T.R.E.E.S. Traveller's Rest Equine Elders Sanctuary

 Feeding Hay to Elders


Most equine senior feeds are described as "complete feeds."  The term "complete feed" implies that a horse can maintain good health on that feed alone.  While there are some Toothless Wonders that are physically unable to eat anything but a soaked complete feed, all horses require roughage to maintain optimal gut function and good health.   Insufficient roughage is a common cause of soft droppings in elderly horses.  Many dentally challenged horses live happily for years on a diet of only "complete feeds," but there is nothing like good ol' roughage to keep things moving along in a healthy manner. 


The most common sources of roughage for horses are pasture and baled hay, although beet pulp, alfalfa or hay cubes, and bagged chopped forage are viable options in many circumstances.


For horses just beginning to experience dental problems, choice of hay and the manner in which it is presented can mean the difference between eating the hay or "quidding" (wadding the hay into balls, then spitting it out.)  First cutting grass hays and alfalfa hays are usually quite coarse and stemmy.   Second cutting grass hays are generally very leafy, with few stalks or seed heads, and easier to chew. 


When serving hay to elders, it sometimes helps to "shake out" the flakes or books.  A loose pile of individual strands allows a horse to pick up smaller mouthfuls than a compacted hay flake permits.  (One disadvantage, however, to loose hay piles is their tendency to travel long distances on windy days.  Choose a sheltered location when possible.)


Placement of hay can be very important when feeding several horses in one field.  Divide the hay into more portions than there are horses, and place the portions several horse lengths apart.  Appropriate spacing of enough hay piles ensures that timid or weak horses will have access to their share.



The horses shown grazing above have voluntarily chosen approximately three body lengths each as their comfort zones.  Placing hay portions in a comparable pattern ensures all three can eat in comfort.




In the photo below, the two mares on the left are young, dominant animals who are very comfortable with each other.  The mare on the right is a more timid elderly animal.  She needs a greater space around her to eat in a relaxed manner.  (Note the loosely piled hay as mentioned above.) 




Spacing numerous hay piles some distance apart has a second benefit.  It allows horses to mimic the meandering fashion in which they graze.  Horses wander from one pile of hay to another just as they wander from one patch of grass to the next.  It is unnatural for a horse to stand in one spot to eat for long periods of time.  The horse's digestive system evolved to serve an animal "on the move," and functions best when he is allowed generous opportunity to perform that movement at will. 


More information on hay and forage


Choosing Hay for Horses - University of Kentucky

Evaluating Hay For Horses: Myths and Realities

Forage Information System - Oregon State University - information on species, varieties, grazing, hay, and silage systems, management, quality and testing, and livestock utilization.

Frequently Asked Questions about Hay - Extension.org

Graze Aanatomy - Handling horses on a small acreage
Hay for the Surburban Pleasure Horse -University of Illinois Extension

Healthy Land and Healthy Horses -smallfarm.org "Yes, it is possible to have too many horses if you have limited land."

How To Select Quality Hay - NC State University Cooperative Extension

Managing Fescue for Horses - University of Arkansas

Managing Forages and Horses - University of Illinois Extension


Selecting Quality Hay for Horses - Purdue University

Timothy Hay for Horses - Canadian Hay Association

Trends in Horse Hay

Using Forage Analysis Reports - NC State University Cooperative Extension



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NOTE:  Material presented by Traveller's Rest Equine Elders Sanctuary on equineelders.org or in any other manner is for information purposes only.  It is in no way intended to replace the services or advice of your veterinarian.