Hay is for horses. Besides being a snarky way of reminding someone that your name is not “Hey,” it is a phrase that is 100 percent accurate. Horses are meant to eat hay; not oats, carrots, apples or sugar cubes. Horses are grazing animals with a relatively small stomach, comprising about only 10 percent of its delicate digestive tract. The intestines of a horse can be 75 to 95 feet long depending on the size of the equine. What this all means is that the horse is meant to continuously ingest, and digest, small amounts of fiber.
Fiber, in the form of good quality dried grasses, is what horses thrive on. Too much lush, green grass can actually be harmful to horses, much in the way that white bread and candy in large doses are not good for humans. “Good quality” means that the hay has been cut, dried and stored properly. Hay should still have a green color. Yellowed or brown hay is not going to have the nutritional value necessary to keep a horse, well, as healthy as a horse. Hay should be free of mold, dust and weeds. A small percent of nongrass plants is not a problem, but if half the hay bale is moss and milkweed, it’s not good hay.
Moldy or dusty hay is a health concern. It can cause permanent respiratory problems or colic. Generally, horses will not eat moldy hay, but when bored or extremely hungry, they will consume not only moldy hay, but tree bark, fence posts, a pasturemate’s tail or weeds. Some weeds, like dandelions, are quite nutritious for a horse, but others, like buttercups, are poisonous. Interestingly, buttercups are only poisonous when fresh. When dried, as you might
find them in hay, they are harmless. Some common ornamental plants are also poisonous to
horses. Lily, azalea, lupine and rhododendron are all toxic to equines. A mouthful of oleander
or yew can kill a horse. Other common plants that are harmful to horses include onion, tomato,
potato and tobacco. There are other plants that aren’t spelled with any o’s that are poisonous,
but to list them would take up too much space.
Grains, commercial feeds and horse treats, carrots, apples, sugar cubes and the like, are not part of a horse’s natural diet. Since being ridden is not part of a horse’s natural activities, humans have had to supplement their steeds’ diets in order to provide the extra calories, protein, vitamins and minerals needed to keep up with the increased needs of hauling around wagons, jumping over stuff, racing, chasing cows, trotting around in circles for an hour, and all of the other ridiculous stuff we ask horses to do.
Generally speaking, a horse should be fed as much hay as it can eat, and then for increased energy requirements of riding, commercial feeds can be added. Senior horses will also need
supplemental feeds due to their inability to adequately chew and digest hay. Over-feeding
a horse, especially with concentrated feeds or grains, is disastrous. An overweight horse is
susceptible to laminitis, an inflammation in the hooves, which can cripple it. Allowing a horse
to gorge itself on grain, green grass, apples, or anything other than hay, can lead to laminitis or colic. On a horse of an ideal weight, the ribs can be felt with gentle pressure, but not seen.
Finding, and paying for, good hay is a constant concern of horse owners. A bale of hay can
cost $4 to $9 in Maine. An average size horse, weighing about 1,000 pounds, can eat a half bale to a whole bale of hay per day depending on metabolism, activity level and weather. If the hay isn’t good, the horse will either waste it by not eating it, or eat it but not thrive, thereby requiring more supplemental feed. Doing the math, it is evident that spending money on quality hay is much more economical than buying cheaper hay that isn’t as good.
Horses learn to eat apples and carrots because that is what is offered to them. In actuality,
horses like many kinds of fruits and root vegetables. Parsnips, turnips, radishes, bananas,
watermelon, pears and raisins are all good snacks. Horses will also enjoy granola bars, pretzels, bread, dried peas, peppermints, peanuts, Lifesavers, Cheerios and other whole grain
cereals, animal crackers and the occasional sugar cube. Treats should be given in moderation, especially the sugary ones. While horses won’t get cavities the way people can, the sugar is not good for them. Or anyone else. Salt, on the other hand, is necessary. The easiest way to provide it is with a salt block that the horse can lick as needed.
Configuring the right diet for a horse can be confusing. To keep it simple, start with good hay as a foundation, and then add a nutritionally balanced commercial feed or vitamin supplement. Feed treats sparingly and always have fresh water and a salt block available. Frequent checking for ribs is required as the horse’s activity level and the outside temperatures change. Horses cannot live on salad, Wheaties or corn stalks. If we are going to ask horses to do ridiculous things, we can at least not be ridiculous about feeding them.