Choosing forages for horses

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Written By: Jennifer Earing, PhD, University of Minnesota

Forage selection should be based on horse needs, as there is no one forage best suited for all classes of horses. For example, providing a nutrient-dense forage like vegetative alfalfa hay to ‘easy keepers’ can create obesity issues; however, that same hay would be a good option for a performance horse with elevated nutrient requirements. With so many forages available, how does one choose? Differences in the nutritive quality of forages (hay or pasture) are largely based on two factors: plant maturity and species.


Regardless of plant species, stage of maturity significantly affects forage quality. Young, vegetative forages are very nutrient dense and contain fewer fibrous carbohydrates (hemicellulose, cellulose, and lignin). As the plant matures (flowers and seed heads are indicators of maturity), the proportion of fiber in the plant increases, to provide structural support as the plant gets larger. The increased level of lignin associated with maturation interferes with the digestion of cellulose and hemicellulose by hindgut microorganisms, thereby reducing the digestibility of the forage. More mature forages also have lower energy and protein levels than their immature counterparts. Most horses do well on mid-maturity forages; horses with elevated nutrient requirements benefit from receiving young, less mature forages, while more mature forages are be best suited for ‘easy keepers’.

Legumes vs. cool-season grasses


Legumes (i.e. alfalfa and forages) generally produce higher quality forage than cool-season grasses (i.e. orchardgrass, timothy, bromegrass, bluegrass and fescues); if baled at the same maturity. Often, legumes have higher energy, protein, and mineral (specifically calcium) content when compared to grasses at a similar stage of maturity, and are typically more digestible and more palatable. Legumes are an excellent source of nutrients for horses; however, a horse’s nutrient requirements can easily be exceeded when fed immature legumes. Consumption of excess nutrients, particularly energy, may result in obesity. Legume-grass mixes or mid- to late-maturity legumes (less nutrient-dense) often provide adequate nutrients, without exceeding the horse’s requirements. Average nutritive values of forages commonly fed to horses are shown in Table 1.

The digestive system of the horse has been designed to efficiently utilize forages, and most horses can fulfill their nutrient requirements on these types of diets. Matching the nutrient levels in the forage to the nutrient requirements of the horse is one of the primary goals in forage selection. A variety of factors, including plant species and maturity should be considered when making this decision.

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Table 1. General nutrient characteristics of forages commonly fed to horses

Nutrient Cool-season grasses Legumes
Digestible energy (Mcal/kg) 1.7-2.5 2-2.5
Crude protein (%) 6-18 14-26
Neutral detergent fiber (%) 55-65 35-45
Acid detergent fiber (%) 30-40 30-40
Calcium (%) 0.25-0.5 0.8-1.5
Phosphorus (%) 0.2-0.4 0.2-0.35
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