Allowing a horse unlimited access to grass seems like the most natural and therefore best way to keep them. From the perspective of the horse, it can allow them to move around freely and potentially offers them the opportunity to interact with other horses. It also allows for a continuous flow of fibre through the digestive tract which we know is important for maintaining gut health. From our perspective, horses at grass tend to be less labour intensive and more cost effective compared to horses that are stabled.

So why would we want to restrict grass intake for horses?

The most common answer to this question is to limit energy (calorie) intake. Managing a horse’s grass intake is fundamental to managing their weight and therefore laminitis risk but it isn’t always easy to do.

Horses in the wild would naturally have a seasonal cycle of weight gain and loss according to the amount and quality of grass available. When the grass is more abundant in the spring and summer they gain weight and then lose it again in the colder winter months so that by the next spring they can afford to put some weight on again. In the domestic environment it is becoming increasingly less likely that horses lose significant amounts of weight in the winter resulting in year-on-year weight gain. This is one of the factors contributing to the obesity problem and its associated health risks in horses in the UK.

The graph below highlights just how significant the energy (DE – digestible energy) intake from grazing can be when the horse has unlimited access to pasture. In the spring months you can see that the DE intake is almost double the requirements of maintenance and so it is no surprise that horses gain weight at this time of year. Winter would usually be the time when energy intake dips below requirements as the grass quality deteriorates. However, over recent years the energy gap between need and supply in the winter months is not as great due to milder winters and continued grass growth. This means weight loss is becoming less likely.

Energy Intake from grazing graph

*DE value for seasonal grass is shown as DE per kg of dry matter

There are many factors that affect the nutritional quality of grazing that are beyond our control such as the weather. There are also individual differences in appetite with Professor Caroline Argo reporting that ponies have been documented consuming up to 5.6% of their bodyweight daily on a dry matter basis. For a 200kg pony this equates to 11.2kg dry matter which equates to 56kg of fresh grass daily and many more calories than they need! Therefore, we have to get a grip on our horse’s grass intake if we want to manage their weight and keep them healthy.

How to manage a horse’s grass intake

There are various methods to manage a horse’s grass intake and ultimately finding a method that is most practical for you and well tolerated by your horse will result in the greatest success. For those on livery yards, managing grass intake can be even more challenging if the yard limit how you can manage your horse. Sometimes there is such a thing as an unsuitable yard for your horse’s needs and whilst it is an upheaval, moving to a more accommodating yard is vital if you are to successfully avoid diseases such as laminitis.

What are the alternatives?

If you can’t limit the area of grazing your horse has access to, grazing muzzles come into their own as the horse can still be turned out in their normal paddock. A grazing muzzle is fitted over the horse’s muzzle and has one or multiple holes to allow the horse to consume some grass but limits the amount of grass in each bite.

How effective are grazing muzzles for weight management?

Research by Dengie’s Nutritionist Tracey Hammond found that the use of a grazing muzzle restricted intake by 75-85% in her study for her Masters Dissertation project. Click here to read about her study.  Later research published by Longland and colleagues in 2011 gave a similar result with a restriction of 75-88%. What was interesting about this second study was that those ponies grazing without a muzzle during the 3-hour grazing period consumed 0.8% of their bodyweight on a dry matter basis, which is over half the daily intake suggested for a dieting horse in such a short space of time. As horses are capable of compensatory eating behaviour when restricted by time, reducing time at grass alone is not a recommended method of grazing restriction for weight management.

grazing muzzle

Why muzzle a horse?

One of the key advantages of a grazing muzzle compared to other methods of grazing management is that it requires no changes to the paddock that the horse is grazing and will be allowed by most yards. Muzzles are quite divisive amongst horse owners and the general public more widely who may not understand why the muzzle is being used. If asked “why muzzle a horse?” we can explain that one of the added benefits is that they still allow the horse to exercise more freely and interact with other horses compared to other methods of grass restriction that reduce the grazing area or require the horse to be stabled on their own.

How to put a grazing muzzle on a horse?

When we’re asked, ‘how to put a grazing muzzle on a horse?’ one of the first things we say is to do it gradually. Don’t expect to put a grazing muzzle on a horse and put them straight out in the field. The more positive you can make the initial training with the grazing muzzle the more likely your horse is to get the hang of it. Start slowly and initially put some grass inside the ‘bucket’ of the muzzle so that your horse is happy putting their head in to eat. Next, when tackling how to put a grazing muzzle on a horse, make sure that it fits properly. Purchasing the correct size muzzle is key and most will also come with a handy guide to help you to adjust for a comfortable fit. The following video discusses how to put a grazing muzzle on the horse and get a good fit. The NEWC have a downloadable leaflet that discusses some of the welfare concerns when using a muzzle that should be considered before putting one.

A common question to the feedline, often from horse owners who are in despair, is ‘how to keep a grazing muzzle on a horse?’ Some horses are very good escape artists and learn how to remove a muzzle adeptly and, in some cases, other horses in the herd will endeavour to remove another horse’s muzzle. Make sure that the muzzle fits and the headcollar is secure on the horse’s head. Some people advocate plaiting a small amount of forelock over the head strap into the mane. It is important that only a small quantity of forelock is used so that if the horse gets caught up with the muzzle and pulls away then the horse can still get loose.

How long can a horse wear a muzzle?

Typically, the advice is that horses wear a muzzle for up to 12 hours, and then are removed from grazing. Longland and colleagues in 2016 investigated using a muzzle for 10 out of a 24-hour grazing period. For some individuals this was successful for weight management, but not for all. Even though 10 hours is an extensive grazing period there is still a chance that horses may compensate once the muzzle is removed. This would be particularly undesirable for those prone to laminitis where insulin dysregulation is a concern. When asked ‘how long a horse can wear a muzzle for?’ we would therefore also advise for up to 12 hours and then the horse should be removed from grazing.

Other methods to reduce grass intake: Strip Grazing

Strip grazing involves significantly reducing the size of the horse’s grazing area by putting electric fencing across a strip of the field. As the grass is grazed, the fence is moved to gradually allow more grass access and to move the grass strip up the field. Some people will also use a back fence and move that at the same time as the front fence to allow the grazed grass time to recover and to keep the total area available to the horse restricted.

strip grazing diagram

How effective is strip grazing for weight management?

This really depends on the size of the strip, how regularly the front of the strip is moved for fresh grass, and environmental factors affecting the growth of the grass in the strip. The grazing area should therefore be adjusted according to whether the horse continues to lose weight. Regular monitoring of bodyweight and fat score will help to determine this.

Researchers Longland and Harris (2020) set out to compare three grazing practices on managing bodyweight. All ponies had grass access equating to 1.5% of their bodyweight DM daily over 28 days. One group had access to all 28 days’ worth of grazing at the start of the study. Another group were given 1.5% of their bodyweight on a dry matter basis daily by moving the front and back fence of a strip and the last group were given access to an extra 1.5% of their bodyweight on a dry matter basis by moving the front fence only. Bodyweight gains were significantly higher for those with free grass access compared to those that were strip grazed. Researchers concluded that strip grazing was an effective management practice for weight loss.

The track system and other alternative grazing methods

The track system has gained popularity in the UK in recent years. A track system can mean different things to different people. For some the track will be completely devoid of grass whilst other tracks may be grass based. The track tends to be around the edge of a field with grazing in the centre for leaner horses or for other uses such as making hay. Resources like additional forage and water are placed in different locations in the track and additional environmental enrichment such as access to sections of hedgerow provided. One of the key benefits of a track system is that it encourages the horse to move more.

Like strip grazing, how successful a track system is for weight management depends on many factors including the size of the track, the amount of grass on the track, and any additional forage provided. Again, this method requires continued monitoring of the horse and adjustments where necessary. Some people with grass on their tracks may then combine a track with strip grazing at times that the grass is abundant.

A recent study has investigated how horse owners are using alternative grazing systems including Track Systems to manage their horse’s health and well-being. A summary of the research can be viewed here.

Reduced grass availability

Another method of limiting grass intake is to try and reduce the amount of grass in the grazing area. Co-grazing with other livestock like sheep, allowing leaner horses access first or even mowing and removing the clippings to reduce herbage a couple of weeks before, are all strategies for reducing the amount of grass available.

No grass area

If you are going to get complete control over what your horse is eating, then a bare paddock is key. This completely removes grass from the equation which is advantageous as grass is so difficult to control. For some individuals such as those that are exceptionally laminitis prone, a no grass area may be a permanent fixture, whilst for others it may just be used tactically such as at times of the year when grass is most abundant. The base to the no grass area can be sand, wood chip or rubber just as for an arena or menage. Do be aware that if the horse is eating forage from a sand base there is a risk of sand accumulating in the gut which may cause colic. As these areas tend to be limited in size, they do have a downside which is the horse isn’t moving around as much. However, if they are outside it may mean the horse can interact with other horses, see what’s going on and breath cleaner air which is beneficial for those with respiratory issues such as RAO.

Whichever grazing system is used, remember to continuously monitor your horse’s behaviour, bodyweight and fat score to assess the effectiveness and suitability of the restricted grazing method.

For further feeding advice or if you would like our nutrition team to review your horse or pony’s current ration click here.

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Hot weather combined with the physiological stress of travelling and competing can increase the risk of dehydration in horses which is likely to compromise performance and recovery. There are things you can do to reduce the risk of dehydration and improve recovery times for your horse and they don’t all involve water!

You can lead a horse to water…

As the saying goes horses are not always keen to drink, especially when away from home. Ironically, horses often prefer the water from the field tank than fresh from the tap and so if they don’t normally drink much out of the bucket in the stable, try filling it with water from the tank and if possible, take your own “tank” water with you to competitions. Another tip is to try flavouring your water at home with a little bit of cordial or food flavouring and use the same flavour when you stay away to hide the change of water.

Using soaked horse feeds is another way to increase water intake that doesn’t require the horse to actually drink from a bucket. Unmolassed sugar beet pulp or Dengie Alfa-Beet have to be soaked prior to feeding and are less than 5% sugar so suitable for most horses and ponies. The sugar beet pulp provides a great source of highly digestible fibre that supplies fuel in a slow release form.

Rising temperatures and increased activity can cause your horse or pony to sweat more resulting in the loss of electrolytes: essential salts that the body needs to function correctly. Both electrolytes and water are needed for rehydration so adding electrolyte supplements to your horse’s water is ideal. If this puts your horse off drinking then they can be mixed in the feed, but make the feed is wet and slushy to promote efficient absorption.

Horses that are competing a lot over the summer will probably spend longer periods of time in the stable or in work and so less time turned out in the paddock. Grass, which is around 80% water, normally helps to aid hydration. If hay or haylage are consumed instead of grass, water intake will drop significantly. Hay is only about 15% water and haylage or ‘wrapped hay’ typically between 30 and 50%. This not only has repercussions for hydration but also the risk of colic with drier forages increasing the chance of issues especially if not introduced gradually.

The importance of the post-exercise cool-down for your horse

Obviously the cool-down period helps to bring the horse’s temperature and respiration rate down but it has another important function. It is probably fair to say that the lymphatic system is not very well understood and yet it is crucial to the horse’s health, performance and recovery. The lymphatic system consists of an extensive network of vessels and nodes that help to maintain fluid balance and cellular health.

After exercise, the lymphatic system has lots of work to do clearing the waste generated by cells that have been working hard to supply the fuel that powers performance. The flow of lymph is stimulated by things like muscle contraction, the pulse through arteries and movement of the gut (peristalsis). The cool down period is really important for allowing the waste products of exercise to be cleared by the lymph system. Turning a horse out after exercise is really beneficial as the horse is moving around freely and eating, both of which help to stimulate the flow of lymph.

The horse has a lot of lymph nodes – 8000 compared to 600 in humans. Half of the horse’s nodes are in the colon and so will function best when plenty of peristalsis occurs. This is one of the anatomical differences between an herbivore that is designed to spend most of its time eating, and an omnivore that tends to meal feed. This is a key reason to feed competition horses plenty of fibre as it helps to “detox” the body.

Feeding fibre for gut health

Awareness of the role the microbial population in the gut has on health and behaviour is increasing. The functional interaction between dietary fibre, the bugs that live in the gut and the mucus barrier that protects the gut tissue is becoming more widely researched and understood.

One study carried out in mice, has shown that if insufficient fibre was supplied over the long or short term, the bugs in the gut resorted to using the mucus barrier as a nutrient source, resulting in the reduction of the defence barrier in the colon. The researchers suggested that the damage to the mucus layer potentially allows harmful bacteria greater access to the gut tissue and therefore more opportunity to cause problems.

This research suggests that if the gut is made weaker and more permeable by low fibre diets then it is more vulnerable to infections which could have significant consequences for health and performance especially in horses that are travelling and coming into contact with lots of other horses and therefore potentially harmful bugs!

Focus with Fibre

Fibre and oil provide slow release energy which can be particularly useful for fizzy or over-excitable horses. When they get over-excited they often sweat more losing more electrolytes and wasting energy messing about. It’s not a great surprise that these are often the horses that run out of energy in the competition and run-up light afterwards. Utilising fibre and oil as energy sources and reducing starch intakes may help to reduce the risk of these problems.

A study at the University of Edinburgh compared a fibre based diet that provided only 2% starch with a cereal based concentrate mix of the same energy level that contained 22% starch. Both diets provided the same amount of energy overall. The results showed that horses fed the cereal-based concentrate mix were more reactive to new situations and equipment. They were also less consistent in their behaviour and had higher resting heart rates compared to horses fed fibre-diets. The results of this study add to an increasing body of evidence to show that the key for a more focused performance is to use ‘slow-release’ energy sources such as fibre and oil.

Feeding for Recovery

One of the other great things about using fibre and oil as energy sources is that they don’t need to be reduced when the horse has a rest day. This can really aid recovery from a competition as energy can safely be put back in when the horse is resting and recovering. A feed combining alfalfa and oil such as Alfa-A Oil, provides as much energy as a competition or conditioning mix but with around 10 times less starch – a great way to provide energy for recovery but without the risk of digestive upsets.

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For further feeding advice or if you would like our nutrition team to review your horse or pony’s current ration click here

What is Alfalfa?

Although alfalfa for horses is still often perceived as a relatively “new” feed, it has actually been used for thousands of years and the name “alfalfa” comes from Arabic, Persian and Kashmiri words meaning “best horse fodder” and “horse power”. You may also hear the name “Lucerne” used, which can cause confusion, but it is just another name for alfalfa.

Alfalfa is a legume and so is a member of the pea and bean family and has deep roots that enable it to access water and minerals deep in the soil. This makes it a very nutritious crop as well as being beneficial for soil structure. Alfalfa is able to take nitrogen from the atmosphere and convert it into amino acids in its own tissue and also puts some back into the soil. This means that no additional fertilisers are needed for the alfalfa and the crops that follow in rotation require much less fertiliser too. Alfalfa is left in the ground for three to four years. This not only provides winter ground cover for birds and insects but also reduces the tillage of the land which research is showing is beneficial for carbon capture too.

alfalfa field


Benefits of Feeding Alfalfa to Horses

There is a reason alfalfa horse feed is still used today and that’s because it is safe and nutritious. Read on to find out more about the potential health benefits of alfalfa for horses.

Alfalfa benefits include energy without the starch

Fibre is often referred to as structural carbohydrate which means that although it is made up of glucose just as other carbohydrates like starch are, the way in which the glucose units are linked together is different. This means that the digestive enzymes produced by the horse can not break the links and so the horse relies on bacteria and other microorganisms to break down fibre. This releases energy that the horse can then utilise.

The digestibility of a forage affects how much energy the horse can extract from it. Digestibility is a way of describing how easy it is for the micro-organisms in the horse’s gut to break down the fibre. Indigestible elements such as lignin, make the fibre less digestible or less easy to break down. Sugar beet is very digestible and has an energy value of between 11MJ and 12MJ DE/kg whereas straw contains a large proportion of indigestible material and so has a much lower energy value at around 5 MJ/kg DE. Alfalfa is another high fibre feed that can make a significant contribution to a horse’s energy requirements. At 10MJ DE/kg it is comparable to a low energy mix but without the same levels of starch found in cereals.

But why is alfalfa so low in starch? Like other plants, alfalfa makes sugar when photosynthesising but if it makes more sugar than it needs, it stores any surplus as starch in its roots – the part that horses don’t eat! This is in contrast to grass which stores sugar as water soluble carbohydrates such as fructan in stems and leaves.

When oil is added as a coating to alfalfa for horses, sugar levels are typically less than 5% but the energy is high enough to support horses in moderate to hard work. Feeds are rarely (if ever) sugar free, as even straw contains some sugar which is why we use the phrase “no added sugar” to describe our lowest sugar feeds. Combining alfalfa with oil, such as in Alfa-A Oil, produces a feed with 12.5MJ DE per kg, which is equivalent to a conditioning mix but with 10 times less starch! Due to its low starch and sugar content, alfalfa horse feed is ideal for the laminitis prone and those with muscle problems.

When shopping for horse feed, look out for our ‘No Added Sugar’ logo to be sure you are using the lowest sugar options available. Our Alfa-A Molasses Free feed is made from pure alfalfa for horses and is naturally low in sugar and starch.

Alfalfa is a great source of quality protein

The percentage of protein in a pure alfalfa feed often puts some people off feeding it but that’s because they don’t consider how much is being fed and therefore the actual amount of protein the horse is consuming. For example, the Dengie Alfa-A range contain between 12 and 14% protein. 1 Stubbs scoop of Alfa-A Original (400g) supplies 48 grams of protein which is about 6-8% of a 500kgs horse’s daily maintenance needs. We recommend a maximum of 3kgs (7.5 scoops) per day which very few people get anywhere near feeding which provides about 1/3 of the protein a 500kgs horse in moderate to hard work requires. This means it makes a useful but by no means excessive contribution to a horse’s protein requirements.

Naturally occurring minerals in alfalfa

The mineral content of plants tends to reflect the soils they grow on. Different plant species adopt various strategies or develop abilities to source more minerals, but the minerals still have to be there for the plants to access them.

Hand holding soil

Minerals are usually divided into macro- and micro- groups with the latter also being described as trace minerals. The categories distinguish minerals by the amounts needed in the diet, not their relative importance. Macro-minerals are usually measured in g/kg or a percentage, whereas micro-minerals are usually measured in mg/kg.

Another key point to note is the origin of the minerals. Those from plants are often referred to as organic sources – this is not in relation to them being chemical free, but just differentiates them from those that are from the earth; essentially those that are mined which are referred to as inorganic. Minerals from plants – the organic form – are usually more bio-available to the horse. Inorganic sources can often be reactive and so look to stabilize themselves by latching on to other minerals which makes them more difficult to absorb. To reduce this problem you may see that manufacturers have used chelated minerals which means they are mined sources of minerals attached to other molecules to stabilize them thereby improving absorption from the gut.

Why does alfalfa contain more calcium than grass forages?

Alfalfa has really deep roots – about 3 to 4 metres – and the calcium at this depth in the soil is more available for absorption. This means that alfalfa plants can take up more calcium than grass – chopped alfalfa contains between 30 and 50% more calcium than grass forages. This has real benefits for gastric health as it is one of the qualities that means alfalfa is a natural buffer to acidity in the horse’s stomach.

Early studies suggest that omeprazole is reducing calcium absorption in the horse as is seen in humans and in Swanhall et al’s (2018) study, they recommend using bio-available calcium sources in the diet to help counteract this effect. Plant based sources of calcium such as alfalfa are much easier for the horse to absorb than inorganic sources such as limestone flour.

Other macro-minerals in alfalfa

In addition to the soil, other factors determine the mineral content in forages such as alfalfa. The level of magnesium for example, declines in alfalfa as the plant ages with the highest levels found in the first stage of development. At Dengie, we harvest the alfalfa before it matures to maximize its nutritional value. This is in contrast to the USA and some parts of Europe where the alfalfa is made into hay and so is very mature at the point of harvest.

Alfalfa Harvest

The age of the plant also has an impact on where minerals are stored within the plant with the relative proportion increasing in leaves as the plant gets older. Obviously this reflects the fact that as the plant matures and grows taller there are more leaves available to store the minerals but it is a key reason why we work hard to ensure the leaves are included in the finished product as it ensures those consuming it receive the maximum nutritional benefit. The leaves are prone to shattering when they are dried which can make the product look dusty and this is why we add a liquid coating as it disperses the highly nutritious leaves evenly throughout the bag.

If horses at rest or in light work are fed plenty of forage they are rarely short of macro-minerals. If forage intake is limited to manage body weight for example, then a shortfall can occur. The use of a supplement or balancer can help to counteract shortfalls of macro- and micro-minerals and is particularly beneficial for horses on restricted forage rations.

Some supplements contain single minerals in isolation. It is rare for a horse to require a macro-mineral in isolation and it is important to use them with care as supplementing one mineral can have a significant impact on the absorption of another.

Magnesium is often found in products marketed as calmers. Anecdotally horse owners report them working for a while but then the effect wears off. This can be due to the fact that once a deficiency or shortfall has been addressed, supplementing with more magnesium than required is unlikely to have an effect. There is no published evidence to show that supplementing above know requirements for magnesium has any impact on behaviour. Counteracting a deficiency of any nutrient is likely to be beneficial though!

Micro-minerals in alfalfa

Micro-minerals are the most likely to be deficient in horse’s rations as UK soils are often deficient in them; particular examples being selenium and copper. Even horses at rest turned out 24/7 are likely to need some form of supplementation of micro-minerals to keep them in top condition. Micro-minerals have many important functions in the body including as part of the anti-oxidants that deal with the effects of exercise amongst other things.

horse and rider cantering

Cobalt is a micro-mineral required by microorganisms to synthesize vitamin B12 which is important in many biochemical pathways. It is a mineral that has been used and abused by some racehorse trainers in the past who supplemented at very high levels to try and achieve a competitive advantage and so subsequently, its inclusion in feeds and supplements has been more closely monitored around the world. However, it has been found to occur naturally in plants such as alfalfa but at much lower levels than are used to try and manipulate performance. It is thought to enhance fibre digestion though and so its presence may go some way to explaining why horses do so well on alfalfa.

Alfalfa Horse Feed: A Clean Source of Fibre

At Dengie we use high temperature drying (HTD) to conserve the alfalfa – this means we are not dependent on the sun to dry the crop which extends our harvest season. The chopped raw material is brought in from the field and enters the driers within 24 hours of being cut, thereby locking in the natural nutrients. HTD means our alfalfa horse feed is consistently clean with very low mould counts particularly compared to sun-dried forages such as hay and straw.

Key points to remember

For further information on feeding alfalfa for horses and how your horse can benefit from an alfalfa-based diet, contact one of our nutritional experts here at Dengie.

Swanhall et al (2018) Mineral and Vitamin Supplementation Including Marine Derived Calcium Increases Bone Density in Thoroughbreds. Proceedings of the Australasian Equine Science Symposium

Five-star event rider Alex Bragg discusses how he prepares his horses for a big event and what he’ll be doing in the final run up to Badminton Horse Trials 2022.

“We start preparing for big events like Badminton 10 weeks before, as the horses need a certain amount of fitness and galloping sessions, usually doing some fast work every 4-5 days” explains Alex.

“We try and keep the condition on the horses with a simple diet of grass, steamed hay and a fibre-based feed as much as possible” says Alex. “Our horses are turned out overnight, so we would continue to do so in the run up to an event unless the horse lacks energy”.

Alex Bragg competing at Hartpury

“King of the Mill is a big horse who can struggle with his weight” explains Dengie Performance Horse Nutritionist Claire Akers. “He is fed Dengie Alfa-A Oil as his baseline feed which is ideal for fuelling work and providing quality protein for topline and muscle condition, without excitability”.

“The combination of the alfalfa and high oil content in the Alfa-A Oil provides great condition as well as plenty of slow-release energy” adds Alex. “At a three-day event, the horse needs plenty of reserves left in the tank for the show jumping to perform on the Sunday, you don’t want them feeling flat!”

“We also feed Alfa-A Oil 25-30 minutes before exercise to help line the stomach acid to prevent it splashing around and causing ulcers, which is common in competition horses” says Alex. Consistency is key in the run up to an event, we don’t change the feed but we would increase electrolytes.

It’s great to be back at Badminton; it’s the biggest horse trials in the world, the buzz and excitement in the yard at home is electric. We can’t wait!”

For more information or advice on all aspects of feeding call the Dengie Feedline on 01621 841188 or complete our Feed Advice Form.

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Why is Alfalfa so good for Breeding & Youngstock?

Alfalfa is relatively abundant in nutrients important for breeding and youngstock, but just how significant a contribution is it making and with so much confusion surrounding developmental problems and diet, is alfalfa safe to use for those with Developmental Orthopaedic Disease (DOD)?

How much protein and lysine does Dengie alfalfa supply?

Whilst the amount of protein in the horse’s diet is important, so is the quality of the protein supplied and by protein quality we mean the essential amino acids.

Alfalfa is often said to be too high in protein because the percentage level looks high but when the amount fed is taken into account, the levels are perfectly acceptable and may not even be enough for breeding stock! Dengie’s Alfa-A range typically supply 12-14% crude protein and 0.7% lysine. For comparison, the NRC Nutrient Requirements of Horses gives a reference value for mature cool season grass hay at 10.8% protein and 0.38% lysine. Alfalfa therefore supplies 1.8x as much lysine as average hay.

A 500kg mare at 1 month lactation requires a staggering 84.8g of lysine compared to 30.1g for the horse in light exercise. A diet of 10kg of average hay and 2.5kg of a pure alfalfa product will supply 55.5g of lysine and so there’s still a shortage. The other factor to consider is that not all hay is average and there will be large variations between years and batches. A forage and alfalfa only diet for breeding and youngstock should therefore be topped up with quality protein and other nutrients by using the advised amounts of a stud specific feed balancer, such as Performance+ Balancer or if required mix/cube.

The importance of calcium

Calcium is found predominantly in bones and also plays a role in muscle contraction, cell membrane function, enzyme regulation and blood coagulation. Any deficiency of calcium will mean that stores in bone are drawn upon to meet demand and therefore a deficiency in calcium in young horses can result in skeletal deformity. It is not only the intake of calcium in the youngster that is important, but in the mare as well, as the majority of calcium present at birth is deposited in the 8th to the 11th month of gestation.

It is not only the amount of calcium in the diet that’s important, but its ratio to other minerals particularly phosphorus. An excessive intake of phosphorus even with an adequate intake of calcium can result in calcium deficiency as they compete for the same site of absorption. Ideally the total diet should provide a ratio of in the region of 1.5-2:1 calcium (Ca) to phosphorus (P).

How much calcium does Dengie alfalfa supply?

Dengie’s Alfa-A range of feeds supply 1.5% calcium. For comparison the NRC Nutrient Requirements of Horses gives a reference value for mature cool season grass hay at 0.47% calcium. Alfalfa therefore supplies 3x as much calcium as average hay. If alfalfa was fed as the sole forage source such as in the form of alfalfa hay which is done in countries such as the USA, it would over-supply calcium, but at Dengie we put an upper feeding rate on the pure alfalfa products of 500g per 100kg of bodyweight daily to avoid excessive nutrient supply.

Going back to the calcium to phosphorus ratio, alfalfa has a ratio of 6:1 Ca:P which is higher than the 2:1 we try to achieve in the total diet. However, when we talk about Ca:P it is important to remember we are talking about the total diet and not just 1 element. A 500kg horse having 10kg of hay with the addition of 2.5kg of alfalfa will result in a Ca:P ratio of 2.6:1

Ratios as high as 6:1 Ca:P haven’t been found to cause any issues as long as phosphorus requirements are met. Whilst there is unlikely to be any advantage to feeding calcium in such excessive levels it isn’t going to cause harm. It’s important to consider that 2.5kgs of one of the Alfa-A range is around 6.5 large Stubbs scoops per day so the vast majority of horses are not fed anywhere near this amount.

Again it is important to remember that average figures are just that and not all pastures or forages supply this amount of calcium and some can be much lower. For breeding stock it highlights the value of getting forage analysed as low calcium forages can easily be supplemented with alfalfa to improve nutrient supply where required.

Young foal with mother

Energy from Alfalfa

Having adequate energy in the diet is vital for optimal growth. How useful a fibre source is to a horse in providing energy is dependent on its digestibility. This is determined by many factors including environmental conditions, but particularly by the age of the plant at the time of harvest. The more mature the plant, the less digestible it is. Dengie alfalfa is cut when the plant is not fully mature and this combined with precision drying techniques results in a more digestible, highly nutritious fibre source.

In recent years there has been increased interest in looking at the effect of energy source on growth and long-term health. Focus in particular has been on lower sugar and starch rations and the benefits to long term insulin sensitivity, behaviour and stress at weaning and digestive health to name just a few. As with the adult horse, high starch rations at the expense of fibre has its consequences.

How much energy does alfalfa provide?

Dengie alfalfa naturally supplies around 10MJ/kg of digestible energy. When oil is added to alfalfa as with Dengie Alfa-A Oil 12.5MJ/kg digestible energy can be achieved which is equivalent to a stud mix/cube in terms of energy level but with only 2% starch. When combined with oil, alfalfa can supply as much energy as a traditional stud feed and as long as it is combined with a stud specific balancer, such as Dengie Performance+ Balancer, can provide a good all round balanced ration.

Whether it can meet the energy demands of breeding stock in practice often depends on what type of horse is being fed. A Jan/Feb foaling mare has her highest energy demands when grazing quality is poorest and reliance on conserved forage is high. Alfalfa can make a great addition to the ration here, but extra energy may be required through the use of mixes and cubes. Conversely a mare foaling in May/June has her greatest energy demands through a period of time when grass is typically abundant and is likely to thrive on a fibre only ration with the addition of a stud specific balancer.

Is alfalfa suitable for a youngster with Developmental Orthopaedic Disease (DOD)?

DOD is the umbrella term used to describe growth-related problems. These can be very obvious and easily recognisable such as contracted tendons where the foal appears to be walking o tip-toes, or they can be much more subtle and difficult to definitively diagnose such as Wobbler Syndrome. DOD is a multi-factorial problem and some of the factors are easier to influence than others. One of the most difficult to control is that of genetics and so it is important to consider that sometimes problems will occur regardless of how much effort you put in to try and avoid them. A contributing factor that can be influenced is nutrition. For a long time, high protein intakes were attributed as a cause. This is no longer thought to be the case and it is now understood that high energy rations especially when combined with insufficient mineral supply are the key nutrition related causes.

If a youngster experiences a period of sub-optimal nutrition which is sufficient to slow their rate of growth, they will catch up as soon as they receive a higher plane of nutrition. This can result in “compensatory growth” and may result in a weaker musculoskeletal structure and also potentially cause DOD. It is therefore vital to supply enough energy but not too much to ensure a consistent rate of growth.

Alfalfa can safely be used as an ingredient for youngstock, even those with DOD, if balanced with an appropriate source of vitamins and minerals. It is important that those with DOD are not starved as they will just catch-up later which can cause further issues. Providing a balanced but low energy ration is key.

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Levels of vitamins and minerals vary in UK pasture and forage, and they consistently lack the trace minerals copper, selenium and zinc and conserved forage is also low in vitamin E. Vitamins and minerals have many important roles to play in the body from maintaining normal metabolism to muscle contraction and are generally necessary for long term health and longevity. As such, even for horses on abundant grazing and doing little or no work, we still advise supplementing their diet with additional sources of vitamins and minerals.

There are several ways we can provide vitamins and minerals for horses including fortified feeds, balancers, vitamin and mineral supplements, and licks. With so much choice it can be hard to know what to choose so here we will look at each product in a little more detail.

Dengie Horse Feeds

Fortified Feed for Horses

A feed that is fortified with vitamins and minerals will provide a balanced diet when it is fed at the recommended quantity. The Dengie Healthy range of fibre feeds are fortified with vitamins and minerals. When fed at the recommended feeding rate of 500g (1 Stubbs scoop) per 100kg of bodyweight daily or approx. 5 Stubbs scoops for a 500kg horse no additional vitamin and mineral supplement is required. Dengie Cool, Condition & Shine is also a fortified feed within the Dengie range. Whilst for many horses this feeding rate will be appropriate, for those that are very good do-ers, receiving the full amount of even a low calorie, fortified feed such as Healthy Hooves or Healthy Hooves Molasses Free can still provide them with more calories than they need. Smaller amounts of a low-calorie fibre feed fed alongside a balancer, supplement or lick may be more appropriate for managing calorie intake whilst ensuring the diet is balanced.

Get your Horse a Lick

A lick is an economical and labour-saving way of topping up with vitamins and minerals for those on a forage only ration. Licks are useful when feeding a herd on unrestricted grazing and for those that don’t normally get supplementary feed. One of the downsides to using licks is knowing exactly how much a horse consumes and therefore whether they are getting everything they need. Horses on restricted rations fed highly palatable licks may also go through them very quickly and so the potential exists to over-supply certain nutrients too!

horses in field with lick

Balancers and Supplements for Horses

Another way to provide vitamins and minerals is by using a feed balancer such as Dengie Leisure or Performance+ Balancer. A feed balancer is a very concentrated feed and is fed in much smaller amounts than a fortified feed, but it is usually in a pellet form and so can often be more palatable than supplements that in a powder form.

Balancers and supplements

The feeding rate for the Dengie Balancers is 100g per 100kg of bodyweight which equates to 500g or approx. 2 & ½ coffee mugs daily for a 500kg horse. The Dengie Balancers can be fed alongside any of the Dengie fibre feeds including the Healthy range of fibre feeds if they are not being fed at the recommended quantity.

One of the key differences between a balancer and a broad-spectrum vitamin and mineral supplement is that a balancer also supplies higher levels of good quality protein in the form of lysine which is an essential amino acid. A balancer is therefore particularly recommended for those that have a higher quality protein requirement such as those in work and breeding stock as well as for those on very restricted grazing and forage. A supplement is often more appropriate for those who have access to good grazing or forage but just need a top up of essential vitamins and minerals although they are also the lowest calorie way to supplement the diet with vitamins and minerals so can be useful to help promote weight loss in those that are overweight.

ProductFortified Feed
(Healthy Hooves Molasses Free)
(Leisure Balancer)
(Leisure Vits & Mins)
Feeding Rate 500kg horse2.5kg500g60g
Protein %9117.2
Protein at Feeding Rate225g55g4.32g
Lysine at Feeding Rate7.5g6.25g1.5g
Energy Supplied at Feeding Rate21.25MJ4.5MJ-

Top Tips for Supplementing your Horse’s Diet with Vitamins and Minerals

If you would like advice on the balancing your horse’s ration, call our Feedline on 01621 841188 or click here to complete our Feed Advice Form.

Equine Grass Sickness is a disease of horses, ponies and donkeys which causes damage to the nervous system, resulting in paralysis of the gut. Equine grass sickness cases have been reported across the UK and can occur throughout the year although the most common period is between April and July, with a peak in May.

What Causes Grass Sickness in Horses?

The exact cause of equine grass sickness is still not known, but there is some indication that Clostridium botulinum may be involved. There is also a suggestion that a selenium deficiency may be a contributing factor. Selenium is integral to the horse’s immune defences and so a shortfall may make a particular horse more susceptible. Do be aware that selenium can easily be over-supplied which can also cause harm so additional selenium should be added to the ration with care.

Equine Grass Sickness Clinical Signs:

There are three forms of equine grass sickness – acute, subacute and chronic – with the acute form being most severe.

The clinical signs of equine grass sickness can be obvious, but diagnosis and a comprehensive treatment plan for grass sickness requires veterinary attention.

Feeding the horse with Equine Grass Sickness

The main aim is to use feeds that are easy to chew, highly digestible and palatable to the horse. It may be necessary to try a variety of different feeds to see which appeals to the horse. Turning the feed into a slurry or gruel that the horse can drink often helps and so feeds that lend themselves to this are ideal:

If the horse’s appetite starts to increase then the aim is to increase the energy and protein levels in the feed to try and restore the weight and condition that has inevitably been lost as a result of Equine Grass Sickness. A phenomenon called refeeding syndrome exists whereby if too much is fed too soon, a rapid rise in blood glucose and associated surge in insulin ensues. The insulin drives glucose and potassium into cells which also utilises other minerals and electrolytes. These are depleted because of the horse’s illness and so the sudden shift away from other functions can cause organs to fail – most commonly kidney, lungs and the heart. The most common time for this to occur is 3 to 7 days after refeeding starts.

Independent research from the US has shown that one way to reduce the risk of refeeding syndrome is to use alfalfa as it is low in starch and so doesn’t cause the increase in glucose and insulin associated with feeding cereals, but is also relatively abundant in minerals such as potassium, magnesium and calcium. It also provides good levels of quality protein to support the horse’s recovery. Although not included in the study, the same can be said of unmolassed sugar beet pulp which is also low in starch and sugar and contains a valuable level of calcium.

Using a digestive supplement is also recommended. A prolonged period of little or no forage intake will have caused a disruption to the population of micro-organisms in the digestive tract. Using a digestive aid to try to help establish a healthy population is key. Live yeast is an approved additive for horses and has been shown to improve fibre digestion.

Using scFOS prebiotics may also be beneficial. They provide a food source for beneficial species of bacteria which helps them to proliferate and out-compete harmful species; a process known as competitive exclusion. There have been studies in humans to show that scFOS prebiotics are particularly effective at reducing the presence of clostridium species.

The Importance of a Balanced Diet for a Horse with Equine Grass Sickness

As mentioned earlier, a deficiency of selenium has been associated with potentially making horses more susceptible to Equine Grass Sickness. The key is therefore to ensure that a horse’s requirements are met but there is no evidence to show that feeding excessively high amounts of selenium will have any protective effect against Equine Grass Sickness. The key principle is therefore to provide a balanced diet of all essential nutrients.

Good doers are the most likely to be deficient in micro-nutrients as they tend to be fed low levels of bucket feed which is the main source of trace minerals such as selenium for most horses. Forages reflect the soils they are grown on and as UK soils are very low in selenium, very little is supplied to the horse through the forage part of the ration. A low calorie source of vitamins and minerals is therefore recommended for good doers which can be supplied as a supplement or a balancer.

Generally speaking, horse’s receiving recommended feeding rates of fortified feeds or a broad spectrum supplement should receive sufficient levels of trace minerals. However, when horse feeds are formulated it is on the assumption they are fed alongside average quality forage. There may be occasions when selenium levels in forages are low even by UK standards and so additional supplementation may be advisable. If there is a history of Equine Grass Sickness where you keep your horse or pony then it is worth analysing your forage and asking a nutritionist to advise on suitable levels of a supplement or balancer to use to ensure sufficient selenium is provided in the diet.

Practical Advise for Trying to Reduce the Risk of Equine Grass Sickness

Sylvia OrmistonSylvia Ormiston is the Stud Manager at the Royal Stud at Balmoral and has sadly lost Highland ponies to EGS. Very sadly two stallions were lost in a matter of weeks in 2018. Understandably, Sylvia does everything she practically can to reduce the risk of EGS and her management advice is as follows:

“Equine Grass Sickness is a devastating disease that is 80% fatal. I had never experienced EGS in all my years with horses until we had 5 acute, fatal cases in one year over 2017-2018” says Sylvia. “Having been affected so terribly I am determined to help raise awareness and fund raise to the best of my ability to assist with the eradication of this horrific disease.”

“I am a great believer in keeping something else in your pony’s tummy every day other than just grass especially during the early spring and summer months. I also have a low calorie mineral lick for the ponies to use 24/7 as the ground we graze on is very low in selenium.”

“It is recommended good practice to keep your equines off the pasture for a good chunk of the day which helps them to ingest some alternative form of forage. This is not easy in my case with around 45 ponies ranging from mares and foals to stallions and working ponies so I feed hay in the field to everyone every day. I believe in keeping the gut as healthy as possible by feeding a high fibre diet and avoiding sudden changes to the ration. Trying to reduce stress is general good practice and recommended; equines thrive on a consistent daily routine, as we all do.”

Highland Pony

“Be aware of your equines habits. Keep a close eye on their manner and performance as this can show as early warning signs to your pony’s well-being. Noticing if they haven’t done as many droppings or they aren’t eating as much is really important for catching problems early and having a better chance of a successful outcome. Little changes can set off big alarm bells for me having experienced EGS. Please do visit the Equine Grass Sickness Fund for more information on how you can help raise awareness and funds to help with the continuing research. Please help in any way you can and together we will beat this!! Thank you.”

Given the unique circumstances of Equine Grass Sickness we recommend contacting a nutritionist for advice and guidance for each horse as the amounts of each feed will vary considerably. However, when trying to tempt a horse to eat, the following products from the Dengie range are usually the most palatable and/or easiest to chew and swallow:

Alfa-Beet combines alfalfa with unmolassed sugar beet and is a highly digestible and easy to chew soaked feed.

Hi-Fi Senior combines alfalfa and soft grasses with a molasses and rape seed oil coating, making it highly digestible and easy to chew. Hi-Fi Senior can be fed ab lib as a total forage replacer if required. The short chop length makes it easier to chew than hay or haylage.

Healthy Tummy is a nutritionally balanced , high-calorie feed containing the latest ingredients known to promote gut health, including alfalfa. Healthy Tummy combines chopped and pelleted alfalfa with an oil coating, ADM Protein In-Feed Formula which contains scFOS prebiotics and a unique blend of herbs including oregano, cinnamon and ginger.

Alfalfa Pellets contains pure high temperature dried alfalfa and are an excellent way of providing fibre in a concentrated form. For example, 1 Stubbs scoop of Alfa-A Original holds 0.4kg whereas a Stubbs scoop of Alfalfa Pellets holds 1.6kg.

Pure Grass contains high temperature dried grasses in a short chop format that is easy to chew. Pure Grass is naturally sweet which can help to tempt fussy feeders and can be fed ad-lib to replace the usual forage ration.

Pure Grass Pellets are pure high temperature dried grass pellets with nothing else added. Grass is naturally sweet which helps to tempt fussy feeders. These should be soaked to a mash when fed alone.

Meadow Grass with Herbs combines chopped and pellets grasses with a rapeseed oil coating and herbal blend. Meadow Grass with Herbs is a high calorie feed that is soft and easy to chew and highly palatable due to the naturally sweet grass and additional herbs, perfect for the fussy eater.

For more information about any of our feeds don’t hesitate to contact our friendly Feedline team on 01621 841188.

Gibson et al (1995) Selective stimulation of bifidobacterial in the human colon by oligofructose and inulin. Gastroenterology. 108: 975-982
Witham And Stull (1998) Metabolic responses of chronically starved horses to refeeding with three isoenegetic diets. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 212: 691-696

Anna MillerDengie supported rider Anna Miller is an advanced dressage rider competing at small tour as well as specialising in coaching para dressage riders and training their horses. Anna trains 8-time Paralympic gold medallist Sophie Christiansen CBE as well as some exciting up-and-coming para riders.

Anna often gets asked what she would look for in a para dressage horse for her clients and if there are any attributes that are particularly important. This was something we asked Anna to discuss in our recent webinar where she shared insights into her approach to training horses at different stages in their competitive career. Click here to view the webinar.

Anna explained how the type of horse can really depend on the individual rider’s different abilities and disabilities.

“I try to play to the rider’s strengths. For example, some of my riders don’t have very strong legs, for them I would like a horse to be naturally forward, but at the same time not so sharp that they are going to overreact” explains Anna. “Some horses can’t cope with the involuntary movement whereas others don’t seem to mind at all”.

“Temperament is paramount, but a horse that is too quiet or lazy can make it very difficult for a rider with limited strength in their leg to get the horse going forward. People often think for a para rider you need something very quiet, but often that’s not actually the case”.

“The standard on the para circuit keeps stepping up and you need a high-quality horse to compete at the top level. For me, the walk is the most important pace and must be exceptional. The horse should have a decent trot and canter too, but not so expressive that it is difficult for the rider to stay with the horse”.

What to feed a Para Dressage Horse

The appropriate feed for a para dressage horse varies too depending on whether the horse needs more oomph to encourage them to go forward or a diet that provides slow-release energy for sparkle without the fizz.

Keeping starch intake to a minimum is essential for those that are prone to fizzy or excitable behaviour; as a comparison, a typical ‘Cool’ Mix or Pony Cube would contain around 20% starch compared to feeds in the Dengie Alfa-A range which contain 2% starch.

Slow-release energy comes from fibre and oil. Fibre is broken down slowly in the horse’s digestive system so there isn’t the associated large peak in blood glucose as happens when high starch and sugar feeds are used. Many people under-estimate just how much energy good-quality fibre can contribute to the ration. High fibre ingredients such as alfalfa and sugar beet provide highly digestible fibre and so horses can do really well on them. If however, more energy is required for weight gain, oil can be added as it is very energy dense but still provides slow-release energy. It also helps to increase a horse’s stamina and so is really useful for horses competing and travelling regularly.Alfa-A Oil Fibre Feed


Dengie Alfa-A Oil is a great example of a how fibre and oil can be combined to provide plenty of energy for a competition horse. Alfa-A Oil contains as much energy as a competition mix (12.5MJ/kg DE) but with around 10 times less starch. This means it will provide the horse with slow-release energy helping to promote condition without encouraging excitable or anxious behaviour.

For more information or advice on all aspects of feeding call the Dengie Feedline on 01621 841188 or complete our Feed Advice Form.

The process of taking a racehorse out of training is often referred to as “letting down” which really refers to the process of the horse’s body and mind transitioning from one of an athlete, to that of a leisure or even breeding animal. In a literal sense, the horse will lose the very tight, lean greyhound-like physique and develop more of an expanded belly. There is no set timeframe; some horses take longer to let down than others and many factors contribute to the time it takes including the time of year. It can often take a year for the change to be noticeable or for a mare to conceive if she is going to stud. The general rule with making the transition is not to rush – the more time you can take, the greater the chance of success.

What to feed an ex-racehorse?

In relation to the diet, try to establish what the horse’s current diet is as it will give you some idea of the amount of energy it is taking to keep them in the condition they are in. In most cases, it is likely to be necessary to go back to basics starting with ad-lib forage and then gradually introduce new feeds over a week to ten days. If you feed ad-lib forage, try to calculate how much the horse is actually consuming as this will be useful information to know if for any reason your horses doesn’t start to gain weight.

The typical diet of the horse in race training is usually relatively high in starch. Even though many racing rations are lower in starch than they were 20 years ago, they often still exceed levels that are likely to cause ulcers (2grams per KG bodyweight per day) and are almost certain to exceed levels that have a negative impact on the microbial population in the gut. If you would like to calculate the level of starch in your horse’s ration try our starch calculator tool.

It takes time for the microbial population to adjust to a new, higher fibre diet and there are things that can be done to help the transition and promote a healthier digestive system. Live yeast is an approved additive for horses and has been shown to promote improved fibre digestion. It is included in many balancers such as Dengie Performance+ Balancer, and feeds but for 2 to 3 months it is worth adding a more concentrated source, such as a supplement, to the ration of an ex-racehorse making the transition to a riding horse.

Adding Prebiotics to Your Horse’s Diet

Alongside yeast, prebiotics are another form of digestive aid and useful to add to the ration at this time. One study showed that FOS prebiotics helped address acidity in the horse’s stomach by stimulating the bacteria that mop-up acid whereas MOS prebiotics are known to latch on to harmful bugs which are then carried out of the gut. These are all ingredients worth looking for in supplements that can be used for the longer term if needed but are particularly helpful for the first 2 to 3 months whilst the horse adjusts to a new lifestyle.

Feeding High Quality Fibre to Your Ex-Racehorse is Key

Not all thoroughbreds or ex-racehorses have hot temperaments, but clearly many do which is why the stereotype exists. For condition without the fizz, the key is to use high quality fibre and oil as energy source such as in Dengie Alfa-A Oil or Dengie Performance Fibre. Fibre is supplied by many different ingredients ranging from straw and grass hay at the lower end of the energy level spectrum through to sugar beet, soya hulls and alfalfa at the high end. The energy each of these feedstuffs provides is largely determined by their digestibility – in other words, how quickly the horse can break them down and release the energy they contain. For poor doers it is beneficial to use the more digestible forms of fibre so they can get more from fibre in their ration.

Feeding Recommendations If Your Ex-Racehorse has Gastric Ulcers

When high quality fibre is fed alongside oil such as in Alfa-A Oil, it can provide as much energy as a conditioning mix or cube but with much lower levels of starch which is why they are less likely to result in over-excitability. This also means they are more suitable for those with gastric ulcers. It has been well-documented over the last 25 years that high numbers of racehorses have ulcers and this is clearly something to be aware of when feeding an ex-racehorse. Whilst diet is a key contributing factor, it is increasingly being recognised that stress is too. This is why just turning out to grass doesn’t mean the ulcers will resolve. In many horses still exposed to some form of stress, an improvement in the severity of ulcers rather than complete resolution may be all that is possible even with medical intervention. This is a really important consideration when taking on an ex-racehorse.

Clearly there are things you can do to reduce the risk of and help the management of a horse with ulcers but don’t just assume turning out 24/7 will do the trick:

Why not try our Gastric Ulcer risk calculator to see if there are areas in your feeding and management you can change to reduce the risk of ulcers developing?

The other key area to consider for promoting condition without fizz is how much forage the horse is consuming. Poor doers can be fed forage ad-lib – there is no reason to limit the amount fed as you want the horse to put on weight. The more energy the horse can get from forage the less reliance there is on the bucket feed which will ultimately help to keep starch levels, and therefore the fizz factor, down. Using the digestive aids will also help the horse to get more from the forage, again reducing reliance on the bucket feed.

Typically, earlier cut forages are more digestible and therefore more likely to help promote weight gain. Wrapped hays can be a good option for those with ulcers as they are often softer than hay and if they are quite dry before being wrapped, they won’t have fermented and so are not acidic to the same degree that a traditional haylage would be. This is beneficial if ulcers are a concern.

Lastly, don’t forget to check the health of other areas of the digestive system too. If the horse can’t chew effectively their ability to digest their feed is compromised and weight gain will take longer so a professional dental check is well worth investing in. Similarly, checking their worm burden is also important as weight gain will be slow progress if the horse has a high worm burden.

If you would like more advice and guidance on what to feed your ex-racehorse contact the feedline team.

A common question to the Dengie feedline is how much hay will a horse eat and it’s usually impossible to give a straight answer. So many factors have an impact on how much a horse eats such as age and breed of the horse as well as the type of feed being offered. The following are some of the most important to consider when feeding your horse.

How much does a horse eat in total?

The amount a horse eats is usually described as a proportion of their bodyweight which allows comparisons between horses and ponies of different sizes. The range given for the amount horses consume when at grass is between 1.6 and 3.6% dry matter which is a range of between 8 and 18kgs dry matter or 40 to 90kgs of pasture as fed. A lactating mare is typically at the upper end of that range and is one of the highest consumers.

Ponies have been reported to consume up to 5% of their bodyweight and are also known to consume large amounts more quickly when rationed which is really important to consider when trying to manage good doers. Limiting their time at grass may not be that effective as they simply compensate by eating more quickly!

When compiling rations for horses and ponies the typical total intake is given as between 2 and 2.5% dry matter intake. As the horse is an herbivore, it is not only the amount of food required but the form it comes in that is important for maintaining health and well-being. The horse has evolved to eat for around 16-18 hours of every day and if we use energy dense feeds and give them as meals, it has significant implications for the health of the digestive system and the horse’s normal behaviour patterns. This is why we tend to use conserved forages, usually in the form of hay or haylage, when pasture isn’t available as they still take a relatively long time to eat and are high in fibre.

Horse Hay bag

So how much hay will a horse eat?

To achieve the recommended dry matter intake of between 2-2.5% per day, a horse will consume different levels of forage depending on how much moisture they contain. The wetter forages such as haylage actually need to be fed and consumed in larger amounts on an as fed basis to provide the same level of dry matter as a hay which contains a much lower moisture content. The table below shows how the levels vary for a 500kgs horse.

Forage TypeTypical Dry Matter %Range in kgs of forage a 500kgs horse will eat
Hay8511.76 - 14.71
Wrapped Hay7513.33 - 16.67
True Haylage6016.67 - 20.83

How low can we go?

If you need to restrict forage to stop a horse or pony from becoming overweight or obese it is recommended not to go below 1.5% of bodyweight per day of forage intake for the long term. It may be necessary to go below this level in the short term for up to 3 months for example to achieve weight loss, but long-term restrictions have the potential to compromise the health of the digestive tract. Problems such as gastric ulcers and leaky-gut syndrome are both related to long-term, low forage intake.

What impact does palatability have?

Studies show that more palatable forages such as alfalfa hay are consumed in bigger quantities than those that are less palatable such as straw. Straw is being shown to have real benefits for weight management in horses as it is consumed much more slowly than other feeds which seems to help reduce the insulinaemic response. This is ideal for those with EMS or PPID as they usually have some form of insulin dysregulation and the added bonus is that because straw is low in energy (calories) more can be fed without promoting weight gain. If replacing 1/3 of average hay with straw, it represents around a 16% reduction in energy intake which only increases when replacing even better quality forages with straw. Recent studies have shown that up to 50% straw can be fed safely assuming horses don’t have compromised dentition or a history of impaction colic.

horse being hand fed straw

What impact does age or poor dentition have?

A Dengie funded study found that older horses with poor dentition consumed around two-thirds less forage in the same time period compared to those with normal dentition. This means if those with poor dentition are kept in the same field and offered forage together with those with normal teeth, they may well not get time to consume what they need as they are eating much more slowly than their field-mates. In these situations, it is really important to give the older horses time to eat the forage they need, or significant weight loss can occur. Too little forage intake can also result in loose droppings, colic and other digestive upsets.