Ground-level feeding for horses


Should you feed your horse on the ground? Or at the ground level?  Ground feeding is something horses do – their bodies are designed to eat by dropping their heads to the ground. But ground-level feeding for horses and eating directly on the ground need to be distinguished. So let’s do that.


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  • Ground feeding is your horse eating from the ground. Directly. This is absolutely a fantastic way for your horse to eat all of the sand in addition to his meals.


  • Ground-level feeding is your horse eating low on the ground without direct contact with the ground. We hope. This phrase is typically used to describe eating from a tub or bucket so your horse can stretch down, but with a handy dirt barrier.


muck tub in stall corner

This tub rests on the ground in a corner of a shelter. Easy peasy.


A horse eating directly from the ground isn’t the best idea


A few things can happen when horses eat directly from the ground. 


  • Parasites. These jerks of the horse world love to hang onto blades of grass near the bottom so that your horse will eat them and carry on their life cycle. It’s very handy that most parasites in the field and pasture know that shorter grass is more delicious, and therefore likely to be gobbled up.


  • Sand in your horse’s belly. This can lead to colic, irritation, diarrhea, or worse. Your horse’s teeth can also suffer extra wear if he’s eating a lot of sand.


  • There are ways you can test for sand in your horse’s manure, but this only lets you know if he’s passing the sand. Many horses eat sand, but it never makes it through, so the sand test is only a tiny bit helpful. It certainly doesn’t give you an idea of what might be inside your horse. Sand colics are real and typically require surgery to resolve.


manure and water in a baggie looking for sand

This test for your horse passing sand only gives you PART of the picture.


  • Wet and moldy hay is not something that you want your horse to be eating. Ground feeding of hay, especially outside, can create situations where the hay gets damp from the earth, leading to mold and mud-covered snacks. Some horses will ignore this, some won’t. It might not be too much of a problem for the flake tossed over the fence, but for round bales it certainly is.


  • Wet, moldy, trampled and loose food is often wasted food. Feeding directly on the earth can certainly cause a hit to your wallet over time.


  • Horses can usually eat quite fast when food is placed on the earth. Vacuum mode takes over, and instead of mimicking a grazing horse, he’s going for periods without chewing and moving food because he has eaten so fast. Slow feeders are a great way to remedy this.


  • Eaten down pastures are also a consequence of ground eating and feeding. When pasture maintenance gets *ahem* ignored, horses will eat it all down to the ground. Except, usually, where there are manure piles. At the most basic level, keeping pastures picked of manure, rotated before you see bare spots, and mowed to an even height can prevent this. A chewed-down pasture also makes it easier for those intestinal parasites and sand and boogeymen to get into your horse. Ok, maybe not the boogeymen part. Using muzzles is a great way to help prevent pastures from becoming overeaten.


Consequences to feeding your horse at his nose or eye level, too.


  • Respiratory issues are the primary concern when feeding your horse at chest level or above. A horse that can’t put his head down isn’t clearing his nostrils and upper respiratory system as well, which means that dust and particles and other potentially harmful things, like bacteria, have a one-way ticket to your horse’s lungs. Horses with heaves often have their condition worsened by eating at nose or eye level.


  • Shipping fever is a great example of this. As the colloquial name suggests, shipping fever typically occurs in horses that are shipped. Their heads are usually high the entire trip, and the lack of respiratory clearing from that body position causes lung infections. It’s a similar mechanism for the horse fed from a high hay net.


  • Dust is also a culprit and major factor in respiratory ailments such as heaves, which is debilitating over time. Ground-level feeding and a dust control program can help alleviate these issues.


  • I can’t prove this, but I’ve heard stories about horses that only eat from hanging hay nets a certain way and develop neck issues. Of course, there are other possibilities for why this may happen, from accidents to uneven rein connections to tumors and beyond. Just food for thought.


horse eating from a hay net inside a tub outside

This tub is taller and jammed with hay in a slow feeder. You could use a lot less hay to lower your horse’s neck. Luckily, he’ll eat it down!



There will be exceptions, but ground-level feeding is usually best for horses.


  • The key is to try and avoid the sand and mud and keep your horse’s neck low. Enter the wonderful world of things you can buy or make at home to make this happen.


  • Mats are a basic way to ground-level feed. Stall mats don’t have to live in stalls, they can be placed in pastures and paddocks also. Preferably on higher ground, in a shelter for really yucky situations, and near a hose and broom for easy cleaning.


  • Feeders come in all varieties and sizes and prices. My current barn uses giant tubs with hay nets inside them. This creates a ground-level slow feeder that keeps feed contained and off the earth, but still low.


low feeding tub for goats and horses

This tub is short enough to slide under the bottom rail of a fence. It’s great for feeds and grains, or a keeping a hay net or pillow away from the earth. A horse can easily step in one of these, so use caution.


  • You can also buy all sorts of styles and shapes of slow feeders that are great for paddocks and outdoor use. Have a backup plan in case of wet weather so that your feeder doesn’t turn into a bowl of soup.


  • I use a slow feeder for pellets in the corner of a shelter at ground level.  There are a few handy designs in different sizes.


  • Hay nets are great, but not great if your horse likes to paw or step on his meals and he’s wearing shoes. You can also find hay pillows, which are solid fabric on the bottom and netted on the top, which helps keep sand at bay if you toss them in a paddock. Shod horses beware! A hay net or pillow on the ground might transform your horse’s shoe into a giant flip-flop.



slow feeder for horse feeds and hay pellets

This slow feeder is designed for pellets and grains.


And if you spend any time on Pinterest, you’ll know that there’s no shortage of home-made slow feeders out there. You have to pick one (or more) that allows your horse to be safe.


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