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horses eating hay

Should you Feed Adlib Hay to Horses and Ponies?

Do you have a horse which is a good doer? Do you wonder whether to feed adlib hay or whether you should be restricting hay and feeding at a weight level suitable for your horse? Here Forageplus discusses the issue of whether you should give your horse access to free choice hay.

What is adlib hay?

There has been discussion that the best way to feed horses is to give them either unlimited turnout on pasture or to give them the option of unlimited turnout and access to free choice adlib hay. This means that the horse is given access to as much hay as it wishes to eat. It is claimed that horses will regulate their own requirements, eating only as much as is necessary to maintain a normal weight.

Proponents of the ‘always adlib hay’ approach discuss the fact that without unlimited access to forage, horses will become stressed, that being deprived of food is unnatural and creates stress which causes cortisol release. Cortisol is a hormone which will worsen or perpetuate insulin resistance and it is claimed that this stress and the raise in this hormone will lead to acute and chronic laminitis.

Will horses on ad-lib hay maintain a healthy weight?

Whilst it might be true that hormonal imbalance can be the cause of insulin resistance (IR) and laminitis, the amount of hay which might need to be fed to a horse and how much turn out eating grass they need, to maintain a healthy weight, is not as simple as giving them carte blanche to have an all they can eat adlib hay buffet.

Firstly understand that hay and grass or just hay should be the greatest proportion of the horse’s diet. This forage supplies the greatest amount of nutrients; calories, protein, minerals and vitamins. It is an oversimplification to say that all horses regardless of work level and breed should have as much adlib hay or grass to eat as they wish.

Some horses, like Highlands and Connemara’s are genetically programmed to survive on what seems like fresh air. This is an evolutionary advantage where scarce food in winter meant that those horses which could pile the most weight on through the summer months would be more likely to survive through to the next spring. If these horses are given a high energy adlib hay or allowed to eat, as much spring time grass as they wish then many owners find that they rapidly increase their weight.

Secondly understand that not all grass and hay are created equal. Spring grass will have a much higher calorific value per mouthful than the same height winter grass. Rye grass, created for the greatest milk and meat yield in farm animals will have more calories per mouthful than a multi-species meadow grass.

Hay cut in June is likely to be of a high feed, calorie value than that cut in July or August. Hay cut first thing in the morning is likely to contain more energy value than that cut in the afternoon. Even whether it is cloudy or sunny can have an impact on how many calories the leaf will contain.

horse eating hay

How much hay to feed a horse?

The feed value of hay and grass is determined not just by the fermentable, digestible energy value of the forage but also by the amount of sugar and starch it contains. Where a horse is a good doer and genetically predisposed to insulin resistance (most native horses, Arabs, Morgans etc) the amount of sugar and starch the hay or grass contains will determine whether it is suitable for a laminitis prone horse to eat. Just eating as much as they want or need of this type of grass or hay could be unsafe in any amount.

Whether fed in limited amounts or free choice, levels of simple sugar and starch will determine the insulin response. If the simple sugar and starch is too high then this will spike insulin.

A laminitis prone horse with IR, which has insulin levels constantly spiked, is a horse which will gain weight because this spiking will trigger increasing obesity and insulin resistance. The more weight it gains on an adlib hay diet the more likely it is to develop an episode of laminitis.

Should my IR, laminitis prone horse have adlib hay?

While obesity per se does not cause insulin resistance, it does worsen it. This is why an overweight IR horse which loses weight slowly will improve with weight loss. However the ‘diet’ should be one which should not be adlib hay nor severe in calorie restriction as this can worsen laminitis. Recommendations by anyone to feed less than 1.5% of body weight should be politely ignored because weight loss which occurs too quickly can create metabolic stress which triggers laminitis or worsens IR. Feeding adlib hay will not work either because horses which are insulin resistant are also resistant to another hormone called leptin.

How does leptin affect laminitis prone horses?

Leptin is what we at Forageplus like to call ‘the stop eating stupid hormone’ because leptin is a hormone that shuts off appetite when sufficient energy/calories have been consumed. A horse which is prone to insulin resistance loses this regulation so faced with unlimited hay the IR horse will keep munching without the shut off system to stop them becoming obese.

Then there is protein. Protein is fundamental to life; without protein there is no life, no cellular activity, no hormonal activity, no repair, no growth, no enzymatic processes to keep the body functioning. The body and brain work together to tell the horse to eat more if not enough protein has been obtained. Lack of protein means a larger appetite. Enough protein means the horse feels full and satisfied.

So we would like to suggest, VERY strongly that a blanket approach which advises adlib hay to all horses in all situations is VERY dangerous advice which over simplifies what is not a simple situation. It is advice which could cause you and your horse to slide down the slippery slope to obesity and an increased chance of a life threatening bout of laminitis which may cause a hole in your heart and most certainly a hole in your bank balance.

When does adlib hay feeding for horses work well?

Where adlib hay feeding does work well is for horses which have a normal functioning metabolic system. Most horses like this will adjust after a few days to the novelty and regulate their intake to what they need. The caveat to this is that protein should be sufficient to allow this. Where protein is too low then it may well be that horses will over eat.

What is the best hay for horses?

For all horses regardless of age, health and workload the very best hay is that which is tested to determine mineral levels, energy levels and protein levels. If this is done then calculations can be made to check that there are no insufficencies in the daily diet. It maybe that a ‘normal horse’ can have adlib hay and energy requirements will be covered but mineral and protein levels will be inadeqaute. Only by testing will the quality of a hay or haylage be clear.

What hay is best for a insulin resistant horses?

If your horse is a good doer, laminitis prone, or insulin resistant, and needs to maintain or reduce weight, you must know the energy value of your hay. From analysis you can work out exactly how much to feed each day to provide the right amount of calories to maintain the correct weight.

It may well be that if the tested hay is low in energy an adlib or near to adlib hay amount can be fed. Then if you know the protein value too, you can also work out if that amount of hay is providing enough protein. Many hays have inadequate protein leves so you must add an additional protein source so the horse does not over eat in an attempt to forefill demand for this nutrient.

What hay sugar and starch level is best for a laminitis prone horse?

If your horse is IR or laminitis prone then it is essential to know the sugar and starch level in the hay. This will determine if it is suitable and safe for your laminitis prone horse. Our nutritional analysis will supply you with all these figures.

We have invested much research and time into looking at what the basic diet for a laminitis prone horse should be. A test which is specific to separating the water souluble carbohydrate fraction (WSC), which are also termed non-structural carboyhydrates (NSC) in the UK and EU, from the ethanol soluble carbohydrate fraction (ESC) is vital. The analysis chosen whould list the following:

  1. Water Soluble Carbohydrates (WSC): Includes simple and digestible sugars (sucrose, glucose, fructose), non-digestible simple plant sugars, and probably short chains of fructan (storage sugar for plants)
  2. Ethanol Soluble Carbohydrates (ESC): Simple sugars that can be extracted in a blend of ethanol and water.
  3. Starch

NSC includes oligosaccharides and fructans. Oligosaccharides and fructans are NOT digestible in the small intestine and do not cause a significant insulin rise. This research study gives more information on this. Since over 90% of laminitis cases are caused by high insulin, this is an important point.

Should I be worried about fructan in adlib horse hay?

Fructan is not a sugar.  It is a long chain polysaccharide made of repeating units of the sugar fructose but that does not make it a sugar.  Cellulose, the long chain polysaccharide fiber that is high in wood and straw, is made of repeating units of glucose but that doesn’t make cellulose a sugar either.

The only sugars that are of concern for an IR horse are those that can be digested and cause an insulin spike.  This is limited to the short chain, one or two sugar unit, sugars such as glucose and sucrose.  Fructan is not digested or otherwise broken down into simple sugar.  It does NOT cause insulin to rise – while high insulin is the cause of around 90% of all laminitis cases, including pasture laminitis.

What sugars affect laminitis prone horses in hay?

For the IR horse it is the simple sugars (ESC extracted through forage analysis) and starch levels that matter. These are the components that can cause a blood sugar rise. What has been determined by extensive research is that a hay or haylage that is no more than 10% combined ESC (Ethanol Soluble Sugar) plus starch will not cause insulin spikes in metabolically dysfunctional, IR horses. Starch should also be less than 3% of the total.

Should I soak and feed adlib hay?

If not enough hay can be purchased at one time to justify forage analysis, the hay can be soaked in water to lower the sugar content before feeding. It is important to understand that soaking does not just reduce simple sugars in the hay and although reducing simple sugars might mean you can feed more or adlib hay your may reduce some of the water soluble nutrients by a considerable and hard to replace amount.

Our advice is to feed a measured amount of hay, in line with bodyweight and work load and soak for short periods of time. Our research has shown that ESC/simple sugar levels may decrease by up to 30%, based on one small study of a 30-minute soak in hot water, or 60 minutes in cold water.

In general, the longer the soak time, the hotter the water, and the more water used, the greater the decrease of ESC/simple sugar will be. Whether you can feed adlib or not will all come down to whether you have a high energy or low energy hay but uually where a horse is a good doer then controlling calories by controling intake will usually be the best strategy.

Feeding horses adlib hay

What is the best hay for a horse to lose weight?

Where you don’t know the energy value of the hay because you can’t carry out analysis then to maintain weight you can use 2% of body weight. You should not feed adlib. The 2% approach is better and will mean that a horse weighing 500 kg will eat 10 kg of hay per day. Where you want slow weight loss use 1.5% of body weight or 2% of the weight you want the horse to end up weighing or which ever is the greater. This would mean that a horse weighing 500 kg would need 7.5 kg per hay per day.

Where a horse is 500kg but you want it to loose weight to reach 450 kg then 2% of this weight would be 9kg.  Often it is better to use 2% of the bodyweight you want the horse to reach rather than 1.5% of bodyweight so that a horse has the maximum amount of food whilst still losing weight slowly. We suggest weigh taping a horse each week to check weight loss and weighing hay using a scales used for weighing luggage. We don’t suggest feeding adlib to any good doer horse or horse which needs to lose weight.

If you need help to calculate how much hay your horse needs then contact us for help

Where hay is restricted, the amount being fed running out too quickly can become a problem so using small holed hay nets or slow feeder systems/nets is a solution. Sometimes double or even triple netting the hay is needed and this doesn’t need to be costly if you use cheap haylage nets. Alternatively, the horse can be fed multiple small meals throughout the day.

My horse is laminitic should I feed adlib hay?

If your horse is laminitic or has been prone to laminitis it is extremely important to understand that weight control through calorie restriction will be inevitable if you are to stop the laminitis events in their track. You cannot feed adlib hay or haylage where you need a horse to lose weight. A horse which is at the correct weight, eating the correct amount of minerals, vitamins and protein will be able to exercise and will be become healthier. The more exercise carried out the more calories used so exercise will be a good doer weight prone horses best friend. Management of these horses is the key and a way of life where eating is controlled and exercised balanced, to provide optimum calories, optimum protein and optimum minerals and vitamins will put your horse in a win, win situation.

Part of this control will be making sure that your IR or laminitic horse is fed a hay with no more than 10% ESC (simple sugars) and starch, combined, fed at 1.5% of current weight or 2% of ideal weight, whichever is larger to give the most fibre feed in the diet.

Grazing on pasture should be strictly controlled. For some horses no pasture ever will be the rule. For others turn out when sugars are low, early in the morning, for limited periods of time or only at night will work. In the UK many horses are best kept off grazing in what, here at Forageplus, we call the rocket fuel months of April, May and June. This is when the grass is at its fastest growth and highest calorie content so it makes sense to limit exposure to this forage.

How much grazing turnout should my horse get?

If your horse is not IR, in regular exercise and the grazing is healthy then most will be fine on grazing either 24 hours per day or for 12 hours. Many people prefer to turn out at night once the hotter days come, this is useful because not only does it help exposure to flies but it also results in horses grazing on pasture when the sugars are at their lowest.

What are the Forageplus top tips for ad-lib hay feeding?

So should you feed your horse ad-lib hay or grass? The answer is it depends and that analysis of your forage will allow you to accurately determine how best to manage feeding. Calorie restriction may be essential for native, good doer types but this will be a positive approach where protein, mineral and vitamin levels are addressed.

As long as you keep to a trickle feeding approach where no less than 1.5% of body weight is fed in hay and affect slow weight loss or maintenance of the correct weight then you won’t need to worry about digestive health and with time and exercise, a mineral and nutritional balanced feeding approach will return your horse to metabolic health.

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