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First and foremost, horses must always have hay available, as this provides the important cellulose that is converted into energy and nutrients by the microorganisms in the large intestine.

Horses need a source of wood fibre

In addition to hay, a source of wood fibre should always be available for nibbling, because horses not only use wood to regulate their tooth wear, but also to adjust their peristalsis. The following applies: pectin (young pasture grass, leafy hay, fruit, vegetables) accelerates peristalsis, lignin (straw, branches, leaves) slows down peristalsis, cellulose is in between.

Traditionally, horses were bedded with straw, which was not just bedding but also a source of feed. As nowadays most stables no longer use straw for bedding, another source of lignin must be provided as feed. This could be using a hay net and filling it with straw instead. Oat straw is the favourite amongst horses, wheat straw is also very popular. Most horses dislike rye straw and barley straw can cause problems in the digestive tract due to the long awns.

Straw is unfortunately often contaminated with spraying agents such as stalk shorteners. If you can get organic straw, that would be ideal. Otherwise, the same hygiene requirements apply to straw as they do to hay: mould is a no-go. Attention should be paid, especially in rainy summers and with organic straw, as organic areas are not sprayed with herbicides, there are still many other (green) plants in the straw. Straw must therefore also be dried in the field and turned if necessary to dry these plants. If they are pressed into the bales immediately after cutting, they can start moulding in time. The same applies, of course, if the grain was harvested too wet and the wet straw is baled, mould will develop in this case also.

Horse nibbles on a branch
Horses need a source of wood fibre. © Petra Fischer / Adobe Stock

Branches and twigs as an alternative

If no qualitative straw is available, branches and twigs can be offered as an alternative. It is not without reason that every bush (except a few non-flavoursome ones such as elderberry) is completely reduced to a few stalks in a very short time if found on the pasture or track. When trees and bushes are cut back in winter, the cuttings can be thrown directly onto the pasture or onto the track to nibble on. To avoid the branches being dragged all over the place, some simple boundaries can be created, using posts for example to keep the branches to nibble on in one place and prevent injuries when playing.

Sometimes the horses even leave the hay and prefer to nibble on bark, leaves and branches, especially if they have just been restocked. If a storm knocks down a tree in summer or a large branch breaks off: don’t burn it, feed it. All branches and twigs from non-poisonous trees and bushes can be fed. Often garden centres can advise on trees and shrubs that are suitable for horses to plant around the stables and track system.

You can also use branches and twigs to lay beautiful hedges around the paddock, which, as well as being fun for the horses to nibble on, are not only an important habitat for insects, small mammals and lizards, but can also help to structure and maximise the horses’ movements as well as serve as a wind shield in strong winds.

Read more: Feeding young horses equine appropriately ...

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