How much roughage does a horse need?

Roughage is the basis of a horse’s ration. It may consist of grass, hay or silage. Sufficient fibrous roughage is needed to keep your horse healthy. But why is it so important and what exactly is ‘sufficient’ roughage? 


In the wild, horses roam in search of food, covering considerable distances. The wild horse’s ration consists mainly of grasses, supplemented with herbs and seeds. To gain enough energy and nutrients from these, the horse eats 14 to 16 hours a day. The gastrointestinal tract is therefore geared towards a continuous supply of small quantities of fibrous food. For domestic horses it is not always possible to forage for 14 to 16 hours a day, but it is important to create a situation that is as natural as possible. If this does not happen, various health issues could arise such as dental problems, ulcers or colic. 


As mentioned above, a horse spends much of the day collecting food. By bedding your horse on straw, it can nibble all day long. In addition, you may feed roughage in 3 or 4 portions, spread out over the day, so the horse does not receive large quantities at once. Does your horse get concentrates/hard feed? Make sure that you first feed roughage and only later (30 minutes) add the concentrate. The roughage that you give must also be of sufficient quality, so do not feed any moldy or dusty hay. In addition, the horse must receive the correct amount of roughage. Too little means that the horse does not get enough energy and will therefore lose weight. Too much roughage provides too much energy, which will increase the weight. A proper weight is important to keep your horse healthy and fit. 


But what is the right amount of roughage? The amount of roughage that your horse needs per day depends on your horse’s weight. The guideline is that a horse needs 1 to 1.5% of its body weight of dry matter roughage. A horse of 600 kg therefore needs 6 to 9 kg of dry matter roughage. Dry matter is the amount that remains after all the water has been removed. For example, hay has a dry matter content of 80%. The 600 kg horse must then be fed 7.5 to 11.5 kg of hay. Grass, on the other hand, contains 20% dry matter, so the horse must receive 30 to 45 kg of grass. 


The most important thing when feeding your horse is that you keep a close eye on him. Just as with humans, horses have individual differences. One horse may need more roughage to maintain its weight than another horse of the same weight. Workload, breed and gender also influence this. A useful way to monitor the body condition of your horse is the Body Condition Score (BCS). What this is exactly and how you can apply it will be discussed in a subsequent article. 


In brief: 

  • A wild horse forages for 14-16 hours a day 
  • Feed your horse small portions of roughage throughout the day 
  • A horse needs 1-1.5% of its body weight in roughage (dry matter) 
  • Keep a close eye on what your horse needs 

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