Your Horse May Be Missing Roughage If . . .
Mar 26, 2012
From the Recovery Room
Ryan Rothenbuhler DVM, MS
Over the last few weeks I have seen multiple occasions of horses that are missing roughage. You might ask, what do you mean by missing roughage? I have seen trees completely stripped of bark from the ground to as high as a horse could reach, a barn missing siding, and a horse that ingested crushed corn cob bedding.
You can tell a lot by viewing the horse and its surroundings to determine if roughage is missing from their diet. First thing I like to do is to forget the horse and just look at its environment. What does it have for pasture? Horses are grazing animals and like their nose to the ground most of the day. Have you ever paid attention to a horse in pasture? They don't just eat three meals a day. Their nose is to the ground and they are constantly looking for that next soft, chewy morsel of grass. Most nutritionists and veterinarians agree that horses should be fed 4-6 times a day if they do not have adequate pasture. Is there overcrowding? We see farms all of the time that have one large round bale for multiple horses and no pasture. Imagine the dominance ladder of that horse farm. The strongest get to the round bale first and start grazing on the hay. The weakest slide in to take a bite and promptly get chased away. You can imagine that some of the horses on the farm have a good body score while others are getting thinner and thinner. After a while of being thin with nothing to graze on, they start to wander the fence line and find those trees with the not so soft, chewy morsel of bark or the four board wood rail fence. They think to them self; it's better than nothing and they become part beaver.
There are a lot of people who believe that wood chewers and tree chewers are horses which are bored. I like to think of it differently. I truly believe there are horses that have a need for indigestible fiber. I also think there are horses which are bored. I also know that there are horses that frankly, just need to eat. The people who watch over the wild horses out west have noted that in the face of ample forage, the horses will still eat trees and shrubs. As an owner and a veterinarian we should be able to differentiate the bored horse or the hungry horse. When we notice that tree bark and fence boards start disappearing we need to address the problem at hand.
A few years ago a new bedding product came out on the market called Beck's Better Bedding. It was crushed corn cob. It had a picture of various animals on the front of the bag including horses. It was being marketed at a cheap alternative to shavings. Right after the product came out, I got my first experience with Becks Better Bedding as a forage. It was marketed as a bedding alternative; no one said the horses would eat it. An owner brought their horse in for evaluation for colic. When performing my rectal exam it became apparent that there was something in the feces that was not your normal forage. It appeared like it was crushed corn cob. When quizzing the owner, she acknowledged that they had switched bedding and that the horse had ingested a significant amount. This did not make sense. Why would a horse ingest corn cob bedding? After spending a couple hours removing the impacted corn cob from the intestines and catching up on some sleep, I decided to investigate the Beck's Better Bedding a little bit. I went to the feed store and bought a bag of the corn cob. It was full of crushed corn cob with the occasional piece of corn. Why would horses like this? I opened the bag and took a deep breath. It smelled just like I thought it would, Corn!
I made contact with the company and they informed me that they had received complaints of horses eating it, but no complaints of surgical colics. I informed them that I had a case of it and that they would be contacted by the owner. A few weeks later while at the feed store, I ran across another bag of the bedding and it now had a sticker label that read:
WARNING! This product is made of all natural crushed corn cobs and is intended to be used as bedding. Corn Cobs are often used as a component of animal feed to provide roughage in the diet. Some animals, particularly horses, are curious and may eat the bedding. In small quantities this bedding should not be harmful to an animal. IF your animal continues to eat the bedding, you should remove the animal from the bedding, and you may want to evaluate if the animal has enough roughage in its ration. Persistent or excessive ingestion of this bedding may cause serious injury to an animal.
They had acknowledged that there could a problem with your horse ingesting the bedding and that you should evaluate your horse for roughage consumption. I have since seen a couple more horses with the same problem. Amazingly enough, most owners did not notice the horse consuming the bedding. I understand why owners like the corn-cob bedding; it was cheap and highly absorbent. I was at a science fair recently, and sure enough, an elementary student demonstrated that the corn-cob bedding was more absorbent than your other types of bedding.
The first question I get when I state that a horse is missing roughage is, "what should I be feeding". Horses should be continually grazing grass, but if that management practice is impractical because you do not have adequate pasture, or the horse cannot have turnout for any reason; then your horse should be getting it's roughage from good quality hay or a complete feed. It is thought that your average horse without access to pasture should receive at a minimum of 1% of their body weight in good quality roughage every day. To prevent digestive upset or problems, you should keep the roughage above 0.75% of their body weight. We prefer to see horses receive 1-2% of their body weight if there is no supplemental feeding of concentrates. For your average horse without access to grass, it should be fed approximately 13 pounds of hay a day or 2.3 tons of hay a year. So when buying hay for your average horse, you should expect to feed at least 100 bales (~50 pound bales) of hay a year.
Not all of the "tree debarking, fence rail chewing, barn siding munching, and corn-cob eating" horses have been your run of the mill roughage deprived horses, but some have been. Some have been skinny and some have been obese. Some are starving and some are bored. I think the key is to just watch your horse and their surroundings to ensure that they are getting adequate pasture, forage, and time outside of their stall.
If you are concerned with what your horse is eating and would like to discuss it with us, please feel free to call Conley and Koontz Equine Hospital. We always have ideas and information to help you make the right choices with your horses care.