Roughage – Is Your Horse Eating Enough?

Hi Form Nathalie Kayall

We need to say sorry. We have been rather slow in getting helpful information out to you, our 2020 New Year resolution is to make sure that we get a whole lot better. So rather than wait to January we decided to start right now. We will be sending out hints and tips, if you have a particular topic you would like us to cover then please let us know. We are always here to help.

We have lots of conversations about feed. We know that with the hundreds of brands out there it becomes head spinning and it makes it very difficult for us to do the right thing when we are bombarded by marketing, feed company nutritionists, Facebook, Social Media and of course, advice from people on the yard.  There is a blog on the website that if you haven’t already read, it may be interesting for you.


Nutrition is the key to life, we believe.  So here’s the question:-

Can Performance Horses Survive on Roughage Alone?


Reaching high levels in the competition arena (or in fact any level of competing) depends on finding a perfect balance with nutrition. I think it’s important that owners and trainers have a good understanding of nutrition, we don’t expect them to be experts because they are very educated horse owners and they can use their own life experience and knowledge to ascertain what the horse may or may not need. But horses require a certain level of energy, protein, fats, vitamins and minerals and in particular roughage to sustain the horse at a high-performance level.

We are understanding and appreciating, more now than ever, that roughage is extremely important for all horses. Many performance horses can be stabled for extended periods of time, this is not a healthy existence for a horse who has evolved to be a grazing animal. So, in the case of horses being stabled for extended periods it is very important that owners and trainers ensure that they have access to plenty of roughage in the form of excellent quality hay literally 24/ 7.

Understanding how to manage the musculoskeletal system is also very important, as we know with performance horses there is a great deal of wear and tear on horses mentally and physically. Along with a really well-balanced diet I often suggest that it is worthwhile to use a really good body worker, acupuncturist or other types of qualified therapists to maintain your horse’s muscles and joints.

There are many products on the market that you can also use which will support the muscles and joints, but the most important aspect is to always ensure that you access professional advice. Itmakes no difference what age a performance horse is, there is always going to be pain involved in the training process.

Another aspect of managing a performance horse is to be very perceptive and observe your horse so that you can note any physical or emotional changes. We know they can’t speak to us verbally, but they do have very powerful body language, and this is something that we need to learn and understand a bit more efficiently.

Aside from nutrition, managing your horse to the optimum, is to understand the advancements in science and keeping abreast with what is going on as far as managing a performance horse. Having a good relationship with your veterinarian is also very important, you need to be in a position where you can discuss your horse confidently.


Performance horses such as racehorses, high-level dressage horses, showjumpers and eventers require an elevated level of energy to perform their work. And we are all aware that a high level of horse feeds contains energy dense concentrates. Unfortunately, it has been proven over many years that these types of feeds have a negative impact on the stomach of the horse. These types of feeds can contribute to gastric ulcers and tend to lack roughage that can in the long-term restrict the horse’s gut health functioning normally. Roughage encourages the normal chewing process and assists in stimulating the enzymatic action at the point of the mouth.

Nutrition provides the basic building blocks on which our horses are built.

How we feed our horses can affect reproduction, development in utero, the young foal, the developing athlete, competition horses, the older horse indeed all horses.

Prevention is certainly better than cure! In a world where everything is perfect even Thoroughbred racehorses could thrive on roughage alone.

However, is it possible that roughage within the diet could support their elevated level of training? Recent Swedish research says this is possible and can also be extremely beneficial for the horse. During these studies, the most important aspect was to ensure that the hays and grass being fed contained a high level of energy.

These are the comments made by Sara Ringmark, PhD, of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences Department of Anatomy, Physiology, and Biochemistry, in Uppsala. It seems that this study has proven that a high energy content can be achieved by a roughage only diet. A high energy diet is essential for high performance horses and it may be worthwhile to have a regular nutritional analysis of the roughage you are feeding or request this information from the supplier of the hays or high roughage feeds.

“If the roughage intake reaches the required energy levels than these performance horses should theoretically do exceptionally well. The performance level should be maintained and the condition of the horse also.”

Researchers at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences found that a forage-only diet is associated with lower levels of lactic acid, meaning the horses physically cope with the training regimen better than they would on a mixed diet with concentrates.


So, can horses at high performance levels be maintained just from a high roughage diet?


Naturally the amount of roughage being provided will depend on the workload of the horse and the nutrient analysis. A high roughage diet for performance horses can also be supplemented withfeeds such as alfalfa.

Alfalfa is a great feed for horses as it has an excellent nutrient analysis which includes an appropriate level of calcium and protein but is also quite low in NSC and starch so is quite beneficial to be fed. Maintaining an energy intake for performance horses is essential, this can be achieved by feeding a diet that is quite simple with the addition of the occasional grain if necessary and cold pressed linseed oil.

It is quite possible to reach the required energy levels, protein levels and fat content required to support the horse at this performance level.

It is important and essential to make sure that these types of horses are receiving the correct nutrient intake every day.


The inclusion of a well-balanced supplement is ideal.


A supplement should basically play a support role to a high roughage diet and should allow an adjustment to reach the correct nutritional intake that is required for every horse.

It seems that a high roughage diet does not prohibit muscle glycogen storage nor does it affect growth or the body condition of the horse. On the contrary a high roughage diet can promote a high health status. It may be of advantage to feed hays that have been cut early as the nutritional content is much higher. Feeding high performance horses, a high level of roughage does not seem to fit the current mold of feeding traditions, however the horse has evolved to eat this type of diet and as I have mentioned on many occasions the anatomy and physiology of the horse has not changed.




The study: Effects of training distance on feed intake, growth, body condition and muscleglycogen content in young Standardbred horses fed on a forage only diet was published in Anima


This article was written by Antoinette Foster, owner of Hi Form Australia, the formulator of all Hi Form’s products. We think it is essential reading and gives plenty of food for thought (sorry we couldn’t resist). All of our horses are fed in this manner, we practice what we preach .

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