Protecting Lower-Ranking Horses During Field Feeding

Animal Arts architectural firm offers options for keeping alpha horses from stealing hay from lower-ranking horses in a field.

Sometimes you need to bring lower-ranking horses indoors to ensure they get their fair share of hay and feed.

Specialized architectural Animal Arts has responded to many questions from horse farm and stable owners about problems they see on properties. For more information from Animal Arts visit their website.

Question: I was recently talking to a stable manager who is having problems with a large field of horses, with some horses being run off the hay. She doesn’t want to have to bring these three horses in individually each day, twice a day, for feeding. Do you have any suggestions for separating low-ranking horses during hay feeding time that doesn’t require them being brought into a barn? 

Answer from Animal Arts: This is a problem we have experienced as well in fields with several horses. It is difficult to control the amount each horse is getting. We recommend the following:

Space hay portions about 30 feet apart. Arrange to feed the dominant horses closest to the gate as that’s where they’ll end up anyway at feeding time and feed the lowest ranking horses farthest out. The horses will naturally gravitate this way in reference to one another and the entry to the pasture.

Secondly, make sure there is ample room on either side of each feed pile. Avoid having horses wedged up against a fence line. That said, it seems to help to feed them in a line, with piles set 30 feet on center. That way the dominant horse has horses between him or her and the lowest ranking horses.

Some behavior experts also say that it might help to divide the dominant horse’s feed into two piles. The second one is set nearby and lets the horse think she’s stealing her neighbor’s food when she is eating her own rations.

If the above methodology does not work well enough to settle everyone down, try the following:

Have the horses evaluated by a veterinarian to see if any are underweight or overweight. If any are underweight, they need especially careful management, such as being brought inside for additional midday feedings. Very overweight ones might do better in separate housing where they can’t hog so many resources. In other words, rather than feeding each horse individually, focus on the ones that might not be doing as well as a result of the social situation.

Evaluate whether there are too many horses in this one pasture. the Department of Agriculture for your state is a good resource for answering questions such as this one.

Some barn managers have reasonable luck with separating geldings from mares, and then separating each sex by behavior and best match. We don’t know if this is possible, but it is ideal.

Make sure that the horses have enough resources to reduce stress. Ideas may include:

  • Slow feeders that help the horses eat throughout the day rather than in big meals.
  • Plenty of mineral blocks.
  • Sheds or shade structures spaced throughout the pasture.
  • Plenty of riding and exercise.
  • Warm blankets in the winter. 






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