Tips for forage – only diets – debunking common misunderstandings

For many horse owners, feeding their horses a forage-only diet seems like a natural and healthy choice. After all, horses evolved to graze on grasses and other plant material for the majority of their diet. But is a forage-only diet really enough to meet the nutritional needs of our equine companions?

There are some common misconceptions surrounding the idea of a forage-only diet. One of the main concerns is whether supplemental feeding is necessary. Some horsemen believe that by simply allowing their horses to graze on quality forage, they are providing all the nutrients their horses need. However, this is not always the case.

In fact, many horses in intense training or performing at high levels in various disciplines may require more nutrients than what a forage-based diet can provide. Selecting the right feeds and supplements is essential to keep these higher-energy horses in optimal health and performance. Dr. Tania Hintz, a veterinarian specializing in equine nutrition, explains that while a forage-only diet can work for some horses, it may not be enough for others.

Tips for Forage-Only Diets: Debunking Common Misunderstandings

Forages, such as hay and grass, are essential components of a horse’s diet. Many people believe that forage alone is not enough to meet a horse’s nutritional needs. In this article, we will debunk some common misunderstandings about forage-only diets and provide valuable tips for feeding your horse.

Myth: Forage-only diets are low in nutrients.

Fact: Forages, especially high-quality hay and fresh green grass, are rich in essential nutrients such as protein, fiber, and antioxidants. These nutrients are necessary for the optimal functioning of a horse’s body, including its muscles, digestive system, and immune system.

Myth: Horses need concentrates or supplements in addition to forage.

Fact: While concentrates and supplements can provide additional nutrition, they are not necessary if a horse’s forage diet is of good quality and provided in sufficient quantities. Horses have evolved as forage eaters and have a natural capability to extract nutrients from fibrous material.

Myth: Feeding forages only can cause colic.

Fact: Studies have shown that feeding a forage-only diet, especially one that includes a variety of forages, can actually decrease the risk of colic in horses. Continuous grazing and free-choice hay or haylage feeding can help maintain a healthy gut and prevent digestive issues.

Myth: Forage-only diets are low in energy for high-performance horses.

Fact: Forages can provide enough energy for most horses, including those in race and performance training. High-quality forages, such as alfalfa, can have a higher-energy content. If a horse needs more energy, increasing the quantity of forage or adding a small amount of a higher-energy supplement can be a simple solution.

Myth: Forages are not as palatable as concentrates.

Fact: Horses are naturally inclined to consume forages and usually find them quite tasty. Forages come in a variety of flavors and textures, and many horses prefer the taste of fresh grass or quality hay over concentrate feeds. It’s important to provide good-quality forages to ensure your horse’s satisfaction and interest in their diet.

Myth: Forage-only diets are not suitable for young or growing horses.

Fact: Forages can provide all the necessary nutrients for young and growing horses. The key is to provide high-quality forages that are rich in protein, vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids. Regular monitoring and adjustments to the forage diet can ensure proper growth and development.

Importance of a Balanced Diet

Feeding horses a forage-only diet has gained popularity in recent years, with many horse owners opting to go for a more natural approach to their horse’s nutrition. While a forage-based diet certainly has its benefits, it is important to understand the importance of a balanced diet for optimal equine health.

A forage-only diet, whether it is based on grazing or haylage, can provide horses with the fiber they need for proper digestion and overall gastrointestinal health. Forage is also a great source of vitamins and minerals that horses require for their daily needs. However, there are certain challenges in meeting all the nutritional needs of an equine solely through forage.

One challenge is the trace concentration of certain nutrients in forage. Forages typically have low concentrations of certain vitamins and minerals, which can lead to deficiencies if not supplemented properly. Horses in intense training or those with specific dietary needs may require an alternative source of these essential nutrients.

Another challenge is the microbial fermentation process that takes place in the horse’s hindgut. While forage provides the necessary material for the microbial population to thrive, it may not always be enough to support their optimal function. In some cases, supplementary feeding or the introduction of specific types of forages may be necessary.

Additionally, feeding a forage-only diet may put horses at risk for certain health issues. Without the inclusion of concentrated feed such as grain, horses may struggle to meet their energy requirements, especially in cases where horses are in heavy work or have higher energy needs. This can lead to weight loss, decreased performance, or other health concerns.

In conclusion, while a forage-based diet is a great way to mimic the natural grazing behavior of horses, it is essential to consider the overall nutritional needs of the equine. A balanced diet, consisting of a combination of forages and concentrated feed, can provide horses with the necessary nutrients they need to thrive. Properly managing a horse’s diet is crucial for their overall well-being and success in various disciplines.

Understanding the Nutritional Needs of Horses

When it comes to the health and well-being of horses, it is essential to understand their nutritional needs. Proper nutrition plays a significant role in maintaining the horse’s overall health, bodyweight, and performance levels.

Horses are unique animals that require a diet predominantly based on forage. Forages, such as hay and grass, provide horses with the necessary fiber, vitamins, and minerals they need to thrive. However, it is essential to take into account several factors to ensure that the horse’s diet meets its nutritional requirements.

Firstly, it is crucial to know the horse’s bodyweight, as it dictates the volume of forage it should consume each day. The horse’s bodyweight can be estimated using various methods, such as weight tapes or scales. Once the bodyweight is determined, equine owners can provide the appropriate amount of forage to meet the horse’s needs.

In addition to bodyweight, the horse’s workload and specific dietary needs must also be considered. For horses in light to moderate work disciplines, forage-only diets can provide sufficient energy. However, horses in heavy work or performance disciplines may require additional energy sources.

Supplemental feeds, such as grain or concentrated feeds, can be incorporated into the horse’s diet to meet its higher energy demands. However, it is essential to consult a veterinarian or equine nutritionist before implementing any changes to the horse’s feeding regimen. They can help determine the appropriate type and amount of supplemental feeds based on the horse’s individual needs.

It is worth noting that abrupt dietary changes, such as introducing a high quantity of grain, can increase the risk of digestive issues, such as colic. Therefore, any changes to the horse’s diet should be made gradually, allowing the horse’s digestive system to adapt to the new feed. This can be done by introducing small amounts of the new feed over several days until the desired amount is reached.

Trickle feeding is another technique that can be implemented to ensure optimal forage consumption. Horses are natural grazers and thrive when they have access to food for the majority of the day. Using slow feeders or implementing a feeding schedule that allows horses to have continuous access to forage can mimic their natural eating patterns.

In some cases, horses may require additional supplements to meet their nutritional needs fully. For example, trace minerals or specific vitamins may be lacking in the forage, requiring supplementation. However, it is essential to choose supplements carefully and consult a professional to ensure any potential deficiencies are properly addressed.

In conclusion, understanding the nutritional needs of horses is crucial for maintaining their overall health and well-being. Forage-based diets are generally a great way to meet these needs, with supplemental feeds being used when necessary. Taking the horse’s bodyweight, workload, and specific dietary requirements into account, along with implementing gradual dietary changes and considering potential deficiencies, can help ensure the horse’s nutritional needs are met, leading to a healthier and happier equine partner.

Choosing the Right Forage

When it comes to feeding a forage-only diet to your horse, selecting the right forage is crucial. The type and quality of forage you choose can have a significant impact on the overall health and performance of your equine companion.

There are several factors to consider when selecting forage:

Type of Forage

There are various types of forage available, including hay, grass, and alfalfa. Each type has its own nutritional composition and benefits. Hay, for example, is a suitable source of fiber, while grass provides fresh and natural nutrition. Alfalfa, on the other hand, is rich in protein and calcium.

Quality of Forage


The quality of forage can vary greatly, even within the same type. It is essential to choose forage that is fresh, clean, and free from mold or dust. A healthy green color and a sweet smell are good indicators of freshness.

It is also important to consider the maturity of the forage. Younger forage tends to have higher nutrient levels compared to more mature forage. For performance horses or those in intense training disciplines, a higher-energy forage such as alfalfa may be beneficial.

Quantities and Feeding Methods


The quantity of forage needed will depend on the horse’s bodyweight, activity level, and other nutritional requirements. Consulting with a veterinarian or equine nutritionist can help determine the optimal amount of forage for your horse.

Feeding methods also play a role in optimizing nutrition. Free-choice or continuous grazing allows horses to mimic their natural grazing behavior, helping to maintain gut health and prevent digestive disorders. An alternative is feeding forage in pelleted or cubed form, which can be a convenient and controlled way of providing forage.

Other Considerations


In addition to choosing the right forage, there are a few other things to keep in mind:

  • Understand the nutritional needs of your horse and choose forage that meets those requirements.
  • Consider any health issues or sensitivities your horse may have. Some horses may require a special diet due to conditions like insulin resistance or laminitis.
  • Put in place steps to ensure a consistent supply of high-quality forage throughout the year. This may include storing hay properly or considering alternative forage sources.
  • Regularly monitor your horse’s body condition and adjust the forage quantities accordingly. Consult with a veterinarian or nutritionist if necessary.

Choosing the right forage is the first step in maintaining a forage-only diet for your horse. By paying attention to these factors, you can ensure your horse receives the necessary nutrients for optimal health and performance.

Supplementing Forage with Minerals and Vitamins

For horses on forage-only diets, supplementing their diet with minerals and vitamins is crucial. While forage provides the basic nutritional needs, it may not always be enough to keep your horse in optimal health. In this section, we will discuss the benefits and importance of supplementing forage with minerals and vitamins.

1. Higher Energy Needs: Horses in different disciplines or those working at higher-performance levels require more energy. Forage alone may not provide enough energy for these horses. Supplementing their diet with minerals and vitamins can help meet their higher energy needs.

2. Preventing Deficiencies: Even though forage contains some minerals and vitamins, it may not always provide the necessary quantities. Supplementing with minerals and vitamins helps to prevent deficiencies that could lead to various health issues such as poor coat quality, weakened immune system, and low performance.

3. Maintaining Gut Health: Microbial digestion in the horse’s gut is important for nutrient absorption. Certain minerals and vitamins help maintain a healthy microbial population, ensuring proper digestion and absorption of nutrients from forage alone.

4. Antioxidants for Optimal Performance: Minerals and vitamins such as vitamin E and selenium act as antioxidants and help protect the horse’s body against cellular damage. Supplementing with these antioxidants can support the horse’s immune system, muscle function, and overall performance.

5. Minimizing the Risk of Colic: Adequate mineral balance in the horse’s diet is essential for preventing colic. Adding minerals such as magnesium and calcium to the forage-only diet can help minimize the risk of colic and maintain proper digestive health.

6. Selecting the Right Supplement: When selecting mineral and vitamin supplements, it is important to consult with your veterinarian or a nutritionist. They can help you determine the specific nutritional needs of your horse and recommend the right supplement that complements the forage-only diet.

7. Breaking from Tradition: In the past, traditional feeding regimens often relied on higher rates of concentrated feeds to meet nutritional requirements. However, with the development of forage-only diets, supplementing with minerals and vitamins has become a better approach for maintaining overall horse health.

Supplementing forage with minerals and vitamins is not only beneficial for the horse’s health but also simple to incorporate into their diet. With the ABCs of nutrition in mind, selecting the right supplement can provide the necessary minerals and vitamins that forage alone may not provide. By keeping a spot-light on the basics of nutrition, you can ensure that your horse is receiving a balanced diet even on a forage-only regimen.

Avoiding Common Mistakes in Forage-Only Diets

For horsemen and women keeping their horses on a forage-only diet, there are some common mistakes that must be avoided in order to ensure optimal nutrition and health for the animals. While forage diets can provide many benefits, it is important to implement these diets correctly and address any potential deficiencies. Here, we debunk some misconceptions and provide tips for avoiding common mistakes in forage-only diets.

Mistake 1: Not providing enough minerals

Many horse owners think that a forage diet alone is sufficient to provide all the necessary minerals for their horses. However, forage alone may not contain the required concentration of certain minerals. It is important to work with a nutritionist or veterinarian to determine if your horses require any supplemental minerals and implement them into their diet accordingly.

Mistake 2: Ignoring the need for higher-energy forage

Horses in work or with higher energy needs may require a forage diet with higher energy content. Hay-based diets may not provide enough energy, and implementing higher-energy forages such as alfalfa can be beneficial in these cases. Consult with a nutritionist to determine the best forage options for your horses’ energy requirements.

Mistake 3: Feeding all-day in a single spot

Feeding forage all-day in a single spot can lead to wastage, as horses may trample or exhaust the hay. Instead, it is better to implement a slow-feeder or use multiple feeders throughout the pasture to encourage horses to graze more naturally and minimize waste.

Mistake 4: Over-reliance on pelleted or processed forage

While pelleted forage can be a convenient option, it is important not to rely solely on processed forage. Fresh, long-stemmed hay provides the necessary fibre for proper digestive function and also promotes dental health. Mixing fresh hay with pelleted forage can provide a better balance of nutrition for your horses.

Mistake 5: Neglecting the importance of vitamins and antioxidants

Vitamins and antioxidants are essential for the health and well-being of horses. Forage-only diets may not provide enough of these nutrients, especially for performance horses. It is important to consider supplementing your horses’ diet with a high-quality vitamin and antioxidant source, such as Platinum Performance® Equine.

By avoiding these common mistakes and following the basics of a well-balanced forage diet, horse owners can ensure their animals receive the nutrition they need to thrive. Always consult with a nutritionist or veterinarian for guidance on implementing the best forage-based diet for your horses’ specific needs.


Is it true that horses need grain in their diet to stay healthy?

No, it is a common misconception that horses need grain in their diet to stay healthy. Horses are natural herbivores and their digestive system is designed to thrive on a forage-based diet.

What are the advantages of feeding horses a forage-only diet?

Feeding horses a forage-only diet offers several advantages. It helps maintain a healthy digestive system, reduces the risk of digestive disorders such as colic, promotes natural grazing behavior, and can help prevent obesity.

Are there any specific types of forage that are better for horses?

While all types of forage can be beneficial for horses, some types, such as good quality hay or pasture grass, are more nutritionally balanced and can provide the necessary nutrients for horses. It is important to choose forage that is of high quality and free from mold or dust.

How can I ensure that my horse is getting all the nutrients it needs from a forage-only diet?

To ensure that your horse is getting all the necessary nutrients from a forage-only diet, you can consider adding a vitamin and mineral supplement to their diet. Additionally, regular check-ups with a veterinarian can help determine if any specific nutrient deficiencies need to be addressed.

Can horses perform well athletically on a forage-only diet?

Yes, horses can perform well athletically on a forage-only diet. Many elite equine athletes, including racehorses and eventing horses, are fed a primarily forage-based diet. With proper planning and monitoring, horses can have the energy and stamina required for athletic activities without the need for grain-based diets.

Can horses survive on a forage-only diet?

Yes, horses can survive on a forage-only diet. In fact, a diet consisting primarily of hay and pasture can meet all of a horse’s nutritional needs, as long as the forage is of good quality and is supplemented with appropriate vitamins and minerals. However, it is important to make sure that the horse has access to enough forage to maintain a healthy body weight and condition.

Why is it important to feed horses a forage-based diet?

Feeding horses a forage-based diet is important for several reasons. Firstly, horses are herbivores and their digestive systems are designed to process large amounts of fibrous material, such as hay and grass. Forage provides the necessary fiber for the horse’s gut to function properly and helps prevent digestive issues like colic and gastric ulcers. Additionally, a forage-based diet allows the horse to graze and exhibit natural behaviors, which contributes to their overall well-being. Lastly, forage is a more natural and cost-effective feed option compared to grain-based diets.

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