Does forage matter when building condition?

12th August 2020

Some horses do not maintain weight easily and it can prove a real challenge to keep them in good condition. These “poor-doers” require more energy and protein to maintain and build body condition. When energy and protein are not provided in sufficient levels in the diet, the horse will begin to use its own muscle tissues and fat reserves, resulting in weight loss and loss of muscle mass. Our first reaction may be to reach for larger quantities of hard feed in these cases, but it is important not to forget the significant contribution forage makes towards energy and protein in the overall diet, as well as its role in maintenance of a healthy hindgut and digestive functionality.

Forage is one of the most important and safest energy sources for horses.  It is important to remember that the horse is a nonruminant herbivore or hindgut-fermenter. The equine digestive system has evolved over millions of years for continuous intake and digestion of often poor-quality forages. They have a highly developed hindgut that contains billions of microorganisms that break down (ferment), digest, and utilize fiber from forage to provide energy and micronutrients [1]. The fibrous portion of forage consists of mostly cellulose, hemicellulose (digestible fiber) and lignin (indigestible fiber) which are resistant to enzymatic digestion in the small intestine and must undergo microbial fermentation in the hindgut. This fermentation process produces volatile fatty acids (VFAs), which are an important energy source for horses, as well as essential amino acids and vitamins. Volatile Fatty Acids are used directly as an energy source or converted into fat and stored as glycogen in muscle and liver cells as energy reserves. Fiber can supply a horse with up to 70% of their digestible energy requirements.

Enough forage in the diet is very important for digestive function as well as physical and psychological health. The horse has a limited capacity to digest starch due to their lack of amylase, an enzyme that breaks down starch. When horses eat a large volume grain meal in one sitting, undigested starch passes through to the large intestine where it is fermented by bacteria that produce lactic acid as product of fermentation. Lactic acid reduces the pH in the hindgut and makes the environment more acidic. The fiber fermenting bacteria die due their sensitivity to a low pH environment, whilst the lactic acid-producing bacteria thrive due to their ability to survive in acidic environments.  This further decreases the pH in the hindgut which in worst case scenarios can lead to acidosis, laminitis, and colic due to the toxins produced when the fiber degrading bacteria die [2].  This is why it is so important to ensure horses are provided with enough good quality forage throughout the day in addition to their concentrate meals. It helps maintain hindgut health, increase fiber fermentation, and produce VFAs to provide energy for condition.   

Forages sources

Some horses will maintain weight well on forage alone, but some horses will require more energy to build condition. While forages such as pasture, hay, and chaff are recognized sources of fiber, there are other forages that can be used to help build and maintain condition.

Sugar beet is commonly referred to as a “super-fibre” because it contains high amounts of digestible fiber, mostly pectin, which is more digestible than other fiber sources commonly found in hay. For example, hay is 40-60% digestible while sugar beet is approximately 80% digestible. Additionally, the energy value of sugar beet is similar to cereals such as oats and barley, but the sugar value is low (often less than 5% if unmolassed), making it a high energy feed, suitable for the vast majority of horses and ponies. Several studies have demonstrated the superior fermentation qualities of sugar beet [4,6]. Research has shown that the protein within sugar beet is readily fermented in the hindgut by bacteria into individual amino acids (building blocks of protein). The bacteria then reabsorb these amino acids, increasing their productivity and stimulating fermentation, effectively acting as a natural pre-biotic [7].

Legumes such as alfalfa and sainfoin are also great fiber sources for those that need to build condition. They are very digestible and therefore have a high energy content making them ideal for those that have difficulty maintain weight. The protein content is also higher in legumes such as alfalfa and sainfoin than other grass forages and is also a good source of quality protein. Alfalfa contains approximately 16-20% protein, while grass hay may have anywhere between 4-12%. Providing good quality protein will provide essential amino acids (build blocks of protein) which will support protein synthesis and muscle function.  Adding alfalfa will increase the total amount of protein in the diet and can be beneficial for those requiring a higher energy, higher protein diet such as performance, growing and lactating horses. Studies have also shown that adding alfalfa or sugar beet to the diet improves the digestibility of other fiber sources, which enhances VFA production and enhances the energy absorbed from the gut [8,9], making them a great feedstuff when building condition in horses.

Forage Analysis

Analyzing your forage is useful and can help you understand what your forage is providing, how much you need to feed, and if any additional concentrate feeds or supplements need to be added to the ration to help build condition in your horse.

Dry Matter (DM): represents everything in the sample other than water, the DM contains all the nutrients (protein, fiber, and fat). If the DM content is low, the moisture is high, therefore the horse would need to consume more to reach daily DM requirement. Horses need to consume at least 1.5% of their bodyweight daily as DM.

Digestible Energy (DE): The energy (calories) that is digested and absorbed by the horse. Energy requirements for those that need to build condition or those that are working hard are higher, therefore knowing the DE of your forage is useful to enable you to maintain/build weight.

Crude Protein (CP): Estimation of total protein. Knowing the protein content is very useful when formulating a diet to help build condition. Protein is a vital nutrient necessary for the growth and repair of cells and body tissues. Typical crude protein values found in hay vary between 4-12% and 9-15% in haylage, values will vary according to growth. That said, even the best quality grass hay is often deficient in some essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) that must be included in the horse’s diet. But legumes such as alfalfa and sainfoin, as well as linseed, are all high-quality protein sources providing these essential amino acids.

Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF): Measurement of the structural part of the plant and has low digestibility. The higher the NDF, the less digestible the forage is; however, it is important to have some level of NDF to maintain gut health.  Approximately 40-50% NDF content is considered ideal for performance horses, youngstock and broodmares. NDF content of 60% or more has little nutritional value and will not be consumed by most horses. The NDF values on a forage analysis is useful to determine whether a hay is appropriate for your horse. Used in conjunction with other analysis results, it provides a more complete picture of a forage’s nutritional profile.

Forage products in our range to build condition

KwikBeet is an umolassed sugar beet flake providing digestible fiber and energy to help maintain and build weight. It is also useful for horses that have dental problems and cannot eat enough forage to fulfil their requirements. Horses need to stay well hydrated for optimal organ and metabolic function, as well as to maintain healthy gut motility. KwikBeet is a great way to increase water intake, creating a holding tank of water and electrolytes in the hindgut which helps maintain gut health and prevent dehydration, especially in exercising horses.

Alfalfa Oil Plus is a great addition to the diet. This palatable chaff is a good source of slow release, digstble energy and quilaty protein for condition. It has added rapeseed oil to provide additional calories, each kilogram has 12.5MJ of energy and 14% protein, but only 3% stach and sugar making it a great, slow release, safe conditioning fibre ot add to the horse’s diet.

Fiber Fusion is a low starch high oil blend of superfibres, using a uniqe combination of alfalfa, sainfoin and grass chaff. It also includes a belnd of MOS prebiotic, ActiSaf Yeast probiotic, and our unique Fibre Plus Complex - together support hingut function, maintain pH, increase fermentation capacity and nutrient uptake. It is very digestible and a good source or quality protein and ideal for those needng a nutrient dense fibre to build condition.

1. Ellis, A. D., & Hill, J. (2005). Nutritional physiology of the horse. Nottingham University Press.
2. Al Jassim, R. A., & Andrews, F. M. (2009). The bacterial community of the horse gastrointestinal tract and its relation to fermentative acidosis, laminitis, colic, and stomach ulcers. Veterinary Clinics: Equine Practice, 25(2), 199-215.
3. Julliand, V., De Fombelle, A., Drogoul, C., & Jacotot, E. (2001). Feeding and microbial disorders in horses: Part 3—Effects of three hay: grain ratios on microbial profile and activities. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 21(11), 543-546.
4. De Fombelle, A., Varloud, M., Goachet, A. G., Jacotot, E., Philippeau, C., Drogoul, C., & Julliand, V. (2003). Characterization of the microbial and biochemical profile of the different segments of the digestive tract in horses given two distinct diets. Animal Science, 77(2), 293-304.
5. Moore-Colyer, M. J. S., & Longland, A. C. (2000). Intakes and in vivo apparent digestibilities of four types of conserved grass forage by ponies. Animal Science, 71(3), 527-534.
6. Coverdale, J. A., Moore, J. A., Tyler, H. D., & Miller-Auwerda, P. A. (2004). Soybean hulls as an alternative feed for horses. Journal of animal science, 82(6), 1663-1668.
7. Murray, J. A. M., Longland, A., Hastie, P. M., Moore-Colyer, M., & Dunnett, C. (2008). The nutritive value of sugar beet pulp-substituted lucerne for equids. Animal Feed Science and Technology, 140(1-2), 110-124.
8. Prandi, B., Baldassarre, S., Babbar, N., Bancalari, E., Vandezande, P., Hermans, D., ... & Sforza, S. (2018). Pectin oligosaccharides from sugar beet pulp: Molecular characterization and potential prebiotic activity. Food & function, 9(3), 1557-1569.
9. Murray, J. A. M., Longland, A., & Moore-Colyer, M. (2006). In vitro fermentation of different ratios of high-temperature dried lucerne and sugar beet pulp incubated with an equine faecal inoculum. Animal feed science and technology, 129(1-2), 89-98.
10. Jensen, R. B., Brøkner, C., Bach Knudsen, K. E., & Tauson, A. H. (2010). A comparative study of the apparent total tract digestibility of carbohydrates in Icelandic and Danish Warmblood horses fed two different haylages and a concentrate consisting of sugar beet pulp and black oats. Archives of Animal Nutrition, 64(5), 343-356.

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