Tuesday, March 22, 2016
5 Important Benefits of Roughage by Alexandra Wesker MSc
From the author of
5 important benefits of roughage
by Alexandra Wesker MSc
It is a well-known fact that roughage should form the basis of a horse’s diet. Roughage includes fresh pasture, hay, or haylage. General guidelines state to feed 1.5-2.0% of a horse’s bodyweight in roughage. For a 1,000 lbs horse, this would mean 15-20 lbs in roughage. This weight refers to ‘dry weight’, so all the water in grass does not count, just the dry components in there. Without breaking our head over calculations, it is fair to say that horses need to have roughage available pretty much all the time in order to eat these minimum amounts. There are many benefits to feeding large amounts of roughage, of which I will discuss some here.
The hindgut comprises most of the horse’s digestive system. This part of the gut comprises a large area that is lined with billions of bacteria, which ferment the horse’s feed. The fermentation products depend on the type of feed and the types of bacteria fermenting it. It is important for gut health to keep these gut bacteria happy by providing them with the right feed.
On a fibrous diet, bacteria in the hindgut ferment the fibres and release nutrients from the feed, plus they produce B-vitamins available for the horse to use. In contrast, if diets are too high in starch and too low in fibre, undigested starch can end up in the hindgut. This can lead to hindgut acidity and laminitis and/or excess gas production and colic.
Entertainment and avoiding stereotypic behavior
When horses are continuously provided with roughage, they eat for about 14 to 18 hours per day. Eating therefore provides a major form of entertainment. Modern living, however, often sees horses individually stabled, and fed one to three times a day. Horses have to find other ways to entertain themselves, which often comes in the form of ‘stereotypic behaviours’, such as crib-biting. These behaviours seem to have no constructive purpose but can cause harm to the horse and quickly become addictive and difficult – if not impossible – to undo.
A horse takes about four times as long to chew hay as it takes to chew the same weight in cereals. Replacing non-fibrous feeds with fibrous feeds with similar nutritional content is a healthy way to keep your horse entertained, especially if he/she has them continuously available (ad libitum).
A common problem in horses is gastric ulceration: more than half of horses in training suffer from it. Among many other factors, nutrition has an impact on the development of gastric ulcers.
The stomach continuously produces highly acidic gastric acid. Gastric acid has important functions: it kills most of the bad microbes that enter with the feed and also starts the process of protein digestion. Too much stomach acid, however, can make the stomach environment too acidic and lead to ulceration. Stomach acid is counterbalanced by saliva and good saliva production can balance the acidity in the stomach and therefore help to prevent gastric ulceration.
Horses, in contrast to humans, only produce saliva when they chew. Feeding highly fibrous feeds such as roughage requires about four times more chewing than non-fibrous feeds and thereby aids the prevention of gastric ulcers.
Horse teeth grow continuously, also into adulthood, and wear down when a horse chews. To chew highly fibrous feed, the chewing motion is big and wears down the whole chewing surface of the molar. Conversely, when chewing non-fibrous feed, the chewing motion is small and wears down only part of this chewing surface. ‘Sharp edges’ can develop on the rim of molars that does not wear down and can become sharp enough to damage the tongue and cheeks of the horse, sometimes severely. Sharp edges can develop into ‘hooks’, the structure of which can limit proper chewing motion. Head position while chewing also affects how molars wear down, which is a good reason to provide your horse with roughage at floor height.
Although providing continuous roughage may help to prevent some dental issues, I personally recommend to have a dentist visit at least once a year even if a horse has no known dental problems.
A water/electrolyte reservoir
Alongside accommodating the many bacteria, the hindgut serves as a reservoir for water and electrolytes. This reservoir is called upon when required, such as during prolonged exercise and in particular during endurance races.
The capacity of the hindgut to act as a reservoir is affected by the diet. A highly fibrous diet improves the capacity of the hindgut to hold fluid and electrolytes in comparison to a diet low in fibre. This is a main reason why endurance horses have a lot of fibre in their diets.
Most endurance horse owners take great care in selecting a suitable roughage for their horse. This allows them to meet the horse’s requirements as much as possible through a fibrous diet with minimal supplementation.
Roughage is a good source of energy and nutrients
Considering endurance horses can train for races of over 100 miles on a roughage-based diet, it is easy to understand that roughage can provide a lot of energy and nutrients.
Vitamin, mineral and trace elements in roughage from good soil often cover the requirements of most horses, apart from those in hard work or excessively sweating. Interestingly, grass (either fresh or as hay) tends to provide a good balance of nutrients. Grass with a low energy content tends to provide appropriate amounts of protein and minerals for non-exercising horses and good-doers, whereas grass with a high energy content tends to provide appropriate amounts of protein and minerals for exercising horses. The vitamin A and E requirements of non-exercising horses are covered in only a few hours of grazing. Also, grass contains omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to have anti-inflammatory effects.
The nutritional composition of roughage does, however, depend on the time of year. For example, although the quality of the protein in grass is good for horses, the quantity is higher during spring and summer than it is during autumn and winter. Vitamin and mineral composition also reduces as the pasture matures and is further affected by harvest. Supplementation may be required, depending on the roughage and the horse’s requirements. A salt lick, however, should always be provided in both stable and meadow to supplement the low levels of sodium and chloride in roughage.
The main take-home message is that roughage is more than ‘just a filler’, as it is often considered to be. To help support your horse’s physical, digestive and emotional health it is important to feed a diet high in fibre and to provide a continuous supply of a suitable roughage.
Alexandra Wesker MSc is a registered, independent horse nutritionist. Her book ‘Natural Feeding for Horses’ is the first book of its kind to introduce a step-by-step feeding system that helps you to find the right roughage for your horse, or decide what to feed alongside you current roughage to cover your horse’s requirements. Alexandra is a consultant who regularly publishes features in leading horse magazines and online. Find out more at NaturalFeedingForHorses.com.
Connect with Alex via Twitter @AlexandraWesker
“Natural Feeding is a (r)evolutionary feeding system that puts the health of the horse first.”
Available in Paperback here!