Horses love to graze lush, juicy pasture. Our eyes look longingly on bales of verdant, leafy, grass hay. These rich feeding choices also come with some inherent dangers.
Most of us know that switching forage types, qualities and sources comes with the possibility of digestive upset. Research explains that the horse's intestinal flora needs time to adjust to changes in forage and grain. We are careful about turning horses loose onto thriving grass fields and we try to limit the feeding of grain. Horses have to eat, and quality hay seems like a safe choice. Unfortunately, that high quality hay can come with the same problems as the grass fields it was cut from.
Drying grass plants reduces the moisture content for safe storage. But properly cured hay still retains the sugars, or the NSCs, of the living plant. NSCs are simple starches called nonstructural carbohydrates. It is these sugars that trigger the metabolic, as opposed to the mechanical, form of laminitis. Easy keepers, overweight and sugar-sensitive horses, including those with metabolic disorders and those with breed propensities, are at the highest risk for NSC caused laminitis. Horses need forage for its fiber, chew time and to stave off hunger and digestive issues such as ulcers. But sometimes, feeding enough hay to keep them happy and full can be too much hay.
What You Can Do
- Avoid or limit feeding richer harvests such as second or third cuttings. Even though that lush, stemless and leafy green hay looks fantastic; it is far too sugary for most horses. Stick to first cut forage. The horses need the roughage and their bodies are designed to process that type of hay.
- Hang the hay in feeding nets to slow down intake. You can also space the hay around the fields in order to increase the horses' activity as they go from pile to pile.
- Soak the hay in water for close to an hour. Submerge the hay in a bucket of water. This reduces dust concentrations and it leaches out nearly 40% of the dangerous sugars. The NSCs are water-soluble and this can make the hay safe for feeding laminitis prone equines, including donkeys.
- Feed the soaked hay as soon as possible, especially if the weather is humid. Avoid soaking hay for prolonged times, as this will begin to leach out other vitamins and nutrients.
Feeding hay is part of keeping horses and donkeys. Unfortunately, so is the risk of laminitis and founder. Using good husbandry practices, including regular hoof trims and veterinary care, are key steps to keeping your gang sound and sassy!
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