Here in the UK we are currently experiencing one of the hottest, driest summers on record, including two heatwaves and a distinct lack of rain. These two factors have resulted in heat-burnt grass that’s unable to grow and ends up dying back, leaving bare ground.
It’s a common site in many parts of the country, where we would normally see fields of green grass with horses happily grazing, these fields are brown with non-existent grass. This lack of grass can have severe implications on our horses health and wellbeing.
In our latest blog, Lisa Elliott, MSc – Equine Nutrition Solutions, discusses why horses need grass, the problems that can occur when grass is lacking and what we can feed to keep them happy and healthy when grass is in short supply.
Why do horses need grass?
Horses have evolved to eat a continuous supply of fibrous feeds. This supplies significant levels of fibre for optimum digestive health like grass, which along with hay, haylage and other fibrous plant types, is known as forage.
A major function of the fibre in grass is to provide energy for your horse in the form of Volatile fatty acids (VFA), which are released as a product of microbial fermentation. Also, there are many other benefits of fibre which are pivotal to a healthy well-functioning digestive system and a healthy horse.
The Benefits of Fibre
- Plenty of good-quality fibre is key to microbial health and balance. These essential microbes thrive on it, and healthy, happy microbes means a healthy, happy horse.
- Fibre encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria and a variety of forage like grass and hay can help promote a diverse, stable microbial community for optimum health and condition.
- Fibre satisfies the horse’s psychological need to chew. Chewing produces saliva which acts as a buffer to stomach acid, helping to prevent gastric ulcers.
- Fibre forms a fibrous matt in the lower regions of the stomach preventing acid from splashing up onto the more sensitive upper regions, which can lead to gastric ulcers.
- Fibre binds water and when it’s broken down this water is released building up a small reservoir of water in the horse’s gut, helping to keep them hydrated.
- Fibre stimulates peristaltic contraction, which keeps the gut moving and expels gas, helping to prevent certain types of colic.
- Plenty of fibre will keep horses occupied, which is essential when horses are stabled or under rehabilitation in a small paddock.
- B-vitamins such as Biotin are synthesised by the gut microbes from forage, so plenty of it will ensure a good supply of these essential vitamins.
What happens if horses don’t get enough Fibre?
Because fibre is so important for equine health and happiness a lack of grass can have significant implications on their health and wellbeing.
Colic – a lack of fibre moving through the gut means this movement could slow down increasing the risk of food getting stuck or ‘impacted’ in the more ‘bottleneck’ areas of the digestive tract. Additionally, a lack of fibre can result in microbial imbalances and loss of beneficial fibre digesting microbes and a decrease in fibre digestion which again increases the risk of impaction.
Diarrhoea – low fibre can very often result in loose sloppy manure, which in-turn affects the whole dynamic of how the gut works and further decrease fibre digestion as well as causing fluid and electrolyte imbalances.
Dehydration – a lack of fibre can contribute to dehydration because the water reserves that build up in the gut with ad-lib fibre are severely reduced. Ensuring horses are fully hydrated, in the current weather is essential and a lack of fibre can negatively affect this.
Gastric Ulcers – plenty of fibre means chewing and the production of saliva which helps neutralise stomach acid, alongside the potential to form a fibre matt in the stomach to stop acid splashing against the less protected upper areas of the stomach. A low fibre diet doesn’t offer this protection and the potential for the development of ulcers will be increased.
Compromised Mental Wellbeing – grazing on plenty of fibre satisfies a horse’s psychological need to chew whilst also keeping them occupied. Horses out in fields with a lack of grass and consequent lack of fibre will spend far less time foraging and eating and become frustrated. This frustration can result in stress and could potentially lead to stereotypical behaviour such as cribbing and weaving.
Energy Deficiency – Fibre is a valuable source of energy, and if fibre is lacking then the horse won’t be receiving sufficient energy for their needs. This lack of energy can then result in reduced performance and potential loss of weight and condition.
Vitamin Deficiency – the hindgut microbes that ferment fibre also produce several vitamins as a by-product of fermentation, including vitamin B1, Biotin and vitamin K. If horses aren’t getting enough fibre because of lost grass, the microbes are unable to produce the levels of these vitamins they normally would, and a deficiency can lead to potential problems like loss of appetite and poor-quality hoof growth.
How much fibre does a horse need per day?
Fibre in the form of forage should always be the main consideration when feeding your horse and should be the best quality you can find so your horse can get maximum benefits. Ideally, horses need to eat 2-2.5% of their bodyweight (BW) in forage dry matter (DM) per day – depending on work and condition, fed ad-lib for optimum health and well-being.
Current recommendations for daily forage intake (Harris et al. 2017) are that a horse should receive a MINIMUM of 1.5% per of their body weight in forage DM per day.
How can we increase daily fibre intake in the current climate?
If your horse is out 24/7 in a field where the grass is burnt and dead, offering ad-lib hay or haylage or a mix of both is a must. This will help meet their daily forage needs in the absence of grass alongside helping to support the microbiome with more complex fibre.
Hedgerows and roadside verges are some of the best places to find plenty of varied high fibre forage. When it’s cooler, take your horse for a wander along some of your quieter verges and hedgerows and let him browse. Just 10 minutes a day will help boost fibre intake for improved digestive health and help increase microbial diversity within the hindgut, which creates a happy health microbiome. Walking and letting your horse browse the hedgerow also has the bonus of increasing your bond as you walk along together.
Providing fibre rich grass chops out in the field and high fibre pellets like Coligone Fibre Cubes and Coligone Fibre BIO are a great way to boost fibre intake naturally where grass is lacking. They provide a great, digestible source of fibre and can be fed up to 2kg per day. Both Coligone Fibre Cubes and Coligone Fibre BIO are also packed with nutritious vitamins and minerals and provide 5% Coligone to nurture and support beneficial hindgut microbes for optimal digestive health and can be soaked into a nutritious mash, helping ensure you horse is fully hydrated throughout the long, hot summer.
If you have any questions about creating the best diet for your horse and keeping your horse healthy through the right nutrition, please contact Coligone – 0333 0503785/07986 183616 or email@example.com or visit the website for the full range https://www.hbradshaws.co.uk/coligone-product-range/