Horses are on a constant quest for fibre, spending much of their time grazing or eating hay or haylage. They do this to supply the gut with enough fibre to keep the billions of micro-organisms which reside in it with food. These micro-organisms, as they go about their vital work breaking down fibrous material, will supply the horse with around 70% of it’s energy, produce numerous vitamins, heal the gut wall, prevent ulcers and hind gut inflammation, defend against bad bacteria, allow minerals to be better absorbed and produce a good immune response. So, fibre and enough of it is vital for a healthy gut and therefore a healthy horse.
Because we micro-manage much of our horses daily lives by deciding when they graze and for how long, what type of grass they have access to and if they receive any supplementary feed, we have the responsibility to ensure the gut receives enough fibre. Quite often, due to space restrictions, our horse’s paddocks are over grazed with very short grass. Initially, this may be seen as an ideal situation because many horses require their access to lush plentiful grass to be restricted for the fear of weight gain or laminitis. However, because our horses are on a constant quest for enough fibre, they will strive to get enough of what they need even on very short grass. Research has shown that horses grazing on very short grass will take more bites per minute than horses on longer more stalky grass. This short grass will not be as healthy as longer grass, it will be under considerable stress, containing more sugar and less fibre than longer grass and so for laminitics or overweight horses this situation isn’t ideal. Therefore, I advise our customers to always provide extra forage in the field so horses can supplement their fibre intake with suitable high fibre, high dry matter forage which will contain less sugar and more fibre than the grass. This approach will also prevent horses from gorging on their hay or haylage net when they come in from the field or when supplementary forage is offered during winter months. This prevents over-eating as horses will not see extra forage as a novelty. Horses given free choice access to suitable forage will settle into a more relaxed attitude and will only eat as much as their gut’s require.
Stereotypical behaviours such as wind-sucking or crib biting can be attributed to lack of fibre in the diet. Wind sucking is believed to reduce gut discomfort, while crib biting could be an effort to consume extra fibre. This is a sure sign that the horse either has an imbalance in the gut biome or requires extra forage.
Furthermore, in the wild, horses will have access to a wide variety of herbs, shrubs and trees to supplement their fibre intake. This not only provides extra fibrous material but the phytonutrients that the different plants contain act to feed different populations of gut bacteria. Therefore, it’s a good idea to allow ‘weeds’ to grow in paddocks and permit horses to browse from hedgerows or if this is not an option you could cut suitable plants and branches yourself to feed. Popular, widely available species include willow, hazel, gorse flowers, hawthorn, cleavers, nettle, thistle, dandelion and plantain.
Remembering that horses are on a constant quest for fibre, helps us to understand why preventing a horse from eating for long periods of time (for instance over-night when stabled, whilst in bare paddocks or when travelling long distances) is, on a hormonal and cellular level incredibly stressful for them. Their quest for fibre is a survival mechanism and if fibre is lacking, their survival is threatened. When fibre is lacking, inflammatory hormones are produced, causing damage on a cellular level, if left unchecked this can manifest in long term heath complications and behavioural issues.
At Devon Haylage we truly understand what horses need from their diet and how their owners require a convenient, high quality, competitively priced and trusted forage source. We believe our haylage provides this. We produce four distinct types of haylage, so there is something suitable for all types of horse or pony from competition horses to laminitic Shetlands all with consistent high quality and backed up with annual in-depth nutritional analyses. We also understand how hard it can be to obtain a regular supply of a suitable forage with proven nutrition, so if you can’t find our haylage in a local stockist then we can ship by the pallet anywhere in the country. I am always available to give advice either on the phone or by email, because your passion is also our passion.