Best Practices for Feeding Horses

 

A day rarely goes by that you don’t hear the word “natural” regarding horses. We want to nourish their feral instincts by providing space, herds, and safe horse management practices, including how we feed them. So much about horses revolves around their need to chew as much as possible. When it comes to feeding horses, the goal is to mimic the needs of your horse’s mind and body by providing the best nutrition, forage, and supplements in the most natural way. And that means feeding horses in a way that slows them down, like with a hay net.

 

Table of Contents:

 

Why feeding naturally is important

Digestive health benefits – ulcers, colic, and more

Feeding guidelines 

The order of feeding 

The best slow feeders

The dangers of slow feeders 

Feeding senior horses 

Equine dental health

 

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Why is Feeding Horses Naturally Important

 

Their entire digestive system runs best when the amount of feed is small, allowing them to chew and digest most of the day. Free choice hay given 24/7 is best. But it doesn’t mean they eat all those hours; they do other non-eating things for a couple of hours each day. For most equines, 17 hours of eating is plenty and allows for rest and play, too, and seems to be the norm for most horses. All of this chewing creates a healthy horse in many ways.

 

Mental Stimulation

 

  • There’s a common denominator between horse vices and training issues – boredom. When horses eat more significant, less frequent “meals” that often include commercial feeds, there are long spurts where they have nothing going on – hence the likelihood of wood chewing, cribbing, weaving, or any other vice your horse can invent. When combined with stall life, the chances of a vice developing increase.

 

  • For the horse that loves to chew wood, researchers believe this is due to a lack of chew time instead of a self-soothing vice. Either way, it’s a problem for horses and your fencing. Some horses also will be quick to chew down the barn or sheds.

 

  • When grazing in pasture or on dry lots, be sure there is plenty of forage available and enough water to help your horse’s gut properly digest their snacks. Water is life, and the average horse drinks about 10 gallons of water a day. The amount of water varies, so always provide much more than they need. It should also be clean and fresh. Most horses prefer to drink cold water, although they will drink MORE warm water. If given a choice, they prefer cold.

 

  • Supplementing sparse pasture and dry lots with legume or grass hay helps your horse’s body and mind move and chew. It’s easy to use slow feeders with large bales or round bales of supplemental hay.

 

 

two horses in a pasture

Slow feeding mimics grazing

 

Digestive Health Benefits of Slow Feeding Horses

 

  • Our equine friends need to keep eating because of the precarious nature of their digestive tracts. Their bodies continually pump out digestive enzymes and acids, which require a near-constant supply of forage to avoid damaging the stomach.

 

  • The horse’s diet also must feed the myriad of microbes that digest sugars, starches, and fiber in the hindgut. Digestive disturbances often happen when those microbes receive a larger volume of sugars and starches.

 

  • There are a few significant concerns that feeding horses improperly can lead to. Ulcers, hindgut acidosis, laminitis, and colic are the biggies.

 

 

Read this for the big picture of your horse’s digestive system

Read about the equine stomach here.

 

Gastric ulcers

 

As equines eat, digestion starts in the mouth and ends on your manure fork.

 

  • The mouth, esophagus, and stomach start to process forage and feed at the beginning of the digestive process. Saliva and chewing soften and digest the food, and the esophagus transports it to the stomach.

 

  • Fun fact: horses can’t throw up. This fun horse trivia has its issues, especially when their bellies are full of gas.

 

  • Onto the stomach! Here, digestive acids secrete enzymes around the clock. Their job is to break down the horse’s feed further, and when food is present, that acid is occupied. When the stomach is empty, those acids and enzymes are still there, wanting to do their job, but the only thing to act upon is the stomach itself.

 

Read more about why horses can’t vomit

 

The problem with stomach acid

 

  • The stomach’s lower section, the glandular mucosa, can handle the digestive acids. Specialized glands there secrete mucus and bicarbonates to buffer acidity and keep the lower stomach lining from eroding.  

 

  • The upper portion of the stomach, the squamous region, has no such glands. Therefore, there is no protection from acidic digestive juices. If a horse isn’t chewing enough, the stomach’s acids are lonely and will start to “eat” the upper area of the stomach. This is how gastric ulcers happen. 

 

  • During exercise, if the stomach is empty, those digestive fluids will splash about into the upper areas of the stomach. Feeding long-stem, cubed, or pelleted hay before riding helps protect the stomach from developing gastric ulcers.

 

  • Slow feeding your horse gives the stomach something to do and a job for those digestive acids, reducing their likelihood of touching the sensitive areas of your horse’s stomach.

 

Read all you could ever want to know about ulcers.

 

 

three small hole hay nets in a hay loft

These openings are about 2 inches – and work well with this type of timothy blend hay. 

 

Hindgut acidosis

 

  • The small intestine digests sugars and starches. However, if there is too much sugary feed in the digestive system, it will pass into the hindgut, the cecum specifically. This is where fermentation happens to digest the forage. Hindgut fermentation is usually a boring process. But, when horses rapidly ingest starches and sugars, this fermentation can go sideways and create many problems. Horses can overeat a few ways – eating more than a few pounds of concentrate, lush spring grass, stressed grass, or overeating hay.

 

  • When that abundance of starches and sugars enter the cecum, those microbes in the hindgut will feast upon this bounty and, in the process, create lactic acid. The overall pH of the hindgut then starts to drop and become more acidic, hence the name hindgut acidosis.

 

  • Now you have a situation where the hindgut is out of whack; microbes die because of the pH changes, and endotoxins release from the dying bacteria. Endotoxins are a part of the cell wall of some microbes and are downright dangerous for horses. OH, and there’s an increase in gas, too. This is hindgut acidosis.

 

Some more about hindgut ulcers here, and gorging on foods here.

 

Laminitis

 

  • Let’s take this pH scenario one step further.

 

  • If the volume of sugars and starches is large enough that the partying microbes make such a mess, that change in pH will also increase the permeability of the intestinal lining and let those endotoxins into the bloodstream. This triggers laminitis.

 

  • The laminitis risk is why slow-feeding horses is so important. Small meals usually won’t upset the digestive system to the point of creating laminitis and founder. But larger volumes or faster eating does.

 

  • Aside from being wildly painful, laminitis can lead to founder when the hoof bones shift and sink.

 

Colic

 

  • When the pH changes, the other consequence is gas production, triggering colic. This gas is, unfortunately, helped by the horse’s inability to vomit, too.

 

  • Gas colics may resolve quickly with your vet’s help but are painful and may lead to a twisted gut.

 

  • Many horses will show signs of colic when they have laminitis and vice versa.

 

 

  • Anytime your horse shows pain, call your vet. Finding the proper diagnosis quickly reduces your horse’s pain, making a swift recovery more likely.

 

steamed hay in a round hay gain

Feeding steamed hay can benefit some horses with respiratory problems.  You can use slow feeders for steamed hay, but be careful in warm temps; you don’t want the middle parts to ferment.

 

Guidelines for Feeding Horses

 

  • These basic feeding rules keep your horse happy, healthy, and busy.

 

  • Feed forage first – before commercial feeds and definitely before exercise.

 

  • Feed often and in small quantities for grain meals.

 

  • Feed according to your horse’s body weight and body condition. Your horse’s calorie needs depend on their body score, exercise levels, medical issues, and more. Start by feeding about 1.5% of your horse’s body weight in forage.

 

  • Keep feeding to a rough schedule. Horses love routine but should be flexible. Also, if you keep your horse on a reliable slow feeding system, a regular schedule to the minute matters less.

 

  • Slowly introduce new food, including hay, supplements, and concentrated commercial feeds. It takes about two weeks to introduce new forages and feeds safely.

 

  • Fresh water is a must. Make it readily available, too!

 

  • Add water to your horse’s feed. You can soak or steam your horse’s hay for metabolic issues and reduce dust. For grains and pellets, adding water does a few things. You help your horse’s hydration and slow down eating for grains when wet. Also – you can get slow feeders and horse toys for pelleted and grain products.

 

  • Don’t do extreme exercise after eating. Also, don’t exercise on an empty stomach. Forage is best to fill the stomach and make a “hay hat” that protects the stomach acids from splashing about.

 

  • Monitor your horse’s weight regularly, about every few weeks or so. It’s so easy to use a weight tape to do this.

 

  • Maintain pastures and mow if necessary. The goal is to reduce weeds and prevent grass from seeding, as this increases the sugars and starches in pasture grass.

 

Read more about mowing pastures here.

 

slow feeder for horse feeds and hay pellets

Yes, you can find slow feeders for grains and pellets. 

 

Minimizing concentrates and maximizing forage

 

  • Ideally, every horse has the perfect pasture all year without needing supplements. HA! The reality is that it’s not possible. Even the most ideal pasture will likely lack some vitamins or minerals.

 

To minimize concentrated horse feeds:

 

  • Use ration balancers to add nutrients without calories.
  • Use specific supplements instead of commercial feeds. You can easily mix them with hay pellets and water. This may also be more affordable!
  • If your horse needs calories, add fats. You can also add a higher calorie hay.

 

Some other things to consider about your horses’s nutrition:

 

  • It’s possible only to supplement seasonally. Safe and healthy pasture in the warmer months may fulfill your horse’s dietary requirements. BUT! When grass is under snow, dormant in the winter, or overgrazed, your horse will need you to fill in the blanks.

 

The Order of Feeding Matters

 

  • There is no picture-perfect way to feed horses except to maximize slow feeding. And that has to happen within budgets, schedules, facilities, and availability to pasture. Some simple feeding practices help your routine and your horse’s health. 

 

Roughage

 

  • Feed hay first. Hay is a convenient way to slow your horse’s digestion before bagged feeds and pasture. Also, your horse’s appetite is sated, so there’s a more negligible risk of inhaling the high-sugar stuff and causing digestive upset.

 

Pellets, bagged feeds, and rations

 

  • Split any supplements and bagged feeds into multiple daily feedings: the more feedings, the merrier. 

 

  • You can also use slow feeders designed for pellets and grains to slow things down. Some horse owners will sprinkle rations on top of their hay to have a similar effect. 

 

Pasture grazing

 

  • While pasture is the most “natural” forage for horses, it’s not always the best. The grass may not be available year-round, and in some areas, it grows so profusely that 24/7 turnout turns horses into potatoes with laminitis. Many horses with metabolic issues will also be at higher risk of laminitis with pasture. 

 

  • Luckily, your horse can wear a slow feeder on his gorgeous face. Grazing muzzles are hay nets your horse wears, making the pasture safer and less likely to create an overweight horse. 

 

 

bay horse in field with green greenguard muzzle

If your horse needs to wear a hay net all year long, they can! 

 

The Best Slow Feeders for Horses

 

  • The best slow feeder is one that your horse can use. Maybe the material of one type of drum slow feeder smells funny, or the color is wrong for your horse’s eyes, or they can’t figure it out.

 

  • Horses with arthritis in their necks may also need to try several types of feeders to find the most comfortable one. Or there may be some other injury that complicates feeders. 

 

Things to consider when you are choosing a slow feeder:

 

    • Portability. If you show often, how convenient is bringing your drum or box slow feeder?
  •  
    • Safety. Are corners and edges smooth? Can horses get stuck? Will teeth and hooves be safe?
  •  
    • How much can it hold? A small hay net is excellent if you are at the barn 17 times a day to check on hay and water. If you need to keep your horse chewing for hours, get one to hold several flakes or a bale. 
  •  
    • Hay nets and Hayplay bags can hold a few flakes, half a bale, or an entire bale.
  •  
    • Then, think about price, durability, and ease of cleaning.

 

horse eating from a hay net inside a tub outside

This barn uses hay nets secured into tubs as slow feeders. 

 

Dangers of Slow Feeders for Horses

 

  • While slow feeders are typically the best things for horses, there are some concerns to be wary about. 

Your horse’s teeth  

 

  • Openings that are minuscule or made of hard plastic or metal may wear down the front surfaces of teeth. Observe your horse as they eat, and always check their teeth when grooming.

 

  • If you and your vet find questionable dental wear, it’s time to change slow feeders. Don’t eliminate slow feeders without increasing the likelihood of ulcers, colic, laminitis, boredom, or vices.

 

Size of the openings

 

  • Aside from teeth, the ease with which your horse can eat matters. Consider the openings paired with what type of hay you feed. Long and stemmy hay is a frustrating challenge to pull from tiny spaces.  

 

Horseshoes, hooves, and legs

 

  • The most natural (there’s that word again) position for your horse to eat is on the ground. But protect the slow feeder from hooves and legs that can get stuck.  Some horse toys and Hayplay bags are safe for ground eating.

 

  • If your horse does well with a net or hanging HayPlay bag, lash it inside a large feed tub or trough. The benefits of slow-feeding horses and the risk of getting stuck are reduced.

 

How to tell if your horse eats too slow or too fast

 

  • Change styles if the feeder is too slow or your horse has trouble eating because of dental or health issues. Conversely, double up on nets or try another slow feeder if nothing seems to slow your horse down. 

 

  • Your system may cause your horse to eat too slowly if you notice:
      • Weight loss.
      • Too much hay is trapped in the feeder when you fill it up.
      • Quidding – this is when your horse can’t correctly chew and will spit out chunks of chewed-up bits, sometimes as big as your palm.
      • Lethargy, acting funny, feeling colicky, cranky, or not acting like themselves.
    •  
  • Your horse is eating too fast if you notice no hay left over, your horse is without anything to eat for hours, or your barn and fences are getting chewed. If your horse is in a herd, you may think they are eating too quickly, but they are pushed aside. It’s always best to monitor the whole herd.

 

horse eating from the ground from a blue hay play bag slow feeder

 

Adjusting Feeds and Feeding Practices for Senior Horses

 

  • Feeding senior horses varies in a few ways. Adjust your horse’s feeders, schedule, vitamin and mineral needs, and calorie requirements concerning health problems and activity levels. Here are some things to think about:

 

      • Dental health – make your horse’s hay and feeds easier to chew. Switch brands, add water, or try a different horse toy.
    •  
      • Caloric needs may change as your horse ages. They could become a hard keeper, needing more calories, or an easy keeper with metabolic issues like PPID or EMS.
    •  
      • Movement – keep your older guy moving! Turnout is best, and many slow feeding options should be placed around the paddocks and pastures to encourage walking about.
    •  
      • Laminitis and colic risk – with less movement and metabolic disorders comes the increased risk of colic and founder. Be vigilant about checking your horse’s vital signs, weight, and overall condition daily to stay ahead of health risks.

 

Routine care for horse’s teeth

 

  • Have your vet peek at your horse’s teeth every six months. Many horses need dental floating every other year, some yearly, others every six months. Even though horses slow down teeth growth as they age, dental issues still crop up.

 

  • In between vet visits, you can notice the following – does your horse:

 

      • Drop food
      • Quid
      • Take too long to eat
      • Get picky about feeds
      • Have weight issues
      • Have a funny mouth smell (dental abscesses absolutely STINK)
      • Fuss with the bit
      • Have a change in attitude about being handled around the face
      • Have any broken, chipped, or cracked teeth you can see when checking gums?

 

large bolus of quidding from a horse

These are horse quids dropped from a senior horse with dental issues. 

 

This article about senior horse care has more great stuff.

Read this for more information about estimating your horse’s weight

An introduction to equine nutrition is here.

 

Once again, we have proof that horse ownership is one big experiment. While we know the anatomy and science behind slow feeding horses, sometimes the individual horse and facility force us to try many ways to get our horses fed more naturally.

If designing your horse’s diet seems overwhelming, it is! There are many moving parts, but an equine nutritionist can help you create the perfect feeding plan for your horse’s caloric and nutritional needs.

 

 

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HayPlay Slow Feed Bag – GG Equine - 2 sizes available

2 sizes of this slow-feeding hay toy - snack size holds a few flakes, and the half size holds 1/2 bale.


Use code 15PROEQUINE for sitewide savings on slow feeders and more.

Grazing Muzzle by GG Equine

Basket-style grazing muzzle to help keep a horse at a healthy weight and help reduce the risks of colic and laminitis in some horses.


Use code 15PROEQUINE for savings sitewide on muzzles, halters, slow feeders, and more.

Big Hoss - Outlaw Nutrition

Omega 3's plus gut health support in a delicious cold milled flax formula. It's delicious and it will turn your horse's coat into a mirror.

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Thank you! 

 

Grazing Muzzle by GG Equine

Basket-style grazing muzzle to help keep a horse at a healthy weight and help reduce the risks of colic and laminitis in some horses.


Use code 15PROEQUINE for savings sitewide on muzzles, halters, slow feeders, and more.

Grazing Muzzle Accessories – GG Equine

Help your horse have the best-fitting grazing muzzle.


Use code 15PROEQUINE for a site-wide discount on halters, muzzles, slow feeders, and accessories.

Gold Bond Friction Defense Stick, Unscented 1.75 oz Pack of 2
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I can't stress this enough - this magic stick has prevented so many rubs from worsening, and is great for breaking in a new pair of riding boots or shoes.

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Tough 1 Halter Fleece Set, Natural
$11.88

Only the best *affordable* squish for your horse's cute face.

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Halters – GG Equine

These grazing muzzle halters have adjustable throat latches and extra strapping to help prevent removal.


Use code 15PROEQUINE for a sitewide discount on muzzles, halters, accessories, and slow feeders.

Rub Protector Lycra Fly Mask – GG Equine

These fly masks are fantastic for protecting ears and eyes, and do great under halters and grazing muzzles to stop rubs and hairless patches.


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Jolly Pets Horsemen's Pride Amazing Graze Toy
$59.99

Keep your horse's brain happy!

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FORTEX INDUSTRIES Feed Saver Ring
$18.00

Great to use with buckets to discourage cribbing

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Grazing Muzzle by GG Equine

Basket-style grazing muzzle to help keep a horse at a healthy weight and help reduce the risks of colic and laminitis in some horses.


Use code 15PROEQUINE for savings sitewide on muzzles, halters, slow feeders, and more.

HayPlay Slow Feed Bag XL – GG Equine

One side of this innovative slow feeder is solid - perfect for pastures! It will hold a small bale of hay.


Use code 15PROEQUINE for sitewide savings on slow feeders and more.

HayPlay Slow Feed Bag – GG Equine - 2 sizes available

2 sizes of this slow-feeding hay toy - snack size holds a few flakes, and the half size holds 1/2 bale.


Use code 15PROEQUINE for sitewide savings on slow feeders and more.

07/23/2024 06:59 pm GMT
Big Hoss Equine Supplement - Outlaw Nutrition

The best Omega 3's and gut health in one package.

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Ernst Grain & Livestock Midwest Agri Shredded Beet Pulp with Molasses, 30 lbs
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The molasses makes it more delicious, but that's not great for all horses.

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Metabarol Horse Supplement Pellets with Resveratrol, Metabolic Support Supplement, 3.3 lbs
$176.50

This supplement for metabolic disorders is vet recommended and has science to back it up!

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Big Hoss - Outlaw Nutrition

Omega 3's plus gut health support in a delicious cold milled flax formula. It's delicious and it will turn your horse's coat into a mirror.

07/23/2024 08:13 pm GMT
Halters – GG Equine

These grazing muzzle halters have adjustable throat latches and extra strapping to help prevent removal.


Use code 15PROEQUINE for a sitewide discount on muzzles, halters, accessories, and slow feeders.

Thank you! 

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