What came first, the hay or the grain…

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23 Feb What came first, the hay or the grain…

“Feed hay before grain (pellets/course mix/concentrate/hard feed)”

I often hear people say that hay should be fed before grain…it’s one of those ingrained (no pun intended) misconceptions that continues to be a source of much frustration.  So when an article by Dr. Martin Adams, PAS Equine Nutritionist for Southern States popped into my inbox, talking about the very subject, I thought it was a good time to jump on it for a Monday Myth blast!

So what reason do people give for hay before grain?

1)  “It helps to slow down the horse’s eating rate so he does not to bolt his feed and choke.”

2)  “Feeding hay first slows down digestion rate and prevents the hind gut from becoming overloaded by starch”

However, as Dr Adams notes neither of these objectives is reached with this practice.

Despite what you may have been led to believe, horses are smart, and when it comes to such a highly motivated behavior i.e. eating, they get REALLY smart!!!  Your horse figures out quickly the candy is coming after the salad so they leave their hay and wait for the grain…and they become very impatient in doing do.  This actually results in the opposite desired effect and they will guzzle down their grain or concentrate even more rapidly, which puts them at risk of choke and colic

There’s been quite a bit of research done on the timing of hay and feed and we know that offering hay before grain does not slow down the rate of passage through the digestive tract.  In fact, if hay is eaten within a few hours before or after grain, it flushes the grain through faster.

Why is this?
A horse will drink more water when they are fed hay, compared to a grain or concentrate feed.  Horses need to chew hay more (about 4 times more) than grain.  As chewing stimulates saliva production and saliva is mostly water, this means the stimulus to drink more water increases…so they do just that!

In addition, hay results in a huge water shift in the digestive system…much more is retained in hind gut (which is a reason why forage only diets can be so beneficial for hydration status in travelling and competing horses).   So, the increase in water intake, plus the fluid shift due to hay consumption will result in grain being transported more rapidly through the GI tract.  This occurs regardless of whether you feed hay before or after grain.

Sooo, in short, “offering your horse hay before you give them grain has no advantage over feeding both hay and grain at the same time or offering grain first and then hay, which is the practice that most horse owners follow.

Why is grain being rushed through the GI tract so bad for my horse?
Ideally, you want starch to be digested in the small intestine, and there’s not much time for this to happen under normal circumstances.  If undigested starch passes into the large intestine, it is fermented by the resident gut microorganisms, and it will wreak havoc…think colic, laminitis.

The best way to maximize starch digestion in the small intestine is to leave the horse without hay for at least 1 hour prior to feeding grain. Then after feeding grain, you need to wait 2 hours before feeding hay…not very practical huh?  Nope, nor is it very considerate of equine behavioral needs, physiological health, or welfare.

So what’s the best way to feed?

…as nature intended.

Feeding starchy grains and highly soluble carbohydrate feeds (i.e. bagged feeds…often the equivalent of a bag of candy or a Maccy D’s :)) to an animal that has evolved to eat a variety of low starch, structural carbohydrate forages, and a lot of them, is an outdated, often dangerous and largely unnecessary practice that keeps feed companies in business and vets busy – believe me, we take no pleasure in emergency colic callouts. 

We’re competing horses on forage only diets, including pasture only, very successfully. Emerging research is demonstrating it has superior benefits in many respects, including faster exercise recovery times and improved hydration status.  Not to mention a healthier, happier horse! 

We have no reason to be feeding large concentrate diets with inadequate forage to our horses…at any level. It’s a deep seated tradition that needs to be drop kicked out of this industry. The more we take responsibility for learning about good pasture management and making friends with our conserved forage manufacturers…the better off our horses will be, and the less we will need to fret over timing of feeds and unnecessary vet bills.

Any efforts taken to provide a predominantly varied forage diet will pay you back exponentially and your horse will be forever grateful!

Your horse is a horse and needs to be fed as such…we can and we must do better.

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1Comment
  • brian
    Posted at 05:07h, 27 July

    brilliant where have you been x

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