When I was little I used to help with the evening feedings at the barn after my lessons. In the same sequence every time, we dropped bales of hay down from the loft and I threw a few flakes into every stall while the barn manager mixed up everyone’s feed. As soon as that first bale hit the ground all hell broke loose! The barn shook with kicks to the wooden walls, buckets rattled on their hooks and teeth ran down the metal stall guards like a prisoner banging a tin cup across the bars. But as soon as I finished with the hay calm was restored and the barn sank into a satisfied silence of quiet chewing. The feed cart was then wheeled down the aisle and grain could be dumped into bins without fear of flying hooves or gnashing teeth.
I equated this pre-grain hay to the tiny salad brought out by the waiter at a nice restaurant. Placed on a tiny plate and consisting of a few pieces of lettuce, a ring of onion, one cherry tomato and a few croutons. It was meant to bridge the gap between the time when your mother cut you off from the bread basket (after your third or fourth breadstick) until your meal arrived. It wasn’t the meal itself and to me had no impact on my daily intake (I didn’t even factor it in when deciding what to order).
I know now that I was wrong. Salads can make fine meal, wonderful meals in fact, where all of your nutritional requirements are met and you are left sated. For humans we should strive to make the components of a salad the bulk of our diets, I bet we would be a lot healthier as a population. In horses it is even more important than that. Hay is not a side salad intended to keep horses calm while waiting for the real meal, in fact it should be the whole meal, the main component of a horse’s diet. It delivers calories, protein, and carbohydrates and as part of the carbohydrates, the most important element: fiber! Horses are hindgut fermenters; the microbes that live in their cecum and colon digest the fiber and produce molecules the horse can use for energy. Without fiber these good microbes would die, the horse would have no energy and worst of all the bad microbes (Salmonella and Clostridum to name a few) would take over and then we’re really in trouble.
So when I was a kid I was thinking about nutrition all wrong (for horses and probably for myself as well). We don’t build a diet around grain, adding hay just to keep the barn from being torn down at feeding time. We must build our horses entire nutritional program around hay. To do this we really should have our hay tested (every field and every cutting is a little different), to know exactly how many calories there are per pound and how much protein and carbohydrates our horses are getting. That way we can calculate exactly how much hay each horse needs (think 2-3% of their bodyweight per day, yes this means doing math and weighing your hay to know how much each flake weighs). The grain is the additive, only there to provide the vitamins and minerals that may be deficient in the hay (like Vitamin E and selenium) as well as some extra calories for the high performance horses who can’t eat enough hay to meet their caloric requirements. Rather than thinking of the hay as salad and the grain as the meal, we need to be thinking of the hay as the meal and the grain as a multivitamin, just filling in the gaps to make our total diet balance and complete.