Monday, September 5, 2011

The feed

In my last post I mentioned that the barn owner had sent some hay off to get it analyzed. I don't know if this is common practice in other countries, but in Finland it seems to be getting more and more popular. I grew up thinking hay is hay, and that horses could eat as much as they wanted of it. Turns out I was wrong. There can be major nutritional differences in the hay we feed our horses. Bad hay doesn't necessarily look bad. Years ago I was told to smell the hay and look at its color, and that would somehow tell me if it was good or not. Turns out it's a bit more complicated than that.

The hay Little Love is eating at the moment is high in sugar and low in crude protein. The sugar in the hay is 166 g/kg when it should be between 50 - 150 g/kg (or even lower) and protein is 70 g/kg when it should be between 80 - 100 g/kg. She has been eating this hay for quite a while, but it hasn't caused her obvious problems until just recently when the herd was split in two. This separation definitely calmed down the situation and at least Lilo is less anxious. She started to gain weight immediately. She also stopped moving around in the paddock. Which, given the diet she is on, is the worst thing that could happen.

The change in her was gradual, but by yesterday morning I knew something was not right. Little Love didn't want to come out of the paddock (first time ever). In fact, she didn't even want to move an inch. She had seemed a bit sore on her feet on the walk two days back and Melissa had reported her reluctance to go for a walk the day before, but now I realized the sugar overload was really getting to her. I sort of panicked a bit; the last thing I needed was a horse with laminitis. So, I did what I had to; I forced her to move. I took her into our makeshift arena and lunged her for some time. She was really stiff in the beginning, but after a few minutes, looked like her old self. I also called the barn owner and told her to cut down the hay a few kilograms.

She looked a heck of a lot better today. She still didn't walk over to me when I fetched her from the paddock, but followed me out without a discussion. I put the boots on and we went for a power walk down the road. Lilo stopped three times, but I told her this was non-negotiable. If we continue feeding this hay, she will have to be exercised more. Not that exercise wouldn't do her some good in any case, she really has next to no muscle on her top line, but with the amount of sugar she is consuming, exercise is extremely important.

The other noteworthy thing about the hay is that it is extremely high in iron. This apparently is typical to hay in Finland, as the soil here is rich in iron. The norm for what Little Love should be getting is 480, but with the hay she eats, she is getting 1582, which is four times too much(now she is getting a bit less, as I cut the food down). Not all of it will absorb, but it definitely doesn't encourage me to feed a ton of commercial grains etc. which also contain a lot of iron (among other things).

I'm new to the horse feed business, but just seeing this analysis really opened my eyes. It was also interesting to see the immediate effect the lack of exercise (combined with the sugar rich hay) had on Little Love. I think we don't usually think about these things enough and realize how much the hay our horse eats can affect every little thing. So many people are afraid to feed their horse grains because they are convinced it isn't good for them. But in the meanwhile the horse may be eating hay that is wreaking havoc on their system.


  1. It is SO easy to cause a bout of laminitis with high-sugar hay. You might look at cutting her hay back significantly and supplementing with something else that's much lower in sugar, such as alfalfa (if you can get that there) or unmolassed beet pulp. I have one that is also very sensitive to sugar, so I cut corners where I can.

    You might also look into a magnesium supplement. Check with Nic and Rockley Farm, but I believe that horses on a proper mineral balance, including more magnesium, tend to handle more sugar/NSCs better than those that are not.

    And welcome to the world of "feeding your horse's hooves!"

  2. Stressed grass is higher in sugar than green grass. Wetting the hay can help. Have you read Pat Coleby's book on horse nutrition?? It is amazing. My TB was on her diet as an eventer and he looked amazing and never had any health issues. Everyone was feeding the newest of feeds and I mixed my own at a fraction of the cost and could control exactly what my horse got. I highly recommend it.

  3. Absolutely, high sugar hay is really bad for horses, check out for some more info. In addition to magnesium you should also check the zinc and copper ratios, too much iron will keep the horses from absorbing enough of those minerals too.

  4. Hi everyone! Well, I figured my post would create some comments :-) Thank you for all of your advice!

    jenj: we don't have alfalfa here, nor do we have unmolassed beat pulp. They hay is fairly high on magnesium as is.

    Kamila: I have heard that wetting the hay is not enough, you actually have to soak it for some time for the sugars to "come off". In this process you loose a lot of other nutrients as well. So, you need to consider if it is worth it.

    smazourek: thanks for the website, I definitely am going to study that one!

    Little Love is definitely getting enough magnesium, copper and zink, as the hay is fairly high in those. In fact, apart from the high sugar, the hay is pretty good . I have heard that the hay this year in Finland is fairly high in sugar everywhere, due to the weather we had.

    Little Love is doing well now that she isn't eating tons of the hay, but rather a "normal" amount. I'm trying to avoid feeding her tons of processed feed, since I believe in "natural feeding" plus the commercial grains all have added minerals such as iron (apart from the Finnish brands which avoid the iron as they know the hay has too much). She does get a very small amount of a (Finnish) müsli mix every day, but the barn owner is looking to change that to a feed that compliments the hay rather than adds to the already high levels of certain minerals. This is definitely a science!

  5. Hi, tmdunphy here... I changed my google account.
    I wonder if we should have our hay tested as well... there are so many places our hay comes from and you never quite know what's in it. You really have me thinking about this, K... thanks! It is quite a science for sure, very interesting to say the least!

  6. It's a bit problematic to test the hay, if the vendor changes all the time. Apparently even the bails in the same batch may be different, let alone hay from different fields. And when you actually find out the result, you have to be prepared to work on balancing the diet. I just talked to our barn owner and she has spent some significant time researching different feeds, entering all the details of each horse in a online calculator and figuring out what is the best possible to feed that individual horse with the hay we have. Luckily the minerals etc. are really balanced in the hay, which means we don't have to feed a million different supplements. The sugar is high, but manageable when you cut down the hay and feed a protein rich müsli to compliment it. Also, once winter comes, our horses are going to need that sugar to stay warm...
    If you could consistently buy the hay from the same person, it would be worth testing, I think. In Finland it doesn't cost much, but I don't know what the situation is in the US.

  7. Sorry, I should obviously be in bed by now (it's almost midnight), I can't type!