How to help your horse stay healthy during drought

Many horse owners in Australia are currently experiencing horse paddocks that contain dusty, brown pastures with grass coverage becoming more limited as the dry days go by.  Despite the lack of fresh grass, horses still require a balanced diet and to provide this, horse owners will need to supplementary feed in these situations.

The most crucial factor to consider when feeding horses during drought conditions is ensuring that they receive adequate roughage such as grass, hay and chaff.  The very minimum amount of roughage that is required to maintain a healthy gut is 1.5% of the horse’s body weight (7.5kg for a 500kg horse) each day in dry matter (DM is the part of the food that would remain if all of the water was removed).

Why is Roughage so important?

Consumption of grassy hay and other forage sources fulfills many important needs for the horse such as:

  • Providing Nutrients – such as energy, protein, some minerals and green forages are a rich source of vitamins.
  • Gut Health – forage fills up the stomach and provides a barrier to help prevent stomach acid from the lower part of the stomach splashing up to the un-protected top half and causing ulcers. Chewing forages also encourages saliva production that helps buffer the stomach from this acid.
  • Gut Microbes – a steady supply of forage helps to maintain the optimum types and numbers of microorganisms in the hindgut.
  • Vitamin Production – bacterial fermentation of fibre in the hindgut produces a number of vitamins including Vitamins: B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12, Biotin & K.
  • Hydration – fibre is fantastic at holding water and forms a small internal reservoir of water for the horse to draw on as it requires.
  • Psychological and Physical Benefits – the act of grazing provides crucial mental and physical stimulation. If horses are deprived of adequate forage they tend to chew on fences, trees, stalls and are more prone to unusual behaviours such as fence walking, cribbing and weaving.

What Kind of Fibre Sources Should I Use if I Have no Pasture?

During a good season a horse will happily graze the majority of the day and easily consume its daily requirement of dry matter in grass but what happens when the pasture dries up or disappears?

The best choice of roughage during a drought is largely determined by availability and price.  If you are able to source any, free choice grassy hay is the best replacement for fresh pasture during drought, along with the addition of a kilogram or two of Lucerne or cereal hay for variety and to help balance out the diet.  Hay is extremely variable, with the quality of the hay depending on the species cut, growth stage at cutting, harvesting and storage practices.  The earlier the pasture is cut the higher the quality and good hay will smell fresh and clean without a mouldy odour.

Providing hay in slow feeder hay nets or using large round bales that are offered free choice will allow for hay to last longer between meals and simulate natural grazing behaviour.  If hay is being fed in piles on the ground, consider placing rubber mats underneath to limit the amount of dirt and sand being ingested that can cause sand colic.  Feeding a psyllium product for one week per month can also be beneficial in helping prevent the accumulation of sand in the gut.  However, we all know that hay becomes as precious as gold during drought, so the best advice is to be prepared for short falls in supply.

What Should I do if I Can’t Source Enough Hay?

If at all possible, hay (even in smaller quantities) should be continued to be fed. To help balance out the fibre component of their horse’s diet, owners can use alternative fibre sources if hay must be reduced due to lack of availability.  To help stretch out your hay supply you can use some of these feeds:

  • Chaff – hay that is chopped and is most commonly sold as Lucerne, cereal or Lucerne and cereal blends.
  • Hay Cubes and Pellets – premium hay is coarsely chopped and then compressed to form cubes or finely ground and put through a pellet maker.
  • “Super-Fibres” – Beet pulp and Soy Hulls are highly digestible and contain much higher energy levels than typical forages and are in fact contain only slightly less energy than what is found in cereal grains such as Oats and Barley. Unlike Oats and Barley these fibres are low in starch and can be used in the diets of horses with metabolic conditions that can’t have high starch and sugar.  “Super-Fibres” are ideal for horses in work or those that have difficulty maintaining weight.  When using these products it is recommended to soak them in water prior to feeding.
  • Commercial “Complete” Feeds – these feeds incorporate both forage and grain but make sure you read the ingredients to ensure that they actually include forage. Extra roughage will still need to be fed in the diet to ensure adequate fibre needs are being met.
  • Haylage and Silage – these have a distinct volatile fatty acid odour but horses will readily consume it if it is introduced to them in a stepwise manner.  Only use sweet silage that has a clean, acid smell, with a yellowish to olive green colour.  Do not feed silage that is dry, brown or wet dark green with a putrid smell.
  • Straw – clean, non-mouldy straw contains nearly as many calories as some grass hays but is very limited in vitamin and mineral content. Be aware that straw contains a high proportion of indigestible fibre and is more likely than hay to cause impaction, a condition where ingested material stops moving through the digest tract and forms a blockage.  In other words, use straw with caution.

Remember to Feed a Balanced Diet

Along with providing horses with adequate forage during drought conditions it is also imperative that they receive a balanced diet.  A good rule to remember is that horses will need to eat between 1.5% and 2.5% of their bodyweight in dry matter of feed each day. Once the drought diet has met your horse’s daily roughage requirements you will then need to make sure the diet is meeting all other nutrient needs for energy, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals.  A good quality vitamin and mineral supplements such as MegaMin Equine Enhancer can be used to fill gaps and balance vitamins and minerals that are lacking in the diet.  If you are thinking of introducing a fortified feed to your horse’s diet make sure you introduce gradually and look for feeds that are scientifically balanced, contain extruded or micronised grains (if grains are included) and good quality protein meal such as Soybean and Canola meal.

Always make any changes to feed gradually, over 10-14 days to allow the gut microbes time to adjust to the new diet.  Don’t forget it is advisable to provide free choice plain salt and of course don’t forget to supply unlimited access to fresh, clean drinking water.  If dams and creeks are used as a water source for horses, they can become stagnant and dry up with ongoing drought conditions.  Make sure that water quality is monitored regularly and provide extra fresh water as required.

Droughts have always been a part of life in Australia and preparing to manage horses through them is something that all owners must be ready to deal with.  There is an excellent booklet Drought Feeding & Management For Horses by David Nash, published in 1999 by Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation that is a great resource for horse owners to access that provides practical advice and management tips for drought survival.

Written by AgSolutions® Technical Advisor

Shannon Godwin BAppSc GDTL