In the webinar titled “Choosing the Right Roughage for Horses: A Focus on Horse Nutrition,” Dr. Mariette van den Berg, an expert in equine nutrition and behavior, discusses the importance of selecting the appropriate roughage for horses. The webinar, hosted by Horse SA and supported by the Natural Resources Adelaide & Mount Lofty Ranges, provides valuable insights into the nutritional component of horse diets. Dr. Mariette van den Berg shares her background in animal equine science, her studies in the Netherlands on dietary transitions in racehorses, and her experiences integrating nutrition with property design in Australia. The main focus of the webinar delves into choosing hay for horses, emphasizing the significance of forages in a horse’s diet and discussing factors that influence their nutritional value. Other alternative fiber sources, strategies for encouraging foraging behavior, and considerations for feeding sugar-sensitive horses are also covered in the presentation. The webinar concludes by inviting questions from the audience, providing an opportunity for further engagement and knowledge-sharing.

Understanding Roughage and Its Importance in Horse’s Diet

Roughage refers to the coarse, fibrous material that makes up a significant portion of a horse’s diet. It primarily includes forages such as hay and grass, which are essential for maintaining optimal equine nutrition. Roughage plays a vital role in a horse’s digestive system, and its consumption offers numerous benefits that contribute to overall health and well-being.

Discussing the definition of roughage

Roughage, also known as dietary fiber, is composed of complex carbohydrates that cannot be digested by the horse’s small intestine. Instead, it passes into the hindgut, where microorganisms break it down through fermentation. This breakdown process produces volatile fatty acids that provide a valuable source of energy for the horse. Common sources of roughage include grasses, hays, and other forms of forage.

Explaining the role of roughage in equine nutrition

Roughage plays a crucial role in a horse’s nutrition as it aids in maintaining a healthy digestive system. The fibrous nature of roughage promotes proper gut motility, preventing issues such as colic and digestive discomfort. It also helps prevent the development of gastric ulcers, as the continuous chewing associated with consuming roughage stimulates saliva production, acting as a natural buffer against stomach acid. Additionally, roughage facilitates a slower rate of passage through the digestive system, ensuring optimal absorption of nutrients.

Outlining the benefits of roughage for horses

The consumption of roughage offers several benefits to horses. Firstly, it promotes dental health by providing a natural abrasive action against the teeth, helping to prevent dental issues and maintaining proper wear. Roughage also plays a critical role in weight management, as its bulky nature creates a feeling of fullness while providing fewer calories compared to concentrated feeds. Furthermore, fiber-rich diets contribute to stable blood sugar levels, reducing the risk of metabolic disorders such as insulin resistance and laminitis.

Ideal Roughage Intake for Horses

Minimum requirements for forage intake

Horses have a natural grazing instinct, and their digestive systems are designed to process forages continuously. As a general guideline, it is recommended that horses consume at least 1.5% to 2.5% of their body weight in forage per day. This equates to approximately 15 to 25 pounds of roughage for a 1000-pound horse. However, individual factors such as age, activity level, and overall health should also be considered when determining the specific roughage intake for a particular horse.

Factors influencing the quantity of roughage intake

Several factors can influence the quantity of roughage a horse consumes. One such factor is the availability of suitable pasture or hay. Horses that have limited access to high-quality forage may not meet their minimum roughage requirements. Additionally, the horse’s size, age, and workload play a role in determining roughage intake. Larger horses and those with increased activity levels will generally require a higher volume of roughage to meet their nutritional needs.

Consequences of inadequate roughage intake

Inadequate roughage intake can have detrimental effects on a horse’s health. Insufficient fiber in the diet can lead to poor digestive function, including issues such as impaction colic and digestive disturbances. Without enough roughage, horses may also develop unhealthy behaviors such as cribbing or wood-chewing, as they attempt to satisfy their natural chewing and foraging instincts. It is essential to ensure horses receive the appropriate amount of roughage to maintain optimal health and prevent digestive problems.

Different Types of Roughage for Horses

Description of various types of forages

There are various types of forages available for horses, each offering unique nutritional qualities and characteristics. The most common forms of forage include hay, grass, haylage, straw, chaff, and silage. Hay is a dried form of grass or legumes, such as timothy, alfalfa, or orchard grass, which is commonly fed to horses. Grass, on the other hand, comprises fresh pasture plants that are grazed by horses when available.

Haylage is a fermented forage that undergoes a different preservation process compared to hay. Straw, often used for bedding, is the dried stalks of wheat, barley, or oats, which can also be fed to horses but lacks the same nutritional value as other forms of forage. Chaff is a chopped or shredded form of hay, while silage is a moist, fermented feed made from grass or other crops. Each of these forages offers unique benefits and considerations when included in a horse’s diet.

Nutritional value of each type of forage

The nutritional value of different forages can vary significantly. Hay, for example, can be categorized into legume hay and grass hay, with legume hay, such as alfalfa, typically containing higher levels of protein and calcium compared to grass hay. Grass, when consumed fresh from pasture, can provide a good balance of essential nutrients, depending on the composition of the pasture and its management practices.

Haylage, as a fermented feed, can offer higher moisture content and more palatability compared to dry hay, while straw, although low in nutritional value, can still provide a source of fiber. Chaff can be a useful addition to a horse’s diet, as it can be mixed with concentrates or used to provide additional chewing time. Silage, being a fermented feed, may have variations in nutritional value depending on the crop used and the fermentation process.

Understanding haylage, straw, chaff, and silage

Haylage differs from dry hay in that it is baled at higher moisture levels, reducing the risk of mold or dust while retaining its nutritional value. Straw, while primarily used for bedding, can also be fed to horses, although its energy content is much lower compared to other forms of forage and should be used as a supplement rather than the primary roughage source.

Chaff, created by chopping or shredding hay into smaller pieces, can help slow down eating and increase foraging time, contributing to better digestion. Silage, produced by fermenting crops with lactic acid bacteria, offers a palatable and moist feed option, but it requires careful storage and management to avoid spoilage and maintain nutritional quality.

Factors Affecting Nutritional Value of Forages

Role of maturity of forage

The stage of maturity at which forage is harvested can significantly impact its nutritional value. Young, early-growth forages tend to contain higher protein levels, more digestible fiber, and increased levels of vitamins and minerals. As plants mature, their fiber content becomes tougher and less digestible, while protein content may decrease. Therefore, timing the harvest of forages is crucial to ensure optimal nutritional quality.

Importance of storage techniques

Proper storage techniques are vital for maintaining the nutritional value of forages. Hay, for example, should be stored in a dry and well-ventilated area to prevent mold growth and maintain its palatability. It is also important to protect hay from direct exposure to sunlight, as prolonged exposure can degrade its nutritional quality. Haylage and silage require specific storage methods, such as sealing, to prevent spoilage and maintain their nutritional integrity.

Impact of contamination on forage quality

Contamination can negatively affect the quality of forages, making them potentially harmful to horses. Common types of contamination include mold, dust, and toxic plants. Moldy hay can harbor harmful fungi, which can lead to respiratory issues or digestive disorders. Dusty forages can cause respiratory problems and irritate a horse’s airways. Additionally, certain plants, such as ragwort or blister beetles, can be toxic to horses if ingested inadvertently. It is crucial to ensure the forages fed to horses are free from any contaminants to avoid potential health risks.

Role of Carbohydrates in Forages

Different types of carbohydrates in roughage

Carbohydrates are an essential component of forages and contribute to a horse’s energy requirements. Forages contain both structural carbohydrates, including cellulose and hemicellulose, and non-structural carbohydrates, such as sugars and starches. Structural carbohydrates make up the bulk of the fiber content in roughage, providing horses with a source of fermentable energy. Non-structural carbohydrates, on the other hand, provide readily available energy but must be monitored to prevent excess consumption and associated health issues.

Understanding the analysis techniques for carbohydrate content

Analyzing the carbohydrate content of forages is crucial to determine the appropriate feeding program for horses. Laboratory analysis can provide valuable information on the levels of structural and non-structural carbohydrates present in different types of forage. Armed with this knowledge, horse owners and nutritionists can make informed decisions regarding the suitability of forages for individual horses based on their unique requirements, such as weight management or metabolic health.

Alternative Fiber Sources to Forage

Introducing copra meal and oil and seed hulls

In addition to traditional forages, there are alternative fiber sources that can be included in a horse’s diet. Copra meal, derived from the white meat of coconuts, is a highly digestible fiber source that offers a good balance of energy and nutrients. Oil and seed hulls, such as soybean hulls or rice bran, can also serve as fiber sources, contributing to the overall energy density of the diet while providing additional roughage.

Potential of these alternatives as supplements to forages

These alternative fiber sources can be used as supplements to traditional forages, particularly in situations where there may be limited availability or inadequate quality of forage. Including these alternatives in a horse’s diet can help maintain a healthy digestive system and provide additional calories and nutrients without relying solely on forages.

Feeding Considerations for Sugar-Sensitive Horses

Discussing low-glycemic index forages

Certain horses, such as those with metabolic conditions like insulin resistance or equine metabolic syndrome, may be sensitive to high levels of sugar or carbohydrates in their diet. For these horses, low-glycemic index forages, which contain limited amounts of sugars and starches, are beneficial. These forages provide a safer option for horses at risk of developing laminitis or other metabolic issues related to sugar intake.

Understanding the need for supplementation for sugar-sensitive horses

Sugar-sensitive horses may require special attention and supplementation to ensure their nutritional needs are met while minimizing the risk of metabolic problems. Supplementing their forage with additional low-glycemic index feeds or specialized supplements can help balance their diet, providing essential nutrients while minimizing sugar intake.

Encouraging Foraging Behavior in Horses

Importance of foraging behavior

Foraging is a natural behavior for horses, and allowing them to engage in this activity is beneficial for their overall well-being. Foraging behavior stimulates the horse’s digestive system, encourages natural chewing, and helps prevent boredom and behavioral issues that can arise from prolonged periods of inactivity. Engaging in foraging behavior also supports optimal gut motility and mental stimulation, contributing to a happy and healthy horse.

Strategies to encourage foraging behavior

There are several strategies to encourage foraging behavior in horses, even when access to pasture is limited. Providing slow-feeders or using small-mesh hay nets can help prolong feeding time while mimicking the natural grazing process. Dividing hay rations into multiple feedings throughout the day also encourages horses to spend more time engaged in the foraging activity. Additionally, offering pasture time whenever possible or providing turnout with access to appropriate forage sources can promote natural grazing behavior and enhance overall well-being.

Applying Permaculture Equine Permaculture Techniques

Understanding the concept of equine permaculture

Equine permaculture is an approach that combines sustainable land management principles and the natural behavioral patterns of horses. It involves creating an environment that simulates natural conditions and allows horses to exhibit their innate grazing and foraging behaviors. By utilizing permaculture techniques, horse owners can design their pastures and landscapes to provide a continuous supply of diverse and nutritious forage, reducing the reliance on external feed sources.

How permaculture equine permaculture can improve horse nutrition

The application of equine permaculture techniques can significantly improve horse nutrition. The implementation of rotational grazing systems allows pastures to rest and regenerate, ensuring a constant supply of fresh, nutrient-rich forage. This approach not only provides horses with a varied diet but also enhances soil health and biodiversity. When combined with appropriate pasture management practices, equine permaculture can contribute to the overall health and well-being of horses while reducing the need for additional roughage supplements.


In conclusion, understanding the importance of roughage in a horse’s diet is crucial for maintaining their overall health and well-being. Roughage, in the form of forages such as hay and grass, plays a vital role in equine nutrition by promoting proper digestion, dental health, and weight management. Factors such as minimum intake requirements, forage types, and nutritional value should be considered when creating a balanced diet for horses. By implementing strategies to encourage foraging behavior and exploring alternative fiber sources, horse owners can ensure their equine companions receive the nutrients they need while promoting natural behaviors. Additionally, employing equine permaculture techniques can further enhance horse nutrition by creating sustainable and diverse forage sources. Ultimately, making informed decisions about roughage selection and considering the unique requirements of individual horses are essential aspects of responsible horse ownership and the maintenance of optimal equine nutrition.