5 min read
Horse Eating Hay

During the winter, horse owners may wonder if they have enough forages to last their until warm-season pastures regrow. The best practice for determining forage needs over the winter is to calculate the horse’s body weight, estimate intake, and calculate how many months hay will be fed. These simple calculations, and an evaluation of the horse’s current diet, can help owners determine the nutritional needs of their animal and will help them to maintain a good body condition and weight on the animals, while also reducing costs. The calculations can also help owners plan when to purchase hay from the supplier before winter begins. However, not everyone has the means or storage space to purchase large amounts of hay at one time.

Evaluating Equine Body Condition

Estimating your horse’s weight can help you make informed decisions on how much forage to feed your horse.

Estimating your horse’s weight can help you make informed decisions on how much forage to feed your horse.

Evaluating a horse’s body condition can help owners determine whether their nutritional program is sufficient. The Henneke Body Condition Scoring (BCS) System ranges from 1 to 9 and is a visual and tactile appraisal of fat. For optimal health, most horses should have a BCS of 5 or 6. There are numerous resources available online to help determine a horse’s BCS.

Estimating a horse’s weight can also aid in making informed nutrition decisions. There are numerous commercial weight tapes, equations, websites, and phone applications that can help estimate a horse’s weight. There are differences between each method, and some are more accurate than others. Because consistency needs to be maintained, switching between these methods is not recommended.

Estimating Forage Needs

Forage should be the foundation of every equine diet. Forages can come in a variety of sources including pasture, hay, haylage, silage, chaff or chopped hay, pellets, cubes, and alternative feedstuffs and byproducts, such as beet pulp.

Once the horse’s BCS and weight have been assessed, owners can estimate how much forage the horse should be receiving. When left to their own devices, horses will consume between 2 and 2.5% of their body weight in dry matter per day. Dry matter is when moisture is removed and is approximately 10% for hay and 80% for fresh, young pasture. Some horses can even consume more than 3% of their body weight per day. To maintain gut health, function, and fill, the absolute minimum a horse should receive is 1% of their body weight per day. This percentage is usually reserved for horses in heavy work and on high-concentrate (grain-based) diets.

Forages have numerous other benefits including keeping a horse preoccupied, mimicking natural small and frequent meals, providing energy, and aiding in keeping the horse warm during the winter. The fermentation of forages by the microbes living in the horse’s hindgut naturally produces heat. This warms the horse from the inside out, which is a plus during the winter.

As a starting point, a recommended target feeding rate is approximately 2% of the horse’s body weight per day. If the horse is dropping in weight or BCS, more forage can be added, or concentrates can be supplemented in the diet. It is wonderful if owners can offer their horses free choice forages—in this case hay—throughout the winter. However, some horses may overeat and become obese, which has numerous negative side effects. This may also be cost prohibitive for producers, depending on the number of horses they have to feed and wastage of the offered hay. Feeding hay in a hay feeder–such as a ring or basket feeder–can reduce wastage. Utilizing a round bale net, especially in conjunction with a feeder, also reduces wastage. This can also slow intake to a more reasonable level and prevent horses from diving head-first into round bales, which can expose horses to unnecessary dust or aggravate eyes. Square bales can also be fed in feeders and covered in nets to reduce wastage and extend intake throughout the day. If an owner is feeding smaller amounts at a time–such as flakes of hay– then utilizing a hay net or bag can also be beneficial.

Owners can extend their forages by feeding forge alternative–such as pellets and cubes–that are readily available at feed stores. Like commercially available concentrates, pellet and cube manufacturers are required to include guaranteed levels of protein, fat, and fiber on the feed tag. This is advantageous over hay, where quality can change from bale to bale or field to field. In theory, pellets and cubes can be fed as the sole forage component of a diet. However, it is important to remember that the horse digestive system is designed to eat small, frequent meals throughout the day. When a horse’s pellet or cube ration is fed in one or two feedings, horses may be left with long periods of idle time. This idle time may lead to boredom-related behaviors such as wood chewing.

Byproduct Additions

Many people choose to soak beet pulp for form a mash. Soaking is necessary for horses that bolt their feed or have poor dental health.

Many people choose to soak beet pulp to form a mash. Soaking is necessary for horses that bolt their feed or have poor dental health.

There are numerous livestock feed companies utilizing byproducts from commercial agriculture production that make high quality forage sources for horses. Some people may be leery of the term byproduct, but many of these are safe to feed to horses and are highly fermentable, benefit hindgut health, and are cost effective.

Soybean hulls are often added to commercial feeds to increase fiber. They are generally available in their normal hulled form or in pellets and can safely replace up to 75% of a horse’s daily forage needs. Beet pulp is a byproduct of the sugar beet industry and is well-known by many equine producers. It is considered a super fiber because it is readily fermentable due to its high pectin content, has a higher energy density per pound than most forages, and because it does not cause a significant glycemic response. Beet pulp comes with or without added molasses, in shredded or pelleted forms, and can safely replace up to 55% of a horse’s daily forage requirement.

Many people feel strongly about adding water to pellets, cubes, and beet pulp. For horses that bolt their feed or have poor dentition or missing teeth, producers should add water to the feed to make chewing easier and ensure adequate moisture before swallowing. There is no disadvantage to adding water to feed, and encouraging a little extra water during the winter is beneficial. However, some horses will not consume feed if too much water is added, so it is important to evaluate an individual horse’s preference. These feedstuffs should be weighed dry. If incorporating large amounts of a replacement fiber source or an alternative forage source, consider feeding more frequent meals, such as three per day. This will help mimic the ideal small, frequent meals horses are designed to consume.

When incorporating anything new into a horse’s diet, be sure to do so gradually. There is no harm in transitioning or adding new feedstuffs slowly, but adding new feedstuffs rapidly may be detrimental. Remember, a daily forage consumption target rate should be at least 2% of a horse’s body weight. It is important to allow horses to display normal grazing behavior with small meals throughout the day, so consider adding at least a lunchtime meal to aid in this.


Daily Forage and Forage Replacement Recommendations for Horses

Horse WeightMinimum Pounds of Forage (1% body weight)Recommended Pounds of Forage (2% body weight)Maximum Pounds of Soybean Hulls as Forage ReplacementMaximum Pounds of Beet Pulp as Forage Replacement
900 pounds91813.59.9
1,000 pounds10201511
1,100 pounds112216.512.1
1,200 pounds12241813.2


Recommended 30-Day Forage Consumption for Horses

Horse WeightPounds of ForageNumber of 50-Pound Square BalesApproximate Amount of 1,000 Pound Round Bale Consumed (Free Choice)
900 pounds5401168%
1,000 pounds6001275%
1,100 pounds6601483%
1,200 pounds7201590%



In times of scarce hay, there are numerous options for owners to extend their hay supplies, while ensuring the horse meets their minimum daily forage requirement. Many of these options can be implemented in a cost-effective manner until pastures regrow, or can be utilized year-round in the equine operation. These suggestions are simply guidelines, and horse requirements may vary. Assessing the horse’s BCS and weight can help determine if their nutrition plan needs to be altered.