Hay is what horses need

Hay, fodder, grass, roughage....when you have so many herbivores, grazing animals as we do, the availability, quality, price, transport and storage of this essential food source for your animals, is among your main concerns all the time and among the main topics of conversation when you talk with others that keep cows, buffaloes, goats, sheep, horses or donkeys - or all of them like we do at the Hill View Farm Animal Refuge.


It is also the topic that many people who don't have these animals do not come to think about. How much of our time (well, in our case especially Nigel's) goes for arranging for our hay supply. The kind of investment there has to be to build up this stock of fodder for this season. How much hay one horse actually needs every day. I have at times posted about our dry season hay storage in Instagram and Facebook but I thought of making a separate posting only about hay because of the importance of hay in horses' diet. 

Horses are non-ruminant herbivores, also known as hind-gut fermenters with relatively small stomach volume of just about 7-8 liters in an average 500kg horse. This limits the amount of feed a horse can take in at one time. Horses have evolved as grazers who, when living in the nature, would spend about 16 hours per day grazing, eating pasture grasses. Horses can't regurgitate so if they overeat or eat something unsuitable or poisonous, they are not able to vomit.


As the horse chews, the salivary glands produce saliva to help moisten the food and ease its passage into the esophagus and stomach. Saliva also neutralizes stomach acids, therefore reducing the risk of gastric ulcers. Chewing hay or grass takes more time than chewing concentrates and therefore a diet that lacks on hay increases the risk of gastric ulcers because less saliva is produced to neutralise the stomach acids. Also, food moves quite fast from the stomach to the small intestines, in about 15-40 minutes and this means that small, frequent meals or constant access to grazing or a slow-feed hay net, are better option for horses to ensure that there is constantly some food in the stomach. When stomach is empty for longer periods of time the cells that line the stomach wall are more vulnerable to the attack of the stomach acids.



At this time of the year when the pasture lands where we have access to are totally dried up, every possible space is filled with hay or the oats grass or rice straw that we have stocked up to feed the animals through the dry season. Getting good quality hay to feed horses is not easy in India and at this time when the demand is highest, it is even more difficult. This is one of the reasons why many horses in India are not really fed with hay but only or mainly with concentrates, that is grain, and some straw. Straw is the poorest form of roughage, providing mainly for horses natural need for eating fibrous material but without much of nutritional or energy values. It acts as a filler in the stomach and keeps away the feeling of hunger to some extent but it does not provide energy. Many horses that are kept in stalls with straw bedding end up eating their bedding at night if they are not provided adequate hay to satisfy their need to eat to do something.

Also, to be able to get hay within somewhat reasonable price, you need to buy it in bulk and be able to store it so that it doesn't become moldy. Adequate and suitable storage facility therefore becomes also a limiting factor for many people who have horses; whether rescued horses or horses meant for working or sports or pleasure riding purposes.


Every year Nigel spends many weeks in November-January in arranging to buy and to transport hay and to lease land to grow oats. Planting oats requires also irrigation as needed, fencing the field to keep wild animals from destroying the field and then of course harvesting and transporting the crop to the farm, drying it on the ground and then storing it. We feed the full oats plant to the animals, we don't grow it only for the sake of the grain.

We buy hay, horse gram leaves and rice straw from Gundulpet, Karnataka, in truck loads. We then mix these to provide nutrients and energy from the hay and gram husk and bulk roughage from rice straw. This is then supplemented with dried alfalfa that is grown on the farm. Alfalfa, also known as lucerne, is a legume, meaning it is a good source of protein. It is a perennial crop and we have been growing it on a small piece of our land now for couple of years.


Out of all the different ways and places where we store hay, I like the most recently built pony shed the best. It is designed as multi-purpose structure that provides shade and rain cover for the animals and same time stores good amount of hay on the deck below the roof. Stored this way the hay is easily accessible to take and feed the horses. So for anyone with limited space, this is my recommendation! Also, these ponies do not require individual stalls and they enjoy their life as one herd so this type of open stall cover works very well for them.

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Basically all our available covered spaces and many of the stalls become hay storage rooms during the dry season and we use the roofs of these structures and buildings to dry and store alfalfa. 





We also store bales of rice straw out in the open at this time of the year, counting on the rains to stay away now for couple of months. If it looks like it is about to rain it is an emergency alert at the farm and we need to get the tarpaulins out to cover the straw and then after the rain spread out the straw on the ground to dry before piling it up again for storage.



One thoroughbred horse, ex-racehorse like Strong (who is not in intensive training anymore) needs 8-10 kg of feed every day for his maintenance needs and this should be based on good quality hay as the main component. Of this total amount, 6-9kg should be hay and 2-4 kg of concentrates (grain) per day divided into 2-3 meals to fit into the volume of the small stomach. The exact amount of hay and grains depend of course on the type and quality and nutritional composition of the hay or grass and concentrates available as well as the body condition of the horse, so these numbers are approximates and based on an average requirement of 1.5 -2% of body weight of dry feed per day under maintenance feeding regime. An adult horse like Strong, grazing on good quality pasture and not under intensive training, not pregnant and not lactating, might not require anything else in addition to the hay. However, if the quality of the hay is poor, then the amount of concentrates has to go up accordingly to supplement the lack of energy and nutrients in the hay.  Also, many of the horses that come to us are very thin and so they need more energy to build up their condition to start with.


Besides of horses stomach being small in volume and not being able to take in huge amounts of feed at one time, overfeeding of concentrates can lead to other health problems, such as laminitis and colic, which can be life-threatening, and therefore any increases in the amount of concentrates fed have to be done carefully and gradually. At the Hill View Farm Animal Refuge we as concentrates, we feed our horses with a mixture of barley, corn, oats, channa, wheat bran and ricebran oil. But more details about concentrates is another topic for another time.