Are you feeding your horse a balanced diet?


What is Forage Analysis – and how it can help?

by Sally Tobinne

We all know feeding horses can be a complete nightmare! How many times have you spoken with your horsey friend only for the conversation to end up with the inevitable “I’ve just changed Dobbin onto such and such feed, but he still doesn’t seem right?” “Flash doesn’t like his feed and won’t eat it” “Trigger is losing weight again” – and so it goes on..!

Horse-owners also tend to buy hay or haylage without knowing the nutritional or mineral content.  It may look the “right” colour and smell lovely – but does it provide Dobbin, Flash or Trigger with the correct nutrition?  The bulk of the horses’ diet is forage, yet owners end up feeding a complete unknown because it doesn’t come with a label on the side saying what is in it!

Owners are dazzled by an array of hard feed – products promising to be balanced for this, that and the other, offering low /medium/high energy, non-heating, good-doers, etc. etc.. Bagged feed may be balanced in its own right, but does not take into account the nutritional or mineral profile of the forage in the horses diet, which when fed together may then cause an imbalance. How can owners know if their forage when combined with a bucket of feed delivers a truly balanced diet in all respects?

Then there is the complication of supplements – at the tack shop rows and rows of vitamins and minerals in a variety of powders, liquids, licks – the list goes on. Some owners think that to add more must be better, or adopt a “belt and braces” approach so adding a vitamin/mineral supplement just in case Dobbin is lacking in anything! Yes we all want the very best for our horses and quite rightly so! But where do you start?


So let’s get back to basics. As horse owners we all know that the basis of any good well planned equine diet is forage – grass, and/or hay or haylage. Forage makes up the majority of the horses daily intake of feed, crucial for the intake of varying nutrients, satisfying the horses need to chew, and essential for a healthy digestive system. Horses need the correct calories (MJ/kg DE – Mega joules of Digestible Energy per kilogram of feed) and protein for their type, work, breed, age and also a balance of vitamins and minerals.   However, problems arise when we keep horses in small areas which limits their ability to roam and carefully select their pasture, resulting in grazing areas which may have mineral imbalances (deficiencies or excesses!). Hay or haylage may be produced from fields that have been over-fertilised or even neglected, and fed to horses as a completely unknown quantity (the nutritional and mineral content). So what is Forage Analysis and how is it useful?

Forage Analysis is the scientific analysis of the nutritional and mineral profile of forage – hay, haylage and grass, carried out in an accredited laboratory under strict guidelines and test conditions. The laboratory produces a table of results identifying the values of the sample submitted. Usually the tests will identify the Digestible Energy, protein, sugars, and a full range of macro-minerals, micro-minerals and antagonists (Phosphorus, Magnesium, Calcium, Sodium, Potassium, Chloride, Manganese, Copper, Zinc, Selenium, Cobalt, Iodine, Iron, Aluminium, Molybdenum, Sulphur, and Lead).

For many years now livestock farmers have been using this type of analysis to help create diets for their cattle – not surprisingly farmers are concerned with ensuring their cattle are receiving the optimum nutrition for good health, breeding, meat and milk production. This useful analysis is now becoming more and more common in the horse world, and used as the very first starting point in creating a balanced diet. Forage Analysis is an extremely useful tool for creating diets for all types of horses – youngsters, broodmares, stallions, hacks, eventers, good-doers and those with health issues and other problems.

Once the horse owner has their Forage Analysis results they can clearly see if their hay/haylage is providing their horse with good quality digestible energy, protein, and minerals, and also (particularly important for those managing laminitic horses or ponies) the levels of sugars present. From this, a balanced diet can then be developed. Help to understand the tables can be provided by Nutritional Consultants who specialise in this area and through whom the owner has purchased the Forage Analysis, as well as advice on how to create a balanced diet and mineral supplementation (if required). Some owners have found that just small amounts of minerals are required to be fed to their horse to completely balance the diet, and surprising benefits to health are often the result – showing improvements in hoof quality, less nervy, less itchy, more able to concentrate, improved coat quality to name just a few! But perhaps the picture is more complex and depending on the horse’s individual needs (health issues, barefoot, age etc), then a fresh approach may be required in conjunction with the nutritional experts. They can advise on DE intake, protein levels and ensure minerals are balanced in the correct ratios to each other to optimise the horse’s health, based on the results of the analysis.

For example if a sample of hay contained particularly high levels of iron or manganese these can restrict the horses’ nutritional uptake of minerals such as zinc and copper. Zinc is essential for healing processes, blood clotting, insulin production, energy metabolism, nerve function, strong hooves and a healthy coat. Copper is essential for the repair, maintenance and development of hooves, joints, bones and connective tissue. Hence, by balancing and supplementing the zinc and copper in the correct ratios to the iron and manganese, the horse can then receive the optimum amount of these minerals and often an improvement in hoof health, coat and general health is the result!

Author: Features Editor

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