Feed Management Should Mimic NatureBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · December 1, 2011
By understanding the horse’s instinctive feeding behavior, today’s feeding strategies can be shaped to mimic natural tendencies. Certain feeding behaviors in horses are triggered by physiological changes and signals. Hormones, nerve signals, and homeostatic mechanisms lead to feelings of hunger that urge the horse to move around and look for something to eat. In a natural setting, the horse would wander about, lower its head, and graze while smelling and tasting various
Free-ranging horses rarely go more than two to three hours between feeding bouts, spending an average of 10 to 14 hours per day in grazing behavior. Chewing is nearly continuous while horses are eating grass and other forage. In contrast, stalled horses often gobble their grain meals, finish hay rations quickly, and spend many hours with nothing to chew. Mixing chopped forage into grain meals gives horses more opportunity to chew, but may also lead to overfilling of the stomach because of a larger amount of material being eaten in a short time.
Behaviors such as stall walking, weaving, cribbing, and eating manure or bedding are directly related to horses attempting to express natural behavior. There is some evidence that horses will self-supplement by eating bedding or manure in order to bring their eating/chewing time up to around ten hours a day.
Pasture turnout with other horses most closely mimics natural conditions, but if this management is not possible, horses should be kept within sight of other equines; be fed small, frequent grain meals instead of one large grain portion; and be allowed to nibble hay more or less continuously. For many horses, low-carbohydrate hay may be more suitable than very rich hay so that horses don’t consume too many calories.
Hay fed to horses should always be clean and free of mold. Water should be provided free-choice.