By Vicki Glasgow

Nutritionist Harbro Limited

Winter is now officially here and unless you are very lucky to have acres of winter grazing – a high proportion of your horse’s diet will be provided by conserved forage.

Fibre digestion

The horse’s digestive system is designed to process forage and lots of it. Around 60% of the horse’s digestive capacity is in the large intestine (caecum, colon and rectum). The large intestine is host to a large population of good bugs whose main function is to achieve microbial fermentation of fibre in the ‘hind gut’. The way that the horse’s digestive tract is designed means that, in order to maintain correct digestive tract function, horses must receive a minimum of 1% of their body weight daily as long-stem fibre. This is an absolute minimum and 2%-2.5% would be more appropriate in the majority of cases.

Quality and quantity

Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell the energy value of hay or haylage by looking at it. Good eating quality and nutrition do not necessarily go hand in hand. It is possible to have hay analysed for energy and sugar values before you buy and this is very worthwhile if you are buying a significant portion of your hay from the same supplier and from the same field and cut. If your hay tends to come from multiple sources then the only way of really telling the nutritional quality of your hay is whether your horse holds condition well on it or not. If you are looking for high energy forage for poor doers then generally speaking, haylage is a better bet. This is due to the fact that haylage is generally cut earlier in the year (when the sugar content is higher) and is usually cut from high sugar grass variety swards (e.g. rye grass).

It is worth bearing in mind however, that some haylage will be later cut and therefore good quality hay may have a better nutritional value. There are of course branded, low sugar, haylages available with accompanying analysis, which may be useful for sugar intolerant horses and ponies. This year’s hay in general seems to be of a lesser nutritional value (lower sugars and energy) than last year, this should be helpful to those with good doers but keep a close eye on horses that struggle to hold condition during the winter.

Feeding haylage

Although the nutritional quality of haylage may be generally better, it is imperative that more is fed on a weight basis compared to hay as approximately 40% of haylage is water as compared to 20% for hay.

Feed about one and a quarter times as much haylage as hay, and make sure that your horse is not standing for hours on end with an empty haynet as this can lead to digestive upsets and behavioural problems.

It is often better to work out your exchange from hay to haylage on a volume for volume basis, although this can in itself be difficult to judge. It is better to offer too much to start with and be sure that your horse is receiving true ad-lib access.

Remember to introduce haylage gradually, if your horse is used to hay, by making the swap over period over at least a week. Some horses do not do well on haylage as some bales can be quite acidic and will upset their digestive system. Supplements are available to help with this but in general it is better to remove the source of the problem and put the horse back on hay if at all possible.


The majority of horses should be fed ad-lib hay. If the hay is of good quality many horses will not need much in the way of a concentrate feed (if any) as the hay will meet the majority, if not all, of their requirements, except for vitamins, minerals and sometimes quality protein. This can be provided by feeding a good quality chaff along with a good general purpose vitamin & mineral supplement (check out Harbro One Scoop) or a balancer pellet. If at this stage the horse still needs more energy for condition or extra work etc then this can be provided via hard feed.

Good doers

If you have a good doer now is the time to achieve that crucial winter weight loss. This can be tricky with reduced exercise, possibly reduced turnout time and grass that won’t stop growing!

Firstly hay should only be supplemented in the field to good doers if there is no grass at all or there has been a large amount of ice/snow. Do remember that good doers that are given unfettered access to hay can and will get fat. Hay fed to good doers should, where possible be fed via a “slow feeder” net or feeder.

Hay types

If hay is required then try to find a source of hay with a low sugar/energy content. Look for hay that has been cut late and looks coarser and more fibrous, also look for hay that has a higher percentage of timothy grass rather than rye grass.

This will hopefully mean that there are less sugars in the hay and, therefore, less energy. As stated above, however, this is no guarantee and analysis is the only way to know for sure. Another option, and possibly the safest is to soak hay for good doers to leach out the majority of the sugars. This should be done for four hours minimum and preferably 12 hours.

This can become a difficult task once the frost etc comes in but as long as it is soaked when weather permits it will make a difference.

Remember that soaked hay not only has the sugar leached out it also suffers from a loss of vitamins and minerals, so supplementation is necessary. There is also the option of a branded low sugar haylage, as mentioned previously, when soaking becomes impossible.

Remember where possible to use small holed hay nets to reduce intake. There are also small holed, big bale nets available and these can prevent good doers gorging themselves in the field and help prevent wastage.

Please also remember that there should always be a supply of good clean, unfrozen water available but it becomes particularly important when feeding high levels of dry forage.