In determining the best methods to feed, it is important to remember that the horse was designed to be a wandering herbivore. In the natural environment, horses will graze up to 20 hours per day, so they evolved with a relatively small stomach—a horse’s stomach represents only 7 percent of its gastrointestinal system. In other words, the smaller stomach is designed to handle small frequent meals, instead of one or two large meals a day.
In domesticating horses, however, we have converted them from wandering herbivores to consumers of hay and grain. So, while habitat and practices have changed, a horse’s body functions haven’t—making the best feed-management programs those that emulate closest a natural diet.
When horses feed or graze, large shifts in body fluids will occur—a result of fluid demands from salivary, stomach and intestinal secretions. Research has shown that feeding once a day will rapidly decrease fluid volume in the bloodstream and cause stress on the gut and other body systems. The best way to combat this is to feed small frequent meals that will minimize these large fluid shifts
One of the ways to create more opportunities to eat is to feed out small frequent meals of hay. When compared to grain, horses consuming hay eat slower and produce more saliva, which helps swallowing and buffers stomach acid, which is also why it is important to feed hay prior to grain. Besides, grain should only be a supplement to forage (a good goal is to never feed more pounds of grain than forage—for horses who graze, each hour represents one pound of dry forage) and by offering the highest quality forages, grain can be minimized even more.
Another way to ensure against overfeeding is to keep all grain meals less than 5 pounds per feeding. In high-performance horses, lactating mares and growing horses, grain should be equally divided into three to four meals per day.
Horses are creatures of habit and do not adapt to change well. Any ration or feed changes should be done slowly over a seven to 10-day period to allow intestinal bacteria to acclimate. A recent study revealed that the biggest risk factor for colic is a sudden change in forage. So new pasture or hay should be slowly introduced.
“The most natural feeding position for a horse is with his head near the ground. This position helps clear the respiratory tract…”
How we provide these meals is also very important to a horse’s health. While the goals of any feed management program should include minimizing waste, fecal contamination and the inhalation of dust, meeting all three of these goals creates a husbandry challenge. Obviously, the best way to minimize waste and contamination is to avoid feeding horses on the ground. On the other hand, the best way to minimize inhalation of mold and dust is to avoid feeding from racks.
For example, as horses live longer, we are seeing more Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), or heaves. I contend that we could lessen the incidence of heaves by avoiding the chronic exposure to dust and mold over the horse’s lifetime. Many of you might be thinking this doesn’t apply to your stable because you never feed moldy or dusty hay, but even though you might not see it or smell it, most hay has some degree of both.
With that in mind, let’s look at the way horses eat. The most natural position for a feeding horse is with his head near the ground. This position helps clear the horse’s respiratory tract of inhaled dust and mold because gravity facilitates the sweeping motion of the cilia—hair-like structures that help move foreign bodies out of the airways. Research has proven that if the horse cannot lower his head there is a greater incidence of respiratory infections. So, with feed and hay racks, try positioning the racks below the horse’s withers.
And, even though feeding hay in racks or bunks will minimize waste and fecal contamination, a research study showed that 41 percent of the time, horses preferred to pull the hay out of the rack and eat off the ground, presumably making them less vulnerable to competition and predators. In fact, the same study showed that horses using the racks raised their heads about 25 times per hour—indicating their discomfort with eating out of racks. And, every time a horse raises its head it will drop, and therefore, waste hay. Maybe they are telling us what they think of our feeders.
Respiratory infection in shipped horses is another good example of how feeding position can influence equine health. Many of us tie our horses in the trailer and hang a hay bag in front of them. A better option might be to avoid hay on shorter trips and, when away at an all-day show, set the hay up closer to the ground. Another way to cut down on the amount of dust and mold is to feed out cubed hay or a hay substitute.
When pasture-feeding horses, a few rules of thumb can help keep waste and fighting to minimum. For example, horses will fight less if hay or grain is arranged in a large triangle because they can keep an eye on each other. Another rule should be moving all feeding areas frequently to minimize waste and pasture damage. Consider feeding hay cubes and pelleted grain in pastures because if the food is spilled, it is easier to consume. Avoid feeding sweet feed or grains in pasture—it will only increase waste and attract more birds and rodents.
Water is the most important part of any diet and often the most mismanaged. When horses don’t consume adequate water, they are more prone to disease. A well-hydrated horse is better able to fight off infections and less likely to suffer from fatigue-related injuries. We know that horses will consume more water if it is kept between 45 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Using insulated buckets, water heaters and automatic waterers will help achieve that goal. Recently, automatic waterers have become more affordable and there are many varieties for stalls and pastures. The total cost of these waterers, which can range from $50 to $500 per fixture, is affordable when the initial investment is spread over several years and you consider the saved labor and lowered health risk. Additionally, water from the buried pipe of an automatic waterer will be cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.
For the majority of barns that don’t have automatic waterers, frequently changing the water and cleaning the buckets will help eliminate potential health problems, such as colic and tying up.
As usual with horses, it is important to balance what is best with what is practical. But always remember that preventing a disease is always cheaper than treating one.