Home / Dr. Carleys Blog /Forage is the biggest part of your horse’s diet, and the most important too.
Forage is the biggest part of your horse’s diet, and the most important too.

A large horse eats approx 3 to 3.5 ton (dry weight) of forage each year – that’s a lot of grass and hay! Now you know why you spend so much of your time poo picking and mucking out! Forage is the biggest part of your horse’s diet, and the most important too, as it provides the long stem high fibre needed to keep your horse munching away for an average 16 hours out of every 24, trickle feeding through the digestive system and maintaining healthy gut functions. Here we focus on grazing (we’ll talk about hay in another post). Horses evolved for tens of thousands of years to eat grasses and browse herbage. The cecum (hindgut) contains thousands of strains of bacteria, yeast, fungi, protozoa in carefully balanced proportions – fermenting the fibre, breaking down your horse’s food, and playing a fundamental role in your horse’s immune system, metabolism, behaviour and all aspects of health. Get the balance of gut microbes wrong and it will have an impact on your horse’s health and behaviour. So if you have a spooky horse – don’t reach for the calmers – think about what your horse is eating first! The latest research shows horses that regularly colic, or have laminitis, etc have a different balance of gut microbes to healthy horses. So we need to feed the ‘good’ microbes in the right proportions and keep the ‘bad’ microbes at bay. To do this, its not as simple as ‘adding a few probiotics’ to the feed – we have to look at the whole food chain. A healthy horse contains healthy microbes. Healthy microbes flourish on healthy forage. Healthy forage is grown on healthy soil. So healthy soil is the keystone to your horse’s health – especially if you graze and cut hay from the same land as all of your horse’s forage is then grown on the same soils. Weedkillers, fungicides and many other pesticides (the use of which has increased significantly since year 2000) don’t just kill ‘weeds’ and fungus on the plants. They kill good microbes too – exactly the ones living in your horse’s guts that you don’t want to be killed. Many weedkillers bind minerals tightly, making them inaccessible to the plants and your horse. You can feed extra minerals to try and compensate, but you can’t mineral balance if you don’t know what weedkillers are present and which minerals they are preferentially binding to!

So how can you keep your paddocks clean of unwanted weeds, full of the right type of healthy grasses and herbs, with bioavailable minerals, keep your horses out 24/7, and not end up with poached, rank, horse soured land? How can you grow good wholesome meadow grasses on limited acres, that provides balanced nutrition for your horse, and not chemically forced monoculture grasses so rich and unbalanced that your horse goes foot sore even after grazing it for just a few hours?

Here at Thunderbrook, this is exactly what we have learnt, and continue to learn, because surrounded by arable farming and on poor sandy soil, we face the hardest of challenges. We keep a herd of (currently 9) horses from Oct to July each year, on approx 6 acres of grazing with 24 hour turn out for all but the stallions, with no use of chemical fertilisers or weedkillers. We use only wood based bedding (no pesticide coated straw or chaff beddings) and feed only certified organic hay, to produce an organic muck heap. Each year our well rotted muck heap is top spread over a third of our grass paddocks, spread quite thickly as you can see from the photos. The frost and heat from the winter sun quickly work their magic, breaking the compost down, then it is chain harrowed and a couple of heavy rain storms later, it soaks in. We then top dress the paddocks each year with a mixture of seed (old fashioned meadow grasses, deep rooted to suit our soil, plus herbs) which all helps to choke out the weeds such as ragwort, dock, buttercup, etc. Even with just 6 acres of grazing, we cross graze with sheep. This stops the formation of long rank grass in ‘poo areas’, keeps thistles, nettles and other weeds down, and lowers the worm burden on the land. Sheep and horses are susceptible to different parasitic worms, so cross grazing is ideal. Here at Thunderbrook we haven’t chemically wormed our herd since 2008 (we regularly test for egg counts, tapeworm) and use our own VermCleanse herbal mix as a digestive cleanser. Whilst all this paddock maintenance is going on through the winter and early spring, the horses and sheep are fed organic meadow hay – grown in exactly the same way as how we manage our fields – using organic animal manures to slow release goodness into the soil and feed the grasses and herbs. Our horses range from 9 to 28 years old. Four of our horses are in their twenties. Despite severe problems in the past when we chemically managed our land and fed processed horse feeds, we now have NO laminitis, NO lameness from absessing, NO cushings, NO footsoreness, NO mudfever (despite lots of mud in the winter turnout areas), NO horses on joint supplements, NO sweet itch in summer. This post is not about selling you horse feed, its about sharing our experience of how chemically managing your land can affect your horses health.

This type of land management may not be possible for everyone – especially for liveries who have limited control over how the land is managed. If so, aim to cut out the chemical exposure as much as possible. Never graze paddocks when chemical fertilisers (powders and granules in sacks) are being applied. Wait until there have been plenty of heavy rain showers to wash the granules in, the grass has grown rich, been cut or grazed by other livestock before grazing horses on it. Just following the ‘livestock can graze a week after applying’ on the label is irrelevant if you don’t have any rain to wash the chemicals into the ground. If your hay is produced with chemical fertilisers, either test to ensure nitrate levels are not high, or soak hay to help remove excess water soluble chemicals, sugars, etc. What you will find though is the time and money spent managing your paddocks more naturally is more than paid back with fewer vet bills, less hard feed bills, and more time spent enjoying problem free horses. Please share this post – knowledge is key and that last bit of the jigsaw puzzle, where despite everything you do, you just can’t keep your horse’s feet healthy, may just have fallen into place 

This blog is part of an archived library.  These blogs were originally written from 2009 through to 2014, so some are over a decade old (apologies the exact dates have been lost on website updates).  Research and informed opinions are a constantly evolving stream of work, so there will always be updates required to any older blog post, research paper, etc.  For the latest information, please email info@thunderbrook.co.uk or telephone 01953 797050 for nutritional advice.  Thank you. 

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