your horse's overall health.
Types of Hays for Your Horse
The two types of hay that are commercially available in North America are legumes and grass hays.
Grass hays are thin-leafed plant species made of seeding grasses such as bermuda grass, tall fescue, and timothy. The leaves in grass hays are typically less dense than legume hays and are comparatively lower in calories, protein, and high fiber content. Grass hays have a protein content of about 6%-11%.
The fiber acquired from grass hay is fermented in the hindgut to provide energy for your horse. Grass hays can add bulk to your equine's diet without over-contributing energy density.
Grass hays can be beneficial in the following ways:
●Grass hays can support foraging behavior for stalled horses; they can be provided in hay nets scattered around the stall area to prolong consumption.
●Grass hays can be drenched to reduce sugar content.
●The high fiber content in grass hay supports digestive health and maintains gastric health.
Legume hays (such as alfalfa and clover) can be used to boost the nutritional value of a grass-hay-based diet since these hays are high in protein, energy, and calcium. Legume hays have a higher protein content (as compared to grass hays), about 15%-22%.
Experts, however, do not recommend feeding your horse a diet that solely consists of legume hays since they are lower in fiber and do not aid hindgut fermentation. The extremely high calcium content can also lead to calcium carbonate collections in your equine's urinary tract.
Alfalfa hay can be used to substitute 10%-20% of grassy hay for:
●Horses that require additional gut support
●Horses in heavy work or intense training
●To help make a horse's diet more palatable
It bears to keep in mind that an overconsumption of legume hays can deteriorate your horse's gut health. Therefore, feeding a mixture of grass and legume hays is a much better option. This way, your equine can get the best of both worlds by meeting your horse's fiber and foraging needs with grass hay while still providing a denser nutrient profile with legume hay.
Top 10 Factors to Keep in Mind While Selecting Good Quality Horse Hay
Hay helps to keep your horse full and their digestive system working, especially in the cooler months that begin in autumn and last until early spring when pasture isn't readily available. Because hay forms such a big part of horse ration, quality hay can help keep your horse healthy, while poor hay can prove to be detrimental to their health.
As a horse owner, it is important that you place adequate emphasis on the quality of hay you feed. Factors to consider when evaluating hay for your horse.
- Avoid hay that is excessively sun-bleached or overcured.
- Avoid hay that smells fermented, moldy, dusty, or musty.
- Pick hay for your horse that is as green, leafy, and fine-stemmed as possible.
- Hay with little to no blooms or seed heads indicates a younger plant and, therefore, a higher quality hay.
- Refrain from hay that contains a significant amount of trash, debris, dirt, or weeds.
- Reject bales that seem warm to the touch or feel excessively heavier than their size, as these could indicate excess moisture that could cause mold.
- Peruse the hay for signs of disease or infection. Make especially sure to check for blister beetles in alfalfa.
- Story hay in a dry and sheltered area or cover the stack to protect it from rain, snow, and sun.
- Purchase and feed the hay within a year of harvest to preserve its nutritional value.
- You can get your hay analyzed by a certified forage laboratory to determine its nutritional content when purchasing the hay in quantity.
Key Ingredients that may lend Support to your Equine's Gastric Health
Good gastric health can help in reducing the risk of digestive disorders.
Research suggests that the following ingredients may provide relevant aid to support an equine's gastric health.
Probiotics: Useful bacteria that can help maintain a healthy microbial balance in your horse's digestive tract.
Prebiotics: Provide nourishments for beneficial gut bacteria and lead to a healthier gut microbiome, which is essential for optimal digestion and overall health.
Yeast: Can improve the microbial balance in the horse's colon and cecum, which helps to stabilize hindgut fermentation and may have a positive effect on gastric health by reducing stress on the stomach.
Glutamine: An amino acid that is important for the repair and maintenance of the lining of the horse's gastrointestinal tract.
Slippery Elm: A herbal used to soothe digestive discomfort. Contains mucilage, a substance that can form a protective barrier on the gastric lining, helping to prevent irritation from gastric juices.
The appropriate dosage and combination of these ingredients may vary depending on your horse's particular needs. It is important to note that any nutritional requirements for your horse should be determined under the guidance of a veterinarian or equine nutritionist.
Management Strategies to Keep Your Horse "Gastrically" Happy
The horse is a non-ruminant herbivore and has evolved over the years to ingest a diet primarily made of high fiber throughout the day. However, modern management practices in which most horses are meal-fed calorically dense diets high in starch with prolonged periods of fasting in between have led to an increased risk of gastric ulcers.
In order to support your horse's gastric health and reduce the risk of conditions such as Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome (EGUS), it is essential to recognize the risk factors and symptoms for the same and adopt appropriate management strategies that can keep your equine "gastrically" happy.
●Provide your equine with a forage-based diet containing hay. Chewing on grass and hay leads to additional saliva production that helps in buffering acid in the stomach.
●Reduce your equine's stress by providing plenty of paddock turnout time, preferably with a buddy.
●In case your horse does not have unlimited access to pasture, provide them with regular small meals with constant access to hay.
●Supply the hay in slow feeder hay nets that will help extend the time taken for the horse to consume all of the hay. This will also help in extending salivation time and reducing boredom.
●Along with feeding hay to your horse prior to exercise, also provide a small meal of hay once the exercise is complete to help in buffering your equine's stomach and keeping it full.
●Ensuring your horse is fed a balanced diet will go a long way to support its overall health and performance.
As horse owners, it is important to recognize the importance of hay and the role it can play in supporting your equine’s gastric health. No matter what hay you choose, make sure that your horse has plenty of access to fresh water as hay increases thirst demands. Balance the intake of hay and grain based on your horse's activity levels. Proper nutrition management and optimal gastric health ensure the maintenance of positive energy levels and digestive health.
If you are concerned about your horse's gastric health and nutritional plan, get in touch with a veterinarian or horse nutritionist for advice. They can help you put together a balanced diet plan that utilizes grain, hay, and supplements in a nutritious manner.