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Photo courtesy of Kentucky Equine Research
Photo courtesy of Kentucky Equine Research

By Kentucky Equine Research Staff

Every aspect of equestrianism features a language of its own. Coat color enthusiasts can define every shade and nuance; tack specialists can accurately describe a barrel full of bits using a specialized vocabulary. For nutrition aficionados, a robust wordlist is also in play. Just as forage is the foundation of a horse’s diet, let’s review some common forage-related terms that may be useful in everyday stallside conversation.

Before we begin, a word about “forage.” While some people stumble over this term, forage simply means the edible parts of plants, other than separated grain, that serves as feed for horses, or that can be harvested for feeding. Examples of forage include pasture, hay, haylage, hay pellets, and hay cubes.

“Forage quality” refers to characteristics that make forage valuable to horses as a source of nutrients, typically the combination of energy that determines its potential to fuel work in performance horses, growth in youngsters, and milk production in broodmares, and other essential nutrients such as protein, vitamins, and minerals.

Without further ado, do you know these common forage terms?

Cool-season grasses – grass species best adapted to growth during cool, moist periods of the year, commonly having temperature optimums of 59-77° F (15-25° C).

Fescue – a cool-season grass often used in forage stands for horses. Tall varieties are sometimes infected with a fungus, specifically the endophyte Acremonium coenophialum, that lives symbiotically with the plant. Exposure of horses to endophyte-infected tall fescue can elicit a toxic response, called fescue toxicity, which is especially problematic in pregnant mares and characterized by increased gestation length, lack of milk, placental abnormalities, and mare or foal death.

Fiber – a component of plant cell walls that provides strength and structure to the plant. As a plant matures, the fibrous component increases and lengthens to support the plant. Fiber is considered a structural carbohydrate. Horses are capable of digesting fiber due to microbial fermentation that occurs in the hindgut; because of this physiological feature, horses require fiber in their diets for optimal health.

Haylage – product resulting from ensiled forage with about 45% moisture in the absence of oxygen.

Legume – a large and agriculturally important family of flowering plants that produce seed pods; when produced and harvested under similar conditions, legume hays are generally higher in protein, energy, and certain minerals than grass hays.

Long-stemmed forage – this term speaks specifically to the physical length of the plant material or stems as it is presented to the horse. Long-stemmed forages include hay and some pasture plants. When forage is chopped or ground and formed into cubes or pellets, it is no longer considered long-stemmed forage.

Maturity – an arbitrary term to indicate the adult (or older) stages of plant development or its readiness to harvest. In general, mature forages, especially overmature plants, have less nutritional value than younger plants.

Overgrazing – grazing horses on a given area that, if continued to the end of the planned grazing period, will result in less than satisfactory performance (weight loss, etc.) or less than satisfactory pasture forage production; not to be confused with overstocking, which is horses on a given area that will result in overuse if continued to the end of the planned grazed period. Continued overstocking often leads to overgrazing.

Ration – perhaps not specifically related to forage, but a ration is the total amount of feed allotted to one animal for a 24-hour period.

Warm-season grass – grass species best adapted to growth during the warmer part of the year and usually dormant during cold weather or injured by it; commonly having temperature optimums of 80-95° F (27-35° C).

Reprinted courtesy of Kentucky Equine Research. Kentucky Equine Research is an international equine nutrition, research, and consultation company serving horse owners and the feed industry. Our goals are to advance the industry's knowledge of equine nutrition and exercise physiology, apply that knowledge to produce healthier, more athletic horses, and support the nutritional care of all horses throughout their lives. Learn more at

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