As with humans, horses’ dietary needs change as they age. Often their digestion becomes less efficient. Years of harsh chemical wormers, antibiotics, and other toxins can cause leaky gut, a lack of digestive enzymes, lack of beneficial gut flora, liver toxicity, and more. The resiliency of youth will often keep dietary indiscretions and bad choices from showing up right away, but there is always a price to pay, and the effects of bad diet/lifestyle will manifest eventually. We frequently see this in the older horse.

The cornerstone of our diet for horses is high quality grass hay. We feed 2 – 3 different types of grass hays for variety and to provide a broader spectrum of nutrients. We do not feed hay cubes—ever—and we feed hay pellets only in special circumstances, or as an adjunct to the hay for hard keepers. We feed alfalfa in small amounts to add aIMG_3746_2 tiny bit of protein and calcium, but never more than 15 – 20% of the total hay intake.

Horses are designed to eat with their heads and necks down. All of our horses are fed on the ground, or, in windy or rainy conditions, in troughs that are at ground level. Unless inclement weather forces us to feed in troughs, the hay is placed into multiple piles in each corral so that the horses move around from pile to pile as they eat. It is important for horses to move their feet, and even if they are in a private paddock they will use their natural foraging instincts and travel among the piles of hay.

Fiber is critical to proper gut function and intestinal flora health. It is sad to see horses being fed a small flake of alfalfa as their primary, or only, source of food. They gobble it up quickly, and it provides little support for their digestion. Grass hays, on the other hand, are fed in larger quantities, so the horse is ‘grazing’ throughout the day. This is an ideal feeding protocol for the older horse whose activity level is greatly reduced from his working years. Eating is the focal point of their lives, and beyond the high fiber and other nutritional benefits, grazing on grass hay provides comfort and interest. At Ortega Mountain Ranch, the horses have fresh grass hay in front of them for the majority of each day.

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