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This week’s Book of the Week feature is The Healing of Horses, by Carrie Eastman.
Chapter 8: Hay, Pasture, and Feed
There are a few very simple guidelines about hay for horses.
Generally speaking, horses do best on a grass hay, or a grass and legume (clover, alfalfa) mixture.
Legumes should not be more than 10 percent of the total hay fed. Think of legumes more as a supplement than a feed.
In my opinion, non-GMO is safer. Even if you feel that a genetically modified plant itself is safe, consider the chemicals that are sprayed on GMO crops. Avoid hay treated with pesticides, herbicides, or preservatives.
A hay analysis has become a popular starting point for formulating horse diets. There are issues with this approach. Attempting to formulate a horse’s diet using the published recommended daily amounts (RDA) of each nutrient can quickly leave you chasing your tail. A quick look at Mulder’s Wheel (which shows the synergy and antagony of every mineral) quickly demonstrates that when you tweak one mineral you have just affected the entire spectrum of the minerals in a cascading effect. When RDA is determined in feed trials, it is impossible to account for every variation in each individual horse (for example, black skin needs more copper than pink), the variations due to the form of the mineral or vitamin (oxide, sulfate, carbonate, proteinate, complex, chelate), and finally the observer affect (by studying anything, the observer actually affects the process being studied).
For a private farmer, variations between flakes of hay, bales of hay, batches of hay, different areas of grazing land, water sources, rainfall contaminants—all these make the idea of scientifically determining a precise diet pretty darned impossible. What I have personally found to be true is that using an average analysis gets me in the ballpark, energy testing gets me closer (and it is still only a snapshot in time), and offering free-choice buffets and grazing options lets the horse make the final decisions about nutrient balance.
Overall, the majority of a horse’s diet should be hay and/or fresh grazing.
In my opinion, if you choose to feed hay to your horses (I am breaking the hay cycle on my farm using winter stockpiling), slow feeders are mandatory. Horses tend to gulp hay then fast between feedings, and their bodies are designed for a constant input of food. A slow feeder does what the name implies, forcing the horse to slow down and take smaller bites. A correctly sized and filled slow feeder will still contain hay at the next meal, and the horse will be fed and happy. There are a multitude of slow feeders on the market. Do your research to find the feeder that best suits your needs. Here are a few qualities I have found important for slow feeders.
Look for mesh made of plastic, not metal. Metal can damage teeth, and in cold weather wet lips and tongues will stick.
The holes should be sized to feed at a rate suitable to your horse. A frustrated, angry, hungry horse has an incorrectly sized mesh. A fat horse emptying the feeder between meals also has the wrong size. Different horses may require different sizes.
Consider your labor. How often do you have to fill and refill?
The feeder should offer the hay in a head-down position. Hay offered with head-high posture leads to structural issues.
Consider safety. Horses wearing shoes will not be safe with a net-type feeder offered low. Shoes can easily become entangled if the horse paws the feeder. Halters can also become caught on nets. (A note about goats, if you rotate your pastures: Goats easily chew through net feeders with their back teeth. Mine shredded the nets in a couple hours.)
My personal favorites to date are the mesh round bale nets and the HayWise feeders (which you can find at www.haywise.com). If using a round bale net, you will need a horse-safe ring or shelter to avoid wasting hay in contact with the ground.
Pastures could be the subject of an entire book. My purpose here is to mention tips, tricks, pitfalls, and creative pasture design that you might not have considered for your horse(s). Then take the topic to the internet and library and start researching.
First, please be wary of any advice, approach, or study based upon the traditional NPK model. The nitrogen- phosphorus-potassium model is long-term death to soils. Soils in many ways are a similar mix of minerals, pH, and microorganisms as the horse’s own body. There are antagonistic and synergistic factors. Water and carbon are key as well. Look for a soil analysis that takes into account all the major minerals plus carbon and pH. Then, browse through the many books on soils in the Acres U.S.A. library. Seriously. Acres U.S.A. has the best collection of soil health and nutrition materials I have found. My favorite resource to date is Eco-Farm by Charles Walters and C. J. Fenzau.
Remember that weeds are your friends. Every weed appears due to a deficiency or excess of a particular mineral. Weeds are diagnostic tools. Balance the soils, and weeds leave.
Plan to do annual soil tests, to track your progress in healing your soils. Learn what healthy soil looks and feels and smells like. My goal for soil health is to see more earthworms and earthworm castings, a pH of 6.8 to 7.0, increased carbon numbers, and increased layers of humus (organic carbon matter) and thatch that allows soil organisms to overwinter with plenty of food and shelter.
Plan which animals will use the pasture, and know their browsing or grazing preferences. Decide how much of your feeding program will depend on fresh grazing. Decide whether you will do standard grazing, rotational grazing, or even winter stockpiling (curing hay on the stem in the field). Plan for wet weather, when the ground is soft and pastures are more fragile.
Consider adding some forages to your pasture mix. Horses are actually grazers and browsers both. Horses will browse on herbs, forbs, and the occasional brush. Possible herbs for horse pastures include melilot, fenugreek, fennel, lemon balm, chicory, Queen Anne’s lace (wild carrot), dandelion, and chamomile. These herbs will not stand up to heavy hoof traffic.
Consider rotating pastures with another species like goats. Goats will control weeds, help end the parasite transmission cycle, and entertain you. Be warned that goats are like potato chips. You cannot stop at just a couple. (This was my downfall . . . and led to writing The Energetic Goat and a herd of twenty-plus fainting goats).
As you are reading through websites and catalogs and textbooks, making your seed choices, please be aware of seeds labeled GMO or hybrid. Mounting evidence suggests that genetically modified organisms are not safe for livestock or humans. A hybrid is not a GMO. Hybrids are cross-bred seeds, and perfectly safe. Many hybrids are an improvement over the parent seeds
Learn about the track system, and consider creating a mix of grazing pastures and tracks. This is my preferred approach. Horses in a track have been shown to move more, which helps with body condition, self-trimming hooves, boredom, and it works with their physiology. If you opt for a track system or track-pasture hybrid, consider letting the horses run the entire area the first few months to establish the track that best suits the terrain. Then follow their trampled pathways when designing your layout.
Finally, be aware that it is possible to break the hay cycle entirely using rotational grazing and winter stockpiling. This can be a huge cost savings.
Be willing to think outside the box, and kick that box a bit also. All sorts of new and creative approaches might shake loose.
About the Author:
Carrie Eastman was drawn to animals and healing at a young age. As a fan of rare breed conservation, she became involved in breeding myotonic goats, commonly called fainting goats. She adapted her equine methods to her goats, culminating in her first book, The Energetic Goat. With this book, Eastman returns to her first passion – horses. She continues to study health and healing, soils, crops, and nutrition, as well as conscious horsemanship and balanced hoof trimming as well as work in rare horse breeding, the Jilfan Sitam al Bulad Malabar Preservation Program. She shares her home with ten horses, donkeys, goats, chickens and ducks, a dog, cat and turtle, and her husband business partner.
Also by the Author:
- The Energetic Goat, by Carrie Eastman
Similar Titles of Interest:
- Natural Horse Care, by Pat Coleby
- Grass, The Forgiveness of Nature, by Charles Walters
- Albrecht on Pastures (Vol VI), by William Albrecht