Horses bodies are designed to eat grass. Thousands of years of evolution has ensured their digestive system is perfectly formed for roughage. Over the last few hundred years we have limited their access to grass by putting up fences, we have domesticated them and stabled them. I talked about this in my 'Horse Ancestry' blog back in October. This means that we need to replace the fresh grass their bodies are used to - but this should still be with roughage!
Hay is dried cut grass. It is the essential part of a stabled horses diet and for horses and ponies living out all year round. In the winter months grass doesn't grow, many years ago the wild herds would have moved around freely to find more grazing. We have limited this and so their fields will quickly become bare. This is where hay is essential. The grass is cut and then left to dry, turned a few times until it is 80% dry. It is then baled either in small or large bales.
Small bales are easier to handle, but many farmers produce either the larger bales ....
................. or the round bales, nowadays.
Hay should be of good quality, never use inferior quality hay for horses or ponies - always buy the best you can afford!
There are 2 types of hay suitable for feeding to horses and ponies.
- Grasses for seed hay are grown specifically for hay as an annual crop and will contain top quality plants eg: rye grass
- Seed hay is suitable for horses in hard work as it is nutritious
- Seed hay is usually free of weeds and poisonous plants
- It is tougher and so more difficult to digest than meadow hay
- It is more expensive than meadow hay
- It also needs storing for 6 - 12 months before use as new seed hay can cause digestive problems such as diarrhoea.
- Meadow hay is cut from pasture, so grass that is there year in, year out
- Grasses are allowed to grow naturally and therefore usually contains more variety of plants
- It may also contain some inferior grasses
- The grass is allowed to go to seed before cutting. The hay is therefore softer and sweeter and may be more palatable
- It is suitable for all horses
- It is less expensive than seed hay
- It should be stored for about 6 months before being fed
- Meadow hay is often greener than seed hay.
So, how do you recognise good hay from poor hay?
There are a few points to check -
- Smell,Good quality hay will smell clean, sweet
Inferior hay may be sour, tangy, musty, damp and mouldy.
- Colour,Good hay will vary between green-brown and
Inferior hay may be colourless, dark brown or black. Hay with white or black areas is hay that has overheated because it was not dry when baled and should not be fed. Very green hay is too new to feed and may cause digestive problems.
- Feel,Good hay is dry and crisp.
Inferior hay may be wet, damp, slimy or dusty.
- Dust,Good quality hay will be as free of dust as
Inferior hay may be dusty and powdery.
- Content,Good hay will not contain any poisonous
plants and will have good quality grasses.
Inferior hay will have weeds, may have poisonous plants and inferior quality grasses.
- Taste,Good hay is sweet and chewy.
Poor hay is sour, musty and bitter.
Hay quality depends on several factors; the soil it is grown on, the land, grassland management, time of year it is cut, weather conditions and storage. Hay quality will vary from year to year because it depends on the weather!
Hay replacements have been developed over the years for horses with Respiratory problems and because of the unpredictability of the weather!
- Is vacuum packed semi-wilted grass
- Haylage was produced to combat respiratory problems in horses caused by dust and fungal spores
- It is completely dust free
- Haylage is made up of the best quality grasses, usually ryegrass or alfalfa mixtures
- It is of consistently good quality
- Grass is cut and baled within a matter of days so it only partially dries, it is 50% dry, bales are compressed to half their size, vacuum packed and sealed to exclude air.
- The grass will then ferment, preserving the nutrient levels and giving haylage its rich golden colour, sweet smell and taste
- Haylage can be stored (un-opened) for a year or more. However, once opened, or torn so that air can get in, the haylage will deteriorate within 5 days
- Haylage provides the bulk in a diet and is far more nutritious than normal hay so in theory can be fed in smaller quantities
- This makes it ideal for horses in hard work, who are unable to eat large amounts of roughage
- It is expensive, usually about twice the price of hay
- Horses are designed to eat almost continuously, if you feed less because you use haylage and not hay then it is likely your horse will spend a considerable amount of time not eating - is this good for their digestive systems?
How to feed Hay
Hay can be fed dry, but there are some horses (Fidget included) who develop respiratory problems when fed dry hay. Hay contains fungal spores, when these are inhaled through the nostrils it can cause an allergic reaction. Some horses may develop a simple cough, some nasal discharge and some respiratory problems and damage to the lungs. Fidget gets a slight cough and if fed dry hay for a long period will develop problems with his breathing - obviously he is not fed dry hay!
Hay can be moistened which will cause the fungal spores to swell, they then become too large to pass into the lungs, the spores also tend to stick to the hay stems instead of being inhaled. To moisten the hay there are a couple of options:
- Soaking: Hay can be soaked for a few hours or overnight, however, this will also wash some of the nutrients out of the hay. If left for too long the hay may begin to smell sour and some horses refuse to eat it. To soak hay it is put into a haynet and then put into a container which is then filled with water
- Steaming: Fewer nutrients are lost with steaming. To do this place the haynet in a rubber or plastic container and pour boiling water over it, cover the container and leave to cool.
At the moment I soak Fidget's hay because this fits best with my routine and he is a good doer and doesn't seem to miss the nutrients. However, steaming may be an option I look into more in the future.
There are different ways to feed hay to horses either in the stable or in the field.
Haynets are an economical, convenient and hygienic method. These are available in different sizes and colours with different size holes.
Nets with smaller holes will make the hay last longer as the horses cannot take as big mouthfulls of hay. These are therefore good with haylage!
- Haynets make it easier to weigh hay
- It is less wasteful than feeding hay off the floor
- Haynets are easier to carry
- Haynets are convenient when travelling as they can be attached to trailers and horseboxes
- Haynets can be used in the field if tied to a fence high enough from the floor
- It is hygienic because it keeps the hay off the floor but does not allow the spores and dust to get into a horses eyes
- Haynets can be tied at varying heights to suit all horses and ponies
- Birds and vermin cannot live in haynets
- Damping and steaming can be achieved more efficiently
- But Haynets are heavy when wet
- If not correctly tied they can become tangled in horses legs and cause injury
- Haynets can be damaged and need repairing or replacing (baler twine is good for this).
Filling haynets can be tricky and take a bit of practise. There is equipment available designed to help with this....
..... but I don't find it any easier using these.
Separate a wedge/cake/slice of hay from the bale, hold the net at the top and open the neck as wide as possible, slide the hay as far into the net as far as possible, then repeat until the required amount of hay is in the net. Tighten the string. You can use a dustbin in the same way as the filler above, by stretching the net over it and then placing the hay inside!
Weighing hay is easy if you have some hanging weigh scales suspended from a nail or hook!
Tying up a haynet is important, and ensuring it is high enough is essential. The haynet must be tied high enough so that when it is empty the horse will not be able to put his foot through it. The haynet should be tied directly to the securing ring and not to string or baler twine which may break.
Pull the string through the ring as far as possible,
then keeping the net steady with your knee (or body) place the end of the string through a lower part of the net.
Pull the string back up as high as possible and secure with a quick release knot (the same as is used to tie up). Turn the net around so that the knot is against the wall - I find the horses move it around anyway so this bit tends to be pointless! If your horse is a bit crafty he may learn how to pull the loose end so I tend to tuck it back through the loop.
Other ways to feed hay include feeding from the floor, which of course is a more natural way to feed but is wasteful and less hygienic because the horses often spread it around the box and may pass droppings on the pile!
Feeding from the floor in the field is also quite wasteful but it is safer. By putting piles of hay a good distance apart even if there is a bully in the field it is likely that each horse will be able to eat.
Hayracks are another option but these tend to be high up which makes it difficult to get the hay in but also can allow hay seeds and spores to get into the horses eyes. This is also an unnatural position for them to feed. Vermin and birds have been known to nest in these too and often old hay is left inside to go mouldy.
A modern version of these racks has been introduced which allows the horse to feed in a more natural position but the problems of leaving mouldy hay and vermin still exist and they are not easy to clean out.
In the field hayracks are an economical and efficient way of feeding hay. Providing it is appropriately placed to avoid the ground becoming too poached and that a horse does not get bullied into a corner. However, a bully could still ensure another horse does not get near the rack.
As the owner of an accident prone horse (Basil) I can see all sorts of problems with this and he would be practically guaranteed to get his leg caught in this rack. However, the one below would be perfect ....
... so I may put one of these on my Christmas list!
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Until next time!