Roughage for horses

Bale of grass in a field

A horse ideally should have access to good quality roughage, adlib all day every day, but sometimes it’s not possible or practical for this to occur. Stabled horses might waste large amounts of available roughage by walking on it in their stables, and then they won’t eat it. Now that we are moving into winter, available roughage is more important than during summer months as pasture grasses become unpalatable or the horse might not have access to a pasture with decent grazing. A horse needs to eat 1 -2 percent of their body weight in roughage on a daily basis.  So taking an average 500kg horse as an example, that horse needs to have access to, at the very least 5kg of roughage and up to 10kg of roughage per day. Depending on the breed of the horse and other factors, a lot will depend on whether the horse will do well on the upper or lower end of that calculation.

Bales of grass in storage

During winter horses keep themselves warm by eating and moving about. A stabled horse cannot move about as much as one in an outside environment so if a horse is stabled it will most probably need more roughage available to it than an outside kept horse.

The most commonly available roughage types are:

Lucerne (Alfalfa)

Teff ( Eragrostis tef)

Eragrostis ( Eragrostis curvula)


Depending on your location will depend on the availability of the various roughage types. In some areas timothy hay and rhodes grass are also available but they are not as common as the four abovementioned commercially produced roughage.

Round bales of grass in a field

Lucerne: It is a superb fodder for animals, High in protein , calcium and digestible energy and highly palatable to most horses. It has the added benefit of acting as a buffer in the horse’s gut as it increases the pH of the gut and therefore lowers the acidity levels in the gut and a horse who suffers from a gastric ulcer condition will benefit immensely from the intake of lucerne on a regular basis. High leaf content in the bales is preferred for horses. It should not be the only roughage fed to a horse but can make up to 50 percent of the available roughage.

Teff: Fed widely and very available to most horse owners. The quality of the teff needs to be checked as the nutritional value of the tef and its’ palatability depends on when it is cut and how it is produced and grown. First cuts with less stalk pieces are highly palatable, whereas with second cut bales the stalky pieces are most often not eaten. Bales that are baled when the moisture content is too high will lead to mouldy bales, and horses being picky eaters will not eat it if it is not good quality. You also run the risk of causing colic or your horse inhaling in fungal spores if the teff offered to your horse is not good quality and in any way mouldy.

Eragrostis: Also a widely fed roughage and easily available in most parts. It has lower protein and digestible fiber, and lower energy when compared with teff, but when produced correctly the quality can be as good as teff and close in nutritional value. Nutritional value also depends on the cutting stage and whether it was grown with fertilisation or not. If fertilized and cut as a young grass it is highly nutritious and highly digestible.

Oathay: This is another readily available roughage. The protein content of oathay is somewhat lower than the other roughages available but a good source of roughage nonetheless . Quality depends on when it is cut and the palatability of oat hay is very dependent on when it is cut for baling. When cut later, oathay has fewer sugars in it but is then a more hard stalky roughage and is not as palatable. However for sugar sensitive horses it’s a good roughage to be made available, although the wastage might be quite high. Earlier cut oathay is higher in digestible energy, softer and is more palatable but also has a higher sugar content. When compared to teff and eragrostis it is a much cheaper product to grow, so oathay bales are usually less expensive than teff and eragrostis by about 50 percent and oathay is usually a third of the price of lucerne. It can be a very good economical addition to a horse’s roughage diet.

Round bales of grass

Those are the most readily available types of roughage, each with their own merits and costs. When working out, what your horse’s needs are, always try and feed by weight. Haynets are not all created equally and carry different volumes and weight so a haynet that looks like it will weigh 5kg might not in fact weigh close to that. Working with weights, also takes the guess work out of feeding correctly. A slice of lucerne can be 2 kg on one day and a 4kg on another, depending on how a bale breaks apart. If you feed by weighing fodder, even if you are feeding on the ground and not in a haynet, you can monitor your horse’s needs and make adjustments to their diet based on good factual evidence. Each horse is so unique in what they need, and so many factors play a part in their nutritional intake and needs: work load, type and breed, general disposition, age and health condition etc so there are a lot of factors to take into consideration when feeding horses.

Horse grazing

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