Forage is the single highest volume component in the equine diet. The type, quality, and maturity of the forage you feed have the biggest impact on the nutritional composition of your horse’s ration.

Selecting the right forage to feed your horse helps to ensure that their energy, protein and nutrient requirements are being met while minimizing the risk of metabolic conditions, excess weight gain, gut issues and laminitis.

The only way to accurately assess the quality of forage is to submit a sample for analysis. However, some visual and sensory cues can help you identify forage species and maturity to estimate nutritional quality. These cues will help you choose forage that is appropriate for your horse.

This article will review the importance of appropriate forage in the equine diet and how to identify and inspect hay for horses.

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Forage in the Equine Diet

Forage should provide most of the calories and protein in your horse’s diet. [1]

Horses are grazing animals that evolved to thrive on continuous intake of fibrous foodstuffs, such as grass and other forages. [2][7]

To support optimal health, the average horse should consume 2% of its body weight in forage every day. For an 1100 lb (500 kg) horse, this is equivalent to 22 pounds (10 kg) of hay or pasture dry matter per day. [4][13]

Providing your horse with free-choice forage is ideal whenever possible. [1] Ad libitum intake of hay reduces stereotypic behaviours and ensures that the horse’s stomach is not empty for long periods, decreasing the risk of gastric ulcers.

Long-stem forage is the best option, including pasture or hay that is two inches or longer. These forages promote saliva production and slow consumption. [5]

Avoid feeding large amounts of commercial feeds. Diets with too much grain and not enough forage can contribute to digestive problems, metabolic issues and behavioural concerns. [3]

What is Forage?

Equestrians often use the terms hay and forage interchangeably, but forage can refer to any edible plant material aside from grain consumed by grazing animals. [6]

In equine diets, forage includes pasture, hay, haylage, straw, or other high-fibre hay substitutes. These should provide the base of every horse’s nutrition program. [1]

Some key characteristics of common forage sources for horses are:

  • Pasture: Fresh pasture is typically higher in energy, protein and other nutrients than hay. Pasture is prone to elevated sugar content, which can increase the risk of metabolic syndrome, obesity, and laminitis. [15]
  • Hay: Conserving dry forage reduces levels of vitamins (such as vitamin E) and other nutrients. Nutritional quality is determined by the stage of maturity, species, and conditions during harvest and storage. [12]
  • Forage pellets or cubes: Finely chopped hay that is compressed can replace hay when forage a