• Menke Steenbergen

Weigh your roughage

You only know how much you feed if you start weighing your roughage.

Most people feed roughage on a hunge

It’s 8 o’clock in the morning, you walk into the stable and start with feeding the horse roughage. You always pick up a slab of hay, you know just a little more than half a forearm, where the bale naturally falls apart. Not very specific amounts when it comes to the most important energy source for your horse. And also not very accurate, so our research reveals. Unknowingly we feed far too little.


41% of the riding horses in the Netherlands do not receive the MINIMUM amount of roughage of 1%. Weigh how much roughage you have to feed using a simple luggage hanging scale. A 500 kilogram horse normally eats 10 kilograms of haylage (minimum 7.5 kg).


For this research, we traced the (stable) owner feeding 250 riding horses at different stables. After the roughage was given we weighed how much was actually fed. A very simple research with interesting results. Table 1 gives an overview of the measured minimum, maximum, averages and the standard deviations of the amounts of roughage given to the horses per day.

How much roughage does a horse need?

Horses need at least 1 kilogram of dry matter per 100 kilograms of body weight per day, ie 1% dry matter. This is the absolute MINIMUM for a well-functioning gut. The NORMALE roughage uptake of a horse is between 2% and 2.5% of their body weight per day.

Example: Hay contains less water than haylage. That’s why you have to give more haylage to reach the right amount of dry matter roughage.  For a 500 kilogram horse this means: MINIMUM 1.4% = 7.5 kilograms of haylage / day NORMAL 2% = 10 kilograms of haylage / day

How much do we really feed

Table 4 shows roughage percentages relative to the horse’s body weight as given to the 250 horses we measured. You see that:

41% of the horses receive less than the MINIMUM of 1% dry matter for roughage.75% of the horses received less than 1.5% roughage per dayOnly 4% of the horses received the NORMAL 2 or more% roughage


The conclusion of this research is that there is a lot of variation in the amount of roughage the owner feed to their horses and that most feeders give too little roughage. All stable owners were surpriced to learn that they are feeding too little, they all thought they gave enough roughage. It turns out that you do not know what you do if you do not measure it (occasionally).

Estimating the weight of the horse by measuring the withers

Eating straw

By the way, 87.7% of the horses in the survey were on straw. When horses do not get enough roughage, they fill their rations with straw. Many horses use straw as roughage when they get too little hay or haylage. We could not measure how much straw they had eaten, but eating too much straw would increase the risk of blockages in the esophagus.

Ration requirements for horses

Feed management contributes to the optimal functioning of the digestive system, to the prevention of nutritional problems, including colic, and to ensure that the horse can meet its natural needs so that animal welfare is not limited. For this, the diet should consist for 60% out of roughage and the amount of concentrated feed should be kept to a minimum whereby the horse stays on a healthy weight and the ration provides the energy needed for the work to be performed. Concentrate must be limited to 0.75% of the body weight per feed. The total amount of concentrate must be divided over at least 3 feedings per day at fixed times, so that the feed is distributed throughout the day. This helps to reduce the production of acid in the stomach and the blind and large intestine.

To reduce grains and starch as concentrate, alternative energy sources can also be provided to the horse. Examples include corn oil, sugar beet, soy hulls and rice bran. For the optimum functioning of the digestive system and the prevention of adverse effects of concentrates, it is advisable to provide a horse with at least 1.5% roughage of his body weight per day. Horses with a diet of roughage eat 2% to 2.5% of their body weight per day. Horses require long fiber roughage for chewing and for a good functioning of the digestive system.

Lack of roughage

In addition to concentrates, roughage also plays an important role in whether or not to develop problems. A lack of roughage is related to a high risk of developing colic. Because the digestive system of a horse is primarily built for the processing of roughage, there are significantly fewer problems if the diet consists mainly of roughage. Horses need at least 1% of their body weight of roughage per day for optimal functioning of the digestive system. In addition, it is important for the optimal functioning and the need to chew that horses get long-fiber roughage. The need to chew is related to the welfare because, as mentioned earlier, a horse has been adapted to the continuous eating of small portions. Saliva is only produced when the horse chews and saliva is  important for the neutralization of stomach acid.

Horses with a diet of roughage alone spend 40% of their time on eating and chewing and stand still 45% of the time. Horses on a diet of concentrates spend only 3% of their time eating and chewing end stand still for 62% of the time. Because horses are grazers, health and behavioral problems occur when they do not have the ability to graze. Behavioral problems are expressed in stereotypical behavior and are associated with the inability to meet the natural needs, thus limiting the welfare of the horse. Horses on a diet of concentrate have a greater risk of developing stereotyped behaviors, such as crib biting or wood chewing.

This is because they have the opportunity to eat for a limited part of the day and can not express the natural behavior, whereby a horse naturally has the opportunity to eat all day long. Chewing wood of trees, fences or on the barn are associated with a lack of fiber in the food.

Crib-biting in relation to roughage and stomach acid

It has been described above that horses with a shortage of roughage have a greater risk of developing stereotypic behavior. The stereotypical behavior that is related to a shortage of roughage is cribbing. This is a stereotypical behavior in which the horse puts his incisors on an object and withdraws. No air is absorbed in the stomach, which was initially thought. Air sucking does not exist. This means that crib-biting is probably not the cause of gas colic or decreased appetite, but it is suspected that crib biting, by making chewing movements, ensures an increased production of saliva and that the saliva serves as a buffer for the acid in the stomach. The acid production in the stomach of a horse is a continuous process and the stomach acid is normally buffered by the food and the high concentrations of bicarbonate in the saliva that is released during chewing. Horses only salivate by chewing and if a horse receives sufficient roughage, this does not cause problems. In the case of a shortage of roughage, it is a problem, because a horse needs less chewing on concentrated feed and therefore produces less saliva.

It has been shown that horses with an unlimited amount of hay as a diet have significantly less stomach acidification. The production of stomach acid is higher when eating concentrates than when eating roughage. Due to the crib biting, horses have a more constant production of saliva. The connection between crib biting and saliva production is not yet confirmed.

Horses that crib-bite spend 15 to 20% of the day on crib-biting and the frequency of crib-bites increases considerably at the time of feeding concentrate. Because there are even more physiological and behavioral aspects of crib biting, the increased saliva production may only be a by-product. Endorphins are released during crib biting, allowing the horse to relax. This is seen as a coping mechanism to relieve stress through this it is possible for the horse to adapt to the environment.

Crib biting is associated with colic and osteoarthritis of the temporomandibular joint. A link between stomach ulcers and crib-biting has not yet been demonstrated. Damage to the gastric mucosa is associated with teeth grinding and behaviors that indicate colic.


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