Why roughage is essential in your horse's diet and how to choose good fibre

Knowledge of what’s in roughage, the types and physical forms of roughage and the importance of roughage quality should be common knowledge for all horse owners.

Roughage is critical for the health and well-being of all horses and should be the basis for any feeding program. Understanding the design, function and reliance of the horse’s digestive system on roughage is the first step in appreciating the critical value of roughage. 

Horse eating hay fibre feed

Digestion of roughage

The unique structure and function of the horse’s digestive system is ideally suited for using roughage and as such, horses are classified as herbivores or plant eaters. Horses are also referred to as “hindgut fermenters” since the back portion of the digestive tract is a large fermentation vat. The horse’s hindgut is the largest area of the digestive system making up over 65% of the digestive capacity. Billions of bacteria and protozoa live in this portion of the digestive tract that break down (ferment) plant fibre from roughage. The intestinal microorganisms produce energy-yielding compounds called volatile fatty acids, as well as amino acids and B-vitamins that can be absorbed by the horse.

What’s in Roughage?

Roughage contains all of the essential nutrients required by horses: water, energy, protein, vitamins and minerals. The following are some of the nutrients that roughage contains:

  • Water - Pasture contains large amounts of water whereas preserved roughages (hay and chaff) have been dried to prevent mould growth whilst in storage.
  • Protein - The protein content is highest in legumes (Lucerne and Clover), lower in grasses and lowest in oaten or wheaten chaff.
  • Fat - Roughage contains a small amount of fat which is high in omega 3 fatty acids.
  • Fibre - Not all of the fibre in roughages is digestible with an overall estimate of digestibility ranging from 40 to 50%.
  • Minerals - A number of important minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, potassium, copper, zinc and others are present. The mineral content of pasture, hay and chaff is dependent on the soil condition where the plants are grown.
  • Vitamins - The vitamin content of green roughages is higher compared to sun bleached or weather damaged roughage.

Types and Physical Forms of Roughage

Roughage comes in many different types and physical forms. The simplest form of roughage is pasture, however, when conditions become harsh such as during extreme heat or cold, pasture plants will quit growing and become dormant. During these times of the season, the horse must rely on other physical forms of roughage that has been stored, such as hay. To make hay, plants are grown to a certain height or maturity, cut, dried to a low moisture content and packaged into a bale. If however, the moisture content is greater than 15% the hay will mould while in storage. Feeding mouldy roughage is never recommended as it can result in digestive upsets (colic) or even death.

Roughage that has been stored initially as hay can then be further processed into other physical forms, such as chaff. Alternative forms of roughage include soy hulls, lupin hulls and beet pulp, which are highly digestible as opposed to traditional forms of roughage mentioned above.

These alternative fibre sources are based on soluble fibres, also known as super fibres that provide digestible energy between that of good quality hay and grains. Super fibres offer an alternative energy source with less starch and sugar. Traditional fibre sources such as hay and chaff (insoluble) are poorly utilised, which often means that horse owners are required to feed more starches and sugars in the form of grain in order to meet the horse’s energy requirements. Hence, to increase the digestibility of the roughage being fed we must incorporate more digestible fibre sources into the diet such as soy hulls, lupin hulls and beet pulp.

Combining these fibre sources into a nugget or cube makes them most convenient and efficient to feed and that is exactly why HYGAIN® has developed HYGAIN® FIBRESSENTIAL®, a revolutionary fibre source consisting of soluble fibres in the form of an extruded nugget.

Fibressential horse fibre source

Supplementing the horse’s diet with soluble fibre nuggets or cubes as opposed to traditional forms of chaff provides numerous benefits to horses and horse owners:

  • Conditioning with less starch/sugar - Highly digestible fibres provide superior conditioning and greater feed utilisation to traditional chaff. Consequently, less grain (starch) is required to maintain the horse’s body weight.
  • Less dust – Varying levels of dust and fines in traditional forms of chaff may be problematic for horses with respiratory health issues. The production process and the physical form of the extruded fibre nuggets reduces the amount of dust fines, making them superior for horses with respiratory problems.
  • Consistent nutrient values – Nutritional values of traditional forms of chaff can vary greatly according to season and good quality chaff may not be available at times. Fibre nuggets on the other hand are made to certain specifications and provide consistent nutrient values all year around.
  • Balanced Calcium to Phosphorous ratio – Chaff may provide inconsistent and/or unbalanced calcium to phosphorous ratios. However, HYGAIN® FIBRESSNTIAL® provides calcium and phosphorous in a balanced ratio supporting the maintenance of healthy bones.
  • Transforms into a mash – Traditional forms of chaff may provide a challenge for horses with dental issues. Extruded fibre cubes such as HYGAIN® FIBRESSENTIAL® can be soaked in water providing a high fibre mash for horses with poor dentition. A secondary advantage to wetting fibre nuggets is it can slow down the rate of intake by the horse.
  • Ease of storage and transportation – Where chaff bags are quite bulky and take up a lot of room, bags of extruded fibre nuggets have a much higher product density resulting in significantly lower storage space in the feed room. Further, fibre nuggets are easier to carry and transport, especially when travelling to events.
  • Limited roughage wastage - Horses fed loose hay or chaff often waste 20%-40% (blown away by the wind or falls on floor). Furthermore, if offered voluntarily, most horses will consume more fibre cubes than hay, so owners should measure and monitor their horses' intake carefully.
  • HACCP and Feed Safe approvedHYGAIN® FIBRESSENTIAL® is produced in HACCP and Feed Safe accredited facilities unlike most traditional forms of chaff.


Roughage contains many essential nutrients and the fibre provided by roughage is important to the horse’s digestive health. Next to traditional forms of roughage (pasture, hay and chaff), alternative forms such as fibre nuggets and cubes have gained popularity. Fibre nuggets can be used as a complete chaff replacer (feed ration 1:1 based on weight) and partial hay replacer, providing many benefits to the horse and horse owner. Roughage should be offered free-choice to horses unless your horse is obese or is prone to roughage related allergies. Feeding large volumes of roughage will maximize digestive health and minimize the amount of grain that will need to be provided to the horse.

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