No Hay Diet? Introducing Your Horse To Forage

Horse owners recognize the importance of forage, whether its hay from a bale or grass from a pasture. Forage, the primary source of fiber, is critical to a horse’s diet. Fewer and fewer horses today have access to pasture. This is due to the price of land, the price of hay, and also the influx of urban horse owners in the past three decades. Dr. Bray’s Corner has a Fact Sheet called, “Feeding Guidelines for Horses” that provides strategies in feeding forages and how to make changes in the diet. The case study that follows is an example of how to introduce forage to a horse that is not currently fed hay.

Case Study

18 year old, 15.2 H Quarter horse, body condition score (BCS) estimated as 3 and body weight estimated as 900 lbs. It was not being ridden and was not quidding (dropping of food from mouth while eating).


One-half bucket of bran mash and oats twice per day; occasional small amounts of alfalfa.


No hay was being fed and it was unclear how many pounds of bran and oats were being fed via the “half-bucket”. Since the BCS was a 3 (images of BCS 3), clearly the horse was not fed adequate calories to maintain body weight. Deworming and vaccination history was not evident. Teeth appeared in reasonable heath for the horse’s age.

A 15.2 H Quarter horse of moderate bone and BCS 5.5 should approximate 1150 lbs. An 1150 lb horse would require a minimum of 16 – 16.5 lbs of grass hay per day (1.4% minimum requirement is 1150 lbs X 0.014 = 16.1lbs). Hay is the horse’s source of fiber which is mandatory to promote and maintain a healthy gut. A healthy gut is one that maintains the pH of the respective gut segments, has a healthy population of bacteria throughout the gastrointestinal tract, particularly in the distal ileum, cecum and proximal colon. Fiber, especially long-stem fiber from hay bale or pasture, promotes the gut to constrict with consistency and rhythm. This movement is what propels the food content that is being digested and processed through the gut.

Primary Objective

Slowly acclimate the horse to a forage based diet. Reduce initially and ultimately eliminate the commodity diet of bran and oats. Once the horse has gained body weight and has improved to BCS 4 (images of BCS 4), evaluate if a balanced high fiber, moderate protein feed would be appropriate.

First Steps

You will need to maintain the current diet for the first two days while small amounts of hay are being introduced. Be sure the horse has been dewormed within the last 8 – 10 weeks and does not have any teeth issues (molar points, loose teeth, inflammation or abscesses). Owner was advised to consult with their veterinarian on health issues.

Add grass hay slowly. Start with 2 – 2.5 lbs of grass hay twice a day; that is, once in the AM feeding & once in the PM (for this California horse, timothy hay was the choice). If the horse consumes the hay reasonably (that is, not aggressively as if he is starving) then add a third meal (noon feeding) so that he is consuming 6 – 7.5 lbs of hay per day over three meals.

Additional meals (4 times/day) are useful in controlling the rate in which hay is being consumed during the day. Hay can be added at the rate of one pound per day until he is being fed 10% more than the feeding amount for his current body weight and has reached a BCS 5. Let me explain by example: If the horse weighs 900 lbs, then 1.4% of his body weight is approximately 12.5 lbs (900 X 0.14 = 12.6). Ten percent (10%) above this 900 lb body weight is 1¼ lbs (12.5 X 0.10 = 1.25 or 1¼) thus 12.5 + 1.25 = 13.75 lbs (13¾) is the target for total daily hay intake.

The horse will gain weight until the ideal weight and BCS is reached. Therefore as the horse gains body weight the target hay intake will increase, like a moving target.

Next Step

Check the body weight every 7 days and readjust the feeding amounts (a weight tape works as long as you follow protocol; see Dr. Bray’s Corner Fact Sheet “Estimating a Horse’s Body Weight”).

The projected ideal body weight for this horse is 1150 lbs, therefore the projected total hay intake is 17 ¼ – 23 lbs per day. How were these estimates determined? Well, for this horse’s ideal or reasonable BCS he should consume approximately 1.5 – 2.0% of body weight (1150 X 0.15 = 17.25 minimum hay). Whether you are feeding on the low or higher end depends if the horse is fed for maintenance or a higher level of production, such as light to moderate work. It also depends if calories are being provided by a balanced formula to complement the forage portion of the diet.

Final Step

Once the horse is stabilized with hay intake and has acclimated to adjustments in feed amounts, a balanced formula can be fed. When this horse reaches BCS 4, Integrity Lite without Molasses is fed starting at ¼ lb in the AM and ¼ lb in the PM. One quarter pound will be added per day every other day until the horse is being fed a total of 2 – 2.5 lbs per day (that amount can be fed as two meals or three meals/day). When the horse has achieved a minimum BCS 5 (remember the goal is 5.5), hay amounts and balanced concentrates will be adjusted to maintain body weight relative to activity level.

Why Integrity Lite?

The first two ingredients in this formula are beet pulp and soybean hulls—both soluble fiber feed sources that promote a healthy gut. Integrity Lite is also moderate in protein, and contains Integrity Rice Bran and canola oil as fat sources. This formula contains probiotics, prebiotics and yeast culture which are feed ingredients that complement the soluble fiber sources by nourishing the microflora. Integrity Lite does not contain grains.

Why Not Feed Alfalfa?

Several years ago a study was published with horses from Mexico. These horses had BCS 2.5 and lower and the authors concluded alfalfa was the best forage choice for recovery. As an equine nutritionist with extensive experience feeding problem horses, I have serious concerns with that approach and the results of that study.

Alfalfa is high in protein. Feeding an all alfalfa forage diet that is high protein provides the matrix for a sudden shift in the gut segments pH, the type and quantity of bacteria that reside in the gut, and a rapid shift in gut motility. These are the conditions that precipitate colic. I do not have issues of incorporating alfalfa hay into this horse’s diet once a BCS 4 has been achieved and alfalfa is gradually increased (not more than ½ lb per day). But alfalfa cannot be more than 25% of the total forage diet.