The most natural form of roughage is grass; providing the quantity and quality is good, it will provide your horse with all the nutrients he requires for maintenance. If the work is increased beyond the energy obtained from the grass, additional concentrates may need to be fed. Grass is at it best between April and September. Why else would Mother Nature ensure foals are born during these months?
I am sure most of us have experienced rather 'lively' horses when the spring grass comes through and the feed value is at its best. With our current climate it is not always limited to spring! The earlier the grass is cut for hay, the higher the protein. Grass that has gone to seed will be of poorer feed value and may be prone to dust. Horses should have access to grass daily, allowing them some freedom and relieving boredom.
Desirable grasses to have in your hay: rye, timothy, cocksfoot, crested dog's tail and meadow fescue.
Undesirable grass: common bent grass, Yorkshire fog, sweet vernal and wall barley.
There are two types of hay. Seed hay is taken from land specifically sown with a selection of grasses. The grasses usually include rye, timothy and cocksfoot, but can be limited to rye grass only. Each year the crop diminishes in nutritional value, hence the land has a limited shelf life - it is then ploughed and left to rest, for anything from one to five years. Seed hay is harder hay and usually contains higher levels of fibre. As it is specifically grown as hay it should be free of weeds. As a general rule, seed hay is more expensive and due to the limited grasses, may provide the horse with limited mineral intake. Seed hay tends to be fed to horses in hard work.
Meadow hay is a softer hay and taken from permanent pasture. It is easier to digest, the stalks are finer and shorter, and it contains a greater variety of grasses and herbs. Surprisingly, meadow hay is higher in nutritional value, is less fibrous than seed hay and less expensive. In the main, horses find meadow hay more palatable; it is sometimes referred to as 'soft' hay. The downside is that it may contain weeds, including poisonous plants, eg ragwort.
It is impossible to tell the feed value by looking at hay; you require the hay to be analysed which may be costly. NEW HAY SHOULD BE SIX MONTHS OLD BEFORE IT IS FED TO YOUR HORSE. It should be thoroughly dry to help prevent colic. Always introduce new hay slowly, over a period of a minimum of four days. After 18 months hay starts to deteriorate in quality.
Qualities of good hay
* Sweet smelling.
* Free from dust and mould.
* Good colour. Meadow hay should be green - brown. Seed hay should be yellow - brown in colour.
* Good variety of grasses.
* Contains no poisonous plants. Please note that the highly poisonous plant, ragwort, is extremely palatable when dry - remember that ragwort can cause liver failure and death!
* When you cut open a bale of hay the leaves (or slices) should fall apart easily.
Signs of bad hay
* Smells musty and is dusty when moved.
* Sections stick together, are hard and difficult to separate.
* Contains weeds and poisonous plants.
* Black to brown in colour.
* Will make you cough when handling it.
Poor quality hay should never be fed. It can cause respiratory irritations, coughing, nasal discharge and infections and Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), also known as Broken Wind.
Do not throw old, dusty hay out in the field for horses to pick through. Dispose of correctly; not only is it unpalatable for your horse it also attracts vermin!
Read more Hay vs Haylage under Horse Care, Feeding.
OAT OR BARLEY STRAW
With the cost of hay ever increasing either of the above can be used to bulk food out. Straw is of lower feed value than hay and care must be taken to ensure it is clean, dry, free from dust and mould in exactly the same way as hay. It can be a good substitute for horses who are turned out on lush pasture, or needing to reduce their calorie intake, but still needing something to eat.
You may need to increase the amount of concentrates fed. In the past oat or barley straw was mixed with meadow hay and put through a chaff machine which was turned by hand to produce 'chop' which was fed with concentrates to prevent horses bolting their food. We now have ready made alternatives we can purchase from feed merchants.
In the absence of a plentiful supply of grass, succulents should be added to your horse's diet. Feed between 0.5 - 1kg per day. Apples, carrots, swedes, parsnips, turnips, cabbage leaves and pea pods can be fed to your horse. Succulents are required to provide necessary vitamins, are tasty and add variety to the feed. All succulents should be clean when fed and free from mould. Always slice length ways to avoid them getting stuck in your horse's throat.
Tip: For a horse on box rest, try dropping apples into a water bucket to help keep him amused and relieve boredom. Read more feed advice