The time may come when you need to feed a roughage other than traditional baled hay. The most important things to remember are to be sure you’re substituting at a correct rate, gradually introducing the product, and balancing any necessary minerals (see chart). That’s it.
However, the myth persists that horses need what is sometimes called ”long fiber” in their rations to avoid colic or choke and that these alternatives are risky. It’s simply not true. Horses have no problems, except possible increased wood chewing, when fed hay alternatives.
For one thing, ”long fiber” is relative. What starts out as a long stalk of dried grass from a hay bale is induced to much shorter pieces as the horse chews it. Each step of the digestive process from the stomach on further breaks down these pieces, until they become microscopic in the colon. The particle length in hay cubes (about an inch) is approximately the same as what would normally enter the stomach after chewing. Particle length in pellets is obviously smaller, but the major difference between all these forms of forage is how long they keep the horse occupied chewing.
The wood chewing seen in pellet-fed horses is likely directly related to the low chew time. In the study we read, horses fed hay wafers did not show wood chewing, but they tended to chew the wafers longer than pellets (see http://jas.fass.org/cgi/reprint/25/3/740). Feeding the largest pellets you can find would therefore be an advantage, or use hay cubes instead, as they require more chewing.
Horses that choke because they bolt their food might be at increased risk when fed pellets. However, older horses with chewing or swallowing problems can choke on hay just as easily as pellets. Soaking the cubes softens them for easier chewing.
Beet pulp is a good hay replacement, too (see chart), but again it lacks chewing time. For more information see our full article on hay alternatives in January 2008.