Many horse owners are aware of the usefulness of forage in horse diets these days, and the days of believing that forage acted only as ‘bulk’ in the gut are hopefully behind us. Horses extract useful levels of nutrients from forages, and some forages are very high in energy and protein.

Ideally all horse diets should be formulated by choosing the most appropriate forage and feeding it ad lib (if possible), then adding other feeds and supplements only to balance that forage.

Still, the science that has proved to us that even performance horses can thrive on very little or no concentrate feed – providing appropriate forage is given – and that their health and welfare will be better for more forage, is widely ignored.

Performance horses need plenty of forage if they are to stay healthy and perform optimally.
Performance horses need plenty of forage if they are to stay healthy and perform optimally.

Now, some researchers have shown that it’s not only adult performance horses who can thrive and perform well on forage-only rations.

Even young growing performance horses can be produced optimally on a forage-only diet, just like adult sports horses. Researchers in Sweden fed 16 yearling standardbred colts high energy grass haylage, alfalfa nuts and minerals, and monitored their growth, training response and health over a four month period. Their progress was then tracked over 2 years during which time they remained on the same diet, and began racing.

The horses maintained normal growth rates and good overall health, and had muscle glycogen levels within the normal range for growing athletic horses. The authors stated that such a diet would also reduce their risk of several health problems associated with a grain-based, starch-rich diet, including gastric ulcers, colic, and rhabdomylosis (tying up).

Researchers have shown that Standardbreds can be raised and raced successfully on forage-only diets (balanced with micronutrients).
Researchers have shown that Standardbreds can be raised and raced successfully on forage-only diets (balanced with micronutrients).

This research finding is exciting because it is the first evidence that young horses can be produced to race without feeding them grain, which is associated with an increased risk of a variety of health problems.

Don’t forget that forage-only diets do need to be balanced with minerals, and, if the forage is preserved, vitamins and minerals. Your horse will not be optimally healthy on just UK-forage, which is almost always short in zinc and copper and selenium, and, after preservation, also short in vitamins E and A. Feed a multi-vitamin and mineral product to balance the forage for all horses fed less than the full recommended amount of a compound feed.

Ringmark, S. et al, (2013) Growth, training response and health in Standardbred yearlings fed a forage-only diet. Animal, 7(5): 746-753

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About Clare MacLeod

Clare MacLeod MSc RNutr is one of the UK’s few registered independent equine nutritionists who also has expertise in health and fitness. She advises private and commercial clients in all sectors of the horse world and is a hands-on horse owner herself. Clare is passionate about correct nutrition as a foundation for good health, without which peak fitness is not possible. She states “Good nutrition isn’t everything, but there’s nothing without it”.