Hay. It’s such a pain. Flakes fall apart between the feed cart and your horse’s stall. Your feed room usually looks like a bomb went off in the middle of a bale. You’re on the road almost every weekend, and traveling makes things even worse. Open bales are a nightmare to wrangle, and when you try to load them in your trailer it seems like more gets left at the rodeo grounds than makes it home. Half the time, your horse turns most of the hay you feed him into pee-soaked bedding anyway. Why do you even bother? No wonder so many of your friends are giving up on feeding hay all together and turning to cubes or pellets instead. But, is that the best choice for your horse?
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While cubes or pellets are a convenient choice, there are a lot of arguments in favor of feeding hay. In this article, I’ll look at the advantages of feeding cubes or pellets. Then, I’ll explain how your horse eats hay compared with cubes or pellets, and will outline five important reasons why hay is still the healthier option for most horses. While cubes and pellets can be useful in certain situations, you might decide that feeding hay is worth the hassle—even when you’re on the road.
There’s no doubt about it, pellets and hay cubes offer a number of advantages.
There is little argument that cubes and pellets are more convenient than hay. They are purchased in bags that are easy to carry and leave little mess behind. It’s much easier to pick up a couple of bags from the feed store on your way home from work than to load up a bale or two of hay. Especially when you’re traveling, who wouldn’t prefer to deal with a bagged feed than a messy bale?
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Bagged feeds take up less space—three fifty-pound bags of cubes or pellets take up approximately the same amount of space as a fifty-pound bale of hay. Cubes and pellets can also be stored in bins to eliminate rodent problems. You don’t need a designated hay room, and you can say goodbye to pallets that get jammed with old, disgusting hay and require cleaning between deliveries.
• Reduced Waste:
Estimates say that as much as 20% of hay fed is wasted. When you feed cubes or pellets, chances are your horse eats every single scrap. He won’t leave behind the stemmy sections and won’t turn his feed into bedding between meals.
• Fire Prevention:
Bagged feeds present a lower fire risk than bales of hay. Barn fires are the stuff of every horse owner’s nightmares.
• Quality Control:
The question of quality control can go both ways. When you purchase hay cubes or pellets from a reputable source, you can feel fairly confident that they were manufactured from good quality hay. When you feed hay, however, you can “see what you’re feeding,” putting you in more direct control of what your horse eats—and eliminating the possibility that lower-quality forage was used for producing cubes or pellets.
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Labeling requirements for bagged feeds do offer some guarantee of nutrient levels and consistency that can be difficult to obtain when choosing hay. Finally, if you are trail riding or horse camping in the wilderness, it may be easier to find a weed-free pellet or hay cube option than weed-free hay.
Health Benefits of Hay
A number of studies have evaluated how a horse eats hay differently from how he eats cubes and pellets. Perhaps most interesting is that the number of chews it takes for your horse to eat a pound of hay is significantly larger than that required to chew a pound of cubes or pellets. This increased number of chews translates not only into more time spent eating, but also increased saliva production.
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The pattern of chewing is also affected. When your horse chews hay, he chews more slowly, with larger chewing movements in all directions—up and down, and side to side. So, why does this make a difference for his health?
• Increased Saliva:
Unlike humans, horses only produce saliva when they are chewing. The more chews it takes for your horse to consume his food, the more saliva he produces. Saliva is crucial for his good health for several reasons. Not only does it help lubricate the gastrointestinal tract and provide moisture that can help prevent impactions, saliva also contains high levels of sodium bicarbonate that buffers stomach acids that can contribute to the development of gastric ulcers. When your horse eats hay, he produces more saliva than he does when he eats cubes or pellets.
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• Better Grinding:
To accommodate his grazing lifestyle, your horse’s teeth erupt from his jaws continuously throughout his life. When he chews hay, the larger movements of his jaws in both an up-and-down and side-to-side direction result in more functional patterns of tooth wear that promotes dental health. Horses that eat hay are likely to need less frequent dental care and have healthier teeth than those that eat cubes or pellets.
• Stomach Protection:
It’s no secret that performance horses, especially when they travel, are prone to gastric ulcers. One important reason for their increased risk is exposure of the stomach lining to damaging acids.
Here’s how hay protects them: The horse’s stomach is actually divided into two portions—the upper “squamous” portion and the lower “glandular” portion. The glandular portion lining has natural protection to acids, similar to a human stomach. The upper portion, however, is more vulnerable.
Have your ever experienced acid reflux? That’s what your horse feels when acids burn the squamous lining of the upper portion of his stomach. When he exercises, the pool of acids sitting on the bottom of his stomach actually splashes, increasing his risk for squamous ulcers.
When your horse eats hay, the longer fibers form a physical mat that soaks up acid and helps minimize the effects of acid splash. A diet of cubes or pellets is much less effective at providing this protection.
(Side note: because alfalfa hay is high in calcium, it is more effective at buffering acids than other types of hay. It’s recommended that you feed your performance horse a small flake of alfalfa hay 30 to 60 minutes before you ride to minimize the negative effects of acid splash.)
• Maximize Forage Time:
Your horse’s digestive tract has evolved to accommodate a grazing lifestyle. He eats all day long, and his stomach is rarely empty. However, when a horse is fed intermittently and eats quickly, his stomach is empty for hours at a time—meaning acids simply have more time in contact with the stomach when your horse eats cubes or pellets than when he eats hay. Slow feeders that prolong the time it takes for him to eat his hay can make things even better, and time on pasture is ideal.
• Boredom Buster:
Intermittent feeding schedules and less time spent eating can impact more than your horse’s gastrointestinal tract. Horses kept in confinement can develop stereotypical behaviors such as stall walking, weaving and cribbing. Studies have demonstrated that these behaviors, defined as “a repetitive behavior performed with no obviously discernable function,” occur more frequently in horses fed highly processed feeds. All though these behaviors can develop in any stall-kept horse, a diet that consists primarily of hay can help prevent them by prolonging time spent eating.
Nay to Hay?
While hay is healthier for your horse most of the time, there are exceptions. You might choose cubes or pellets if:
• Your senior horse has dental problems. An older horse may have missing or broken teeth, or have simply lived so long his teeth are no longer functional. In this situation, hay cubes or pellets may be the only thing he can chew at all.
• Your horse has respiratory problems made worse by dust. Hay is typically dustier than cubes or pellets. Your vet may recommend a pelleted diet for your horse with respiratory allergies to avoid exposure to dust when he eats.
• Your horse has a stomach-emptying disorder. All though uncommon, some horses can experience problems emptying their stomachs that can put them at risk for stomach impactions. For these horses, a pelleted ration may be recommended.