The Importance of Forage


Horses are herbivores who naturally graze on large quantities of fibrous plant material, or forage. Forage is commonly available in two main forms for horses, namely pasture (grass) or conserved forage (hay and haylage). Forage should always be the foundation of a horses’ diet, keeping them happy and healthy – but just why is forage so important, and what are the health benefits it provides?

The Equine Digestive System

To get an idea of why forage is so important to keep our horses happy and healthy, we need to look at the equine digestive system. The digestive system comprises the stomach (about the size of a rugby ball) and small intestine, or the foregut, followed by a specially enlarged caecum and colon, the function of which is to facilitate the digestion of forage. The caecum and colon comprise 60% of the total gastrointestinal tract and are commonly named the hindgut.

Forage contains fibre which cannot be digested by enzymes in the foregut and is instead broken down by a process called fermentation, carried out by billions of microorganisms residing in the hindgut. Fermentation by these microbes produces the end products of Volatile Fatty Acids (VFA) which provide a slow-release energy source for the horse to fuel work and exercise.


The microbes in the hindgut contribute to immunity by fighting harmful bugs so forage not only provides an energy source but helps keep your horse healthy from the inside too!!

The whole digestive system is designed to facilitate ‘trickle feeding’ which reflects how the forage flows through it in a constant trickle. This design coupled with the function of the hindgut and its sheer size, illustrates just how important forage is in the diet of your horse.

Benefits of Forage

There are many benefits of feeding your horse a plentiful supply of forage. Forage satisfies the horses’ psychological need to chew and requires many more chews per kilo than cereals. Chewing produces saliva which acts as a buffer to stomach acid, helping to keep gut pH stable and potentially preventing gastric (stomach) and hindgut ulcers. Forage also forms a fibrous matt in the lower regions of the stomach preventing acid from splashing up onto the more sensitive upper regions, which can lead to gastric ulcers.


Forage binds water and when it is broken down this water is released building up a small reservoir of water in the horses’ gut, helping to keep them hydrated!!

Forage stimulates peristaltic contraction, which keeps the gut moving and expels gas, helping to prevent certain types of colic. Feeding plenty of forage will keep horses occupied, which is very useful when horses are stabled. As forage is fermented, heat is released, so forage acts as a central heating system for horses. This is particularly important when the temperature drops in the winter, keeping your horse warm from the inside. The volatile fatty acids released from the fermentation of forage can easily provide enough energy for horses in light to moderate work, keeping feeding costs to a minimum. Furthermore, B-vitamins such as Biotin are synthesized by the gut microbes from forage, so feeding plenty of forage will ensure your horse gets a good supply of these essential vitamins. Finally, feeding plenty of forage keeps the horses gut microbes healthy, and healthy microbes = a healthy horse!!

Feeding Forage the Smart Way

Forage fed to horses should be the best quality you can find, free of dust and mould. Poor quality forage will not supply your horse with enough nutrition, meaning feed costs will increase. Poor quality forage also can compromise your horses’ respiratory health. Although good quality forage will provide your horse with good nutrition, it is unlikely that it will provide a fully balanced supply of micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals) and quality protein such as lysine, which is often low in UK forage. Therefore, the smart approach is to feed a balancer alongside the forage. A balancer is a nutrient dense feed designed to be fed in very small amounts, which should balance the diet and ensure all daily vitamin, mineral and protein requirements are met for optimum health. A good quality balancer, such as Smart Balance should be your ideal choice, containing only wholesome, nutritious ingredients to provide superior nutrition without the use of cereal by-products, fillers and GMO ingredients. Balancers often contain other beneficial ingredients such as probiotic live yeasts, which have been shown to enhance fibre fermentation, allowing horses to get the most out of their forage.

The amount of forage needed by your horse is an important consideration, as horses need to eat 2% of their bodyweight in dry matter (DM) per day. Therefore, a 100% forage diet means that the average 500kg horse should be eating 10kg of forage per day! The smart approach is to make sure your horse is receiving the right amount of forage per day to meet with nutritional needs, ideally fed on an ad-lib basis to promote trickle feeding. If forage fed with a balancer to the correct daily requirements does not provide your horse with enough energy for work or maintaining condition, e.g. hard working or elderly horses, then additional feeds to replace some of the forage can be considered. However, forage should always form the foundation and, therefore, the majority of your horses’ diet.


  • Consider your horses digestive system and how important forage is to his health and well-being
  • Always choose the best quality forage you can buy, which should be fresh and sweet smelling and free of dusts and moulds
  • Feed the correct amount of forage on an ad-lib basis
  • Feed a balancer for optimal equine nutrition and health

Contributor: Lisa Elliott – Equine Nutritionist at Smart Horse Nutrition

Smart Horse Nutrition is a brand new feed company on mission to allow you to take control of your horse’s diet. By providing you with the 3 essential building blocks of a balanced diet – micro nutrients (Smart Balance), macro nutrients (a Smart Muesli) and fibre, Smart allows every horse’s diet to be tailored exactly to its individual needs, for the benefit of your horse’s health and your pocket.

For more information see, Tel: 01497 570345, or Email:


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