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The food which we
The food which we feed to horses needs to meet seven fundamental requirements:
Energy. It needs to provide sufficient energy (calories) to meet the requirements of the horse. If the weather becomes colder or the horse is used more actively
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, the amount of food will need to be increased accordingly. Likewise, as winter turns into summer or if the horse is less active, the amount of food should be decreased.
Minerals and Vitamins. Aside from energy, horse feed needs to provide a variety of essential minerals and vitamins
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, in the required quantities.
Bulk and High Fiber. The equine digestive system has evolved to process grass, which is high in fiber and bulk. Food which is concentrated (e.g. grain) may provide the required energy and minerals, but lacks the bulk which the digestive system needs, which greatly increases the risk of ulcers and other diseases. Studies on horses which a diet high in grain or other concentrated foods show that 50 to 90 of these horses have ulcers.
Digestability. Food which is poorly digested provides limited food value and can cause serious illnesses (e.g. impaction colic). This is a particular problem for the older horse
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, where dental wear reduces his ability to chew food and aging has reduced his ability to digest certain foods. See Feeding Senior Horses below for details. In addition, horses may eat unsuitable items (e.g. straw) which do provide food value but due to difficulty in digestion can also result in problems.
Safety. Almost any food, given in an incorrect quantity or fashion, can result in health issues. A list of the common mistakes to avoid is provided below.
Continuous Feeding. Although a horse does not eat constantly (e.g. it spends part of its time moving about and other activities)
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, it needs to eat frequently. It needs a minimum of 2 3 meals per day to keep its digestive system healthy, but more frequent eating is preferable. Many small meals are better than a few large meals. This is one of the reasons that horses which graze on pasture during the day are generally healthier than horses which have their food (e.g. hay or grain) given to them once or twice a day.
Stimulation. A horse s main stimulation and occupation comes from looking for food and eating (typical forager activity). Restricting it to short and infrequent feedings will result in a bored and unhappy horse, which is likely to develop stress related behaviours such as cribbing or repetitive movements.
Grass and Hay
Grass is the most natural food for horses, as it is what they have evolved to eat. In general
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, horses will tend to be healthier on a diet which consists mainly of grass than on any other type of food.
Hay is the second most natural food, being rather close to the dried grass which they might find after a hot and dry summer, or dried winter grass. It is less nutritious than fresh grass but good quality hay is a useful alternative when there is not enough fresh grass.
There are a large number of poisonous weeds which can be found in some pastures. Depending on the type of plant eaten and the quantity, the result can be anything from minor to fatal. Some plants can also cause damage the skin or hooves if the horse rolls or walks on them. Consequently
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, before putting your horse into a pasture, a knowledgeable person should check the pasture for poisonous weeds. As some weeks are visible mainly in spring and others mainly in summer, a thorough walk through the pasture at least twice a year to check for suspicious plants is advisable.
With hay, one faces the same issues with poisonous plants
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, if the hay is made from a pasture with poisonous weeds. In fact, the situation with hay is potentially more dangerous since horses will instinctively avoid eating many of the the poisonous plants if encountered in a pasture, but when they are mixed in with hay and dried the horses are no longer able to identify and avoid them since they have lost their distinctive smell and appearance. Consequently, one should take special care that one uses hay only from a pasture which is safe or hay that is sourced from a trust worthy source.
The other major risk with grass is that grass which is overly rich in carbohydrates (e.g. spring grass) or nitrates (e.g. fertilised field) can cause laminitis or founder. See the preceding link for more information on how to avoid this. Excessively rich hay may have the same risk
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, but since hay is made at a time of year when the grass is naturally less rich, this is much less likely.
Another consideration is the quality of the hay. It can contain harmful mold or fungus if it has not been properly dried before being cut, or has gotten wet either prior to or after bailing, or has been stored in plastic bags. Any bales which have mold or fungus should be thrown out rather than used. Hay can also be dusty
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, ranging from slightly dusty to very dusty, depending on the soil and weather conditions at the time it was made, as well as the way in which it was cutturnedbaled. Very dusty hay should not be used as it can cause respiratory problems in horses. Slightly dusty hay is fine, except for horses which are sensitive to dust. One can soak hay in water to remove the dust
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, but in this case one needs to clean out uneaten hay each day to stop the wet hay from going off. An advantage of commercial feeds over hay is that in general they are unlikely to have dust, mold or fungus (unless they have been allowed to get wet as a result of improper storage).
Hay Cubes or Bricks
Hay cubes (also known as hay bricks) is hay which has been cut and then compressed into a brick shape. This is a convenient way of storing hay as it uses up less space and can form convenient individual portions. It does tend to be more expensive to buy Most of us choose a haircut beca.
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