Let’s Talk About Forage

My feeding philosophy is simple:  horses weren’t designed to live the life we’ve put upon them and it’s our responsibility to feed them in a way that duplicates their natural lifestyle when at all possible.  Let’s look at forage requirements on this page.

The first hard and fast rule about feeding horses is this:  THEY NEED FORAGE.  Horses should have 24/7 access to forage. If your horse is an easy keeper, then this might mean low quality forage that is low in sugar and starches, perhaps even in a slow feeder bag, or grazing in a field that has little grass available.  If your horse is metabolic or prone to laminitis, you might have to soak that hay in order to provide 24/7 forage and still put it in a slow feeder bag.  If your horse is in work and you’re always struggling a bit to keep him in good weight, then higher quality forage is necessary.  If your horse is in hard work then the best quality, free choice forage will be essential.

Providing horses with forage 24/7 can be very expensive. For example, I break out the feed costs of all my horses and one of mine eats $4.50 in hay every day.  That’s $135.00 a month in hay costs alone.  If you are boarding your horse, please understand that the biggest upfront cost your barn has to handle is hay.  Many barns keep costs down by not feeding adequate forage.  The ultimate cost of this is passed onto the consumer, who then often has a horse with ulcers that is difficult to keep weight on, has behavioral issues and truly is mentally focused on getting food instead of work, because that’s how horses are hard wired.  This then translates to buying ulcer medications (cha-ching!), weight gain supplements (cha-ching!) and behavioral supplements and extra training (cha-ching!), vet bills for colicing horses as well as having an unhappy horse and an unhappy owner in general.  Hungry horses just really aren’t their best selves.

Many commercial barns do not have adequate pasture for horses to graze in the summer.  This can very region to region but where I live, in the southeast, we have optimum grazing situations if managed correctly.  For example, I have approximately 15 acres in grass and my pastures are managed for easy keepers, medium keepers and horses who need to gain weight.  I try to keep no more than five horses here at any given time so as to ensure adequate grazing.  In summer, when horses come in during the hotter, buggier part of the day, they have hay in their stalls.

An unfortunate part of horse keeping and horse ownership is that it is expensive.  However, where you choose to spend your dollars can be crucial to your horses health and it is worth crunching numbers to determine if you are boarding in a situation where you’d be better off paying more somewhere else and getting the forage your horse needs to be healthy.  If you keep your horses at home, you have complete control over this and should make it your first priority.  Once you are sure your horse is receiving adequate forage, you can focus on nutrition.

The bottom line is this:  forage should be the mainstay of your horses diet.  Since we have taken away the option of horses having the ability to go seek out their own forage, we have to provide it.  It’s not possible to have truly healthy horses and not provide adequate forage.  I am happy to refer you to hay dealers that I have found to be reliable and trustworthy.

The Whole Horse – How It Came To Be

Hey there.  I’m Gayle Dauverd and this is The Whole Horse.  I’d like to tell you how I got here and why it’s important.

My childhood was of the typical hunter kid barn rat; I moved on to riding dressage horses in my later twenties and eventually began training and teaching.  But it wasn’t until 15 years ago that I began becoming more involved in what my horses ate, and the big awakening came when I bought my own farm and could not only control what they ate, but had the opportunity to live with them and really, truly observe them.

During that time I also began trimming horses feet, and that has also brought me a tremendous amount of knowledge about how what goes in a horses mouth affects every aspect of its body but that’s a side note to explore later.

What I began discovering through the journey of becoming very ill myself and having to take a hard, close look at my personal diet was that I was feeding my horses processed feeds that at worst contained mystery ingredients and at best, still contained things that horses tend not to tolerate well, like soy.

My attitude towards supplementation was willy-nilly. Need a shinier coat?  Feed flax, one person advised. But how?  Whole flax? Ground flax?  Stabilized ground flax?  Keep it in the freezer?  Really?  Ok, so how about oil.  Uckele makes a great supplement called Cocosoya, it will put shine on anything.  But it’s very expensive.  I began wondering, what causes a shiny coat?  Is this related to strong feet, since hair and feet are basically made of the same substances?

Then there were the gut supplements. Ulcers were the big ticket item then, and it seemed like every horse was on Gastroguard.  Even the smallest bit of research revealed that long term use of gastric acid inhibitors used in humans can cause serious secondary issues.  So why were we keeping horses on Gastroguard for what seemed to be forever ?  Why when they did come off of it were other supplements being recommended?  Why weren’t we trying to figure out why these horses had ulcers in the first place?

At that point I took a big step back and looked at what I knew to be true. Horses are made to ingest forage 24/7 and they are designed to move. I researched Jamie Jacksons work “Paddock Paradise” and everything else I could get my hands on.  At that time barefoot trimming was becoming a fad, and a dangerous one at that.  I was beginning to carefully trim my own but under supervision and training; but we were routinely seeing horses being trimmed in very destructive ways.   What I had not yet connected were the foot problems and the food problems. I had already understood how incorrect riding affect the feet but here was one more piece of the puzzle and I was determined to figure it out.

So as I said, I went back to forage.  The advice at the time was to analyze all forage and then base a nutritional plan around the results.  This seemed like the answer until I realized that not only could I not analyze grass, I did not feed the same hay all winter AND the hay I did feed came from many different places even if it was the same supplier. So for the most part I threw this idea away and went with generalized standards of nutrition for average hays.

Around this time the Chronicle of the Horse was running a free forum that was acting as an incredible crowdsourcing resource. People from everywhere were happy to discuss what they were feeding and why; what the results were and listen to others input.  That resource has since passed, but we also were able to do a tremendous amount of research on parasites, which is something I will talk about in a later post.  Be prepared, because I LOVE parasitology!

One thing I found was that there were people who were NOT feeding their horses processed feeds. Some were feeding only (copious amounts of) forage, some adding vitamins and some other form of protein.  Across the board these peoples horses had one thing in common – no ulcers.  Other people were feeding incredible amounts of processed feeds to their horses and while some reported no issues, many were commenting on behavioral issues and interestingly, their horses still being ‘hard keepers’.

At that point I knew that I had to learn what a horse RDA was for each necessary vitamin and mineral and how to make that work with a forage based diet, because the writing was on the wall.  How that all went is a story for another post, but I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing how I finally figured out where to begin this journey.  Thanks for reading and I hope you’ll be back for more!