By Jackie Fletcher
There are 920,000 cases of colic in horses each year with approximately 64,000 deaths as estimated by the American Horse Council. The gap in knowledge regarding a horse’s diet and harmful grasses is apparent among the 2 million people owning horses in the US. The best diet for horses includes at least 1 percent of their body weight each day in hay, pasture grasses or legumes. It is natural for horses to forage and the activity involved is good for their health, in particular their general skeletal health. Horses usually benefit from pastures that are not overly rich and green which can lead to conditions such as obesity, insulin resistance and laminitis. Unlike dairy cows where rich grasses lead to a plentiful milk yield, the opposite is true for horses.
Grass types for horses
Beware of the rich green grass associated with the spring weather as this type of grass can be too nutrient intense for horses and may lead to very serious conditions such as colic and laminitis. An excellent and safe grass for horse pastures is Kentucky Bluegrass which is hardy and slow-growing; this encourages grazing for longer without over indulgence. It is less suitable to grow for hay (from a farmer’s perspective) being low yielding but perfect for grazing horses, even improving the pasture footing as the roots form a tight earth sod. However, being a cool season grass, it is less tolerant to the warmer temperatures further south during the summer.
Hay and grasses alike
When farming hay specifically for horses, lower yielding grasses should be used. Otherwise, the same problems will result from a horse eating hay made from rich, high yielding grass as it would from grazing such grasses. Horse hay is typically made from Kentucky Bluegrass, orchard grass and timothy. These grasses are lower in protein and energy but higher in fiber, making them perfect for both grazing and hay. Another excellent pasture grass for equines is MaxQ. It is the only tall fescue grass that is healthy for horses, having a lower digestibility level. The inclusion of a sprinkling of clover is a good idea, although avoid overly dense clover levels that can host fungal spores, making them unsuitable. Horses will benefit from B vitamins which are found in good quality pasture land. They will also synthesize vitamin C from glucose derived from grasses.
Toxic grasses to avoid
Arrowgrass should be avoided as it contains prussic acid and cyanide in its leaves. It can be lethal if consumed in large quantities. Another toxic grass is Dallas grass which has a high fungal content. Similarly, Rye grass can be affected by fungi and so is undesirable for horses. This is especially so if it is overgrazed because the fungus is located near ground level. Avoid Johnson grass which is very poisonous when the plant is young and tends to grow on neglected patches of land in the US.
Happy and healthy horses
Always make sure that your horse benefits from the mental well-being and improved fitness associated with good grazing on suitable pastures. The health benefits are many, including improved muscle and bone mass, making bones stronger and less porous. What could be a more natural and happier sight than a group of horses grazing contentedly together.