ID MyHorse

Best Practices for Feeding Your Horse

Sometime in the last month, I ran across an article about the best practices for feeding your horse. Unfortunately, I can’t find the original article in my inbox. However, it had enough impact on me that I decided to do a little more research.

I learned about the equine gut and metabolism in veterinary school… but that was literally decades ago. I haven’t necessarily taken what is best for the horse into consideration when establishing my feeding protocol. Alan and I feed our horses in what is probably the most common, and easiest, approach when it comes to forage. We feed hay twice a day, and provide a vitamin/mineral supplement (Enrich) as the only “grain” we offer when the horses aren’t doing any work. I have known for a long time that overfeeding grain is not a good plan.

Clearly, Kadeen isn’t doing any work. The poor guy is stalled all day every day except for his 10 minutes of walking twice a day. (He gets another round of films the end of January, and I am so hopeful that we can start rehabilitation at that point!)

Fortunately for us, Kadeen is a sensible eater. In fact, earlier in his life, when he was more “wound up,” it was hard to keep weight on him. That is no longer the case. He is slightly plump these days, partly because he’s sporting enough hair to classify him as a Wooly Mammoth. Underneath that hair he has an appropriate amount of fat to last him through those cold nights in Arizona. He stretches his hay ration throughout the day and often has some left over by the next feeding.

Sadie, our resident blimp
feeding your horse

Sadie, on the other hand, thinks she is mere seconds from death as soon as she finishes whatever is in front of her. She puts her head down into the hay and doesn’t come up for air until the last blade has been consumed. By midday, she is standing by the fence in anxious anticipation for one of us to come rescue her from certain starvation.

I haven’t been riding her either. As I mentioned in this post, I didn’t ride in Colorado due to the weather and concerns about winding up Kadeen if he couldn’t see her. It is much easier to ride her here in the pasture, as he can readily see her, and the weather is much better! However, she’s got some resistance issues when it comes to softening in the bit. I am doing some groundwork with her to address that problem. As yet, I haven’t ridden her, but she really, really needs to get some physical exercise.

When we purchased her, she was so obese that we tested her for Equine Metabolic Syndrome. She did not test as having that problem… yet. She had spent the summer before we bought her in a lush Oklahoma pasture, eating herself silly. She is clearly a very easy keeper and a sensible diet combined with adequate exercise is the ticket to keeping her fit.

Slow feed options

The article I read (that I can’t find now) that prompted the rethinking of our approach to feeding forage stated that providing access to forage round-the-clock was the most physiologically beneficial for the horse. Again, I knew that horses in the wild grazed all day long. I did find this article, which takes much of its information from Dr. Clair Thunes of Clarity Equine Nutrition. I found this quote from Dr. Thunes to be so descriptive that I decided to let her say it in her own words…

Because horses evolved to eat constantly, they secrete stomach acid constantly whether they are eating or not. Forage in the diet floats on top of the stomach acid creating a fibrous raft that helps prevent the acid that is in the lower portion of the stomach from splashing up and contacting the walls of the upper portion of the stomach, and this helps prevent ulceration of this delicate stomach tissue. Consuming a constant supply of forage maintains a constant protective raft. Add to this the fact that chewing forage results in saliva production which contains bicarbonate, a buffer that will help make stomach acid less acidic and it becomes clear that providing more frequent access to forage can be a real benefit in reducing ulcer risk.

Dr. Clair Thunes
Slow hay feeders… the pros and cons

The three largest complaints about hay nets or feeders in general are:

  • Metal grates may create dental issues
  • Horseshoes may get caught in hay nets on or close to the ground
  • Hay nets tied too high create an unnatural feeding position for horses

In Colorado, we have ground slow feeders, similar to this design. It has a net of sorts that slides into the feeder and sits on top of the hay. The topper has rather large holes, but it does slow Sadie down to some extent. Nevertheless, she finishes 2 flakes of hay in less than a few hours. Her head doesn’t come up out of the feeder until the hay is all gone. I should note that our feeders have a webbing type topper, not metal grates. Metal toppers have been associated with significant wear on teeth enamel.

feeding your horse

After being convicted about the fact that we need to try harder to imitate the way a horse eats naturally, I ordered these hay nets for here in Arizona. They arrived the day I started writing this blog. Alan walked in from feeding the horses and announced, “Sadie doesn’t like the new hay nets!” She followed him to the gate as if to say, “Hey, wait! There is no hay in my unencumbered hay feeder!!” These new hay bags have very small holes. I do think it will take her a while to consume it all.

The next morning, there were a couple of handfuls of hay left in the bag. In spite of her worst fears, Sadie was still standing…

Alan hung the bag on the outside of Sadie’s stall. Both horses are barefoot right now, so the significant concern about shoes getting caught in a hay bag is not an issue at this moment. However, they are usually shod year-round, as we typically ride rocky environments year-round. Dr. Thunes suggested putting a slow feeder hay bag inside one of the slow feed boxes if you are feeding shod horses. If we like these bags, we may end up doing that when we return to Colorado and are hopefully able to resume riding.

What about round bales and Hay Huts?

When I built my barndominium, I put in automatic waterers and a Hay Hut. I only had two horses, but the Hay Hut kept a round bale out of the rain and kept the horses from wasting so much of it. However, that Hay Hut created a huge problem for me that took me the better part of a year, and lots of money and heartache, to figure out.

Kadeen developed allergy issues that I ultimately realized were intimately related to putting his head inside the Hay Hut. He struggled with itchy eyes that led to rubbing his face and creating corneal ulcers. To this day, he has a residual scar from a corneal ulcer. And to this day, he will cough if there is any dust in his hay. We often water down his hay.

At one point during our struggle, he was diagnosed with Equine Immune Mediated Keratitis. I’m not sure he truly has that problem. I think his issues stem more from general allergies that were horrendously exacerbated by using the Hay Hut. My Colorado vet thinks Kadeen’s intermittent dry cough is more tracheal in origin… not true asthma. We definitely notice an uptick in his coughing if the hay is dusty at all.

Hay in the horse trailer
I really wish I could find the original article that I read about this because part of what the author talked about was feeding hay while trailering. I believe the author was British because some reference was made about the views that Europeans have about feeding horses in the trailer. Apparently, horses in the United Kingdom never go anywhere in the trailer without having access to hay. The author apparently believed that many Americans trailer their horses for extended periods without providing hay during travel.
I’m not sure what everyone else does, but we do provide “regular” hay bags in the trailer. If we are traveling an hour or less to a local trailhead, we don’t. But on our equitrekking trips, we do. However, we are probably guilty of not refilling those bags as often as we should. Again, Sadie wouldn’t be able to exit the trailer (she’d be too wide!) if we let her freely eat throughout a long day in the trailer. However, going forward we will provide slow feed hay nets while we are on the road. That should diminish what they end up wasting as well.

Here is an article written by Farmco naming their Top Ten list of horse slow feeders. Number 10 on the list is their feeder, and note that many of the slow feeders have metal grates… not a good plan. I will report back as to whether or not we like the ones I just ordered.

Estimating your horse’s weight

I am really good at estimating a dog’s weight… at least I was when I was in veterinary practice. I am less confident about my ability to estimate my horse’s weight. Whenever I have a veterinary colleague out for any reason, I ask for their assessment of my horses’ body condition. Usually, Kadeen is exactly where he needs to be or perhaps at the low end of his desired weight. Sadie, on the other hand, is always at the top of her range, bordering on too fat. This would be the response we heard when we were riding on a regular basis. Right now she would likely be pegged as too well fed.

Here is a link to a publication and website that originates in the United Kingdom. This website is full of great information, including a body condition score chart and a formula for how to estimate the weight of your horse. The formula is billed as slightly more accurate than using a weight tape. I think the best application for a weight tape is to measure changes as opposed to using one measurement to get an accurate assessment of a horse’s actual weight.

The formula requires only two measurements followed by a bit of math. You need the girth measurement as well as a body length measurement. The website provides the necessary instructions on how to take those measurements.

Revisiting groundwork

As I mentioned previously, I am trying to work on Sadie’s level of general cooperation by giving her a refresher course in Clinton Anderson’s methods. I know she was initially trained using that program. She does remember most of it and has come along nicely. I am less familiar with it than she is! I am going slowly to make sure I am getting it right. I am also messing around with Kadeen. He has had tons of training under saddle; although I’m not sure what groundwork training is in his past. He’s so mellow and cooperative these days, he’s more than willing to please. Moreover, it gives him some brain stimulation and gets him out of his stall longer.

In the past, I have been somewhat resistant to groundwork. It always seemed kind of boring to me. I had the viewpoint that I’d rather get on and ride out the behavior than mitigate it first on the ground. As I have become more aware of the need to have a positive working relationship with your horse, I have developed a much better understanding of the value of groundwork. Now I understand that groundwork is the foundation for respect, response, and recognition of the cues you want to give while mounted.

Looking forward to 2023

As this blog posts, we are in the first week of the New Year. Do you have any New Year’s resolutions related to your equestrian activities? I have one simple hope… to get Kadeen sound again and get back to riding. Happy New Year!

NEWS FLASH… Upcoming series!

I am in the process of doing some veterinary CEUs to keep my license and certifications. I completed a module about the requirements for evaluating horses prior to them being sent to slaughter in Mexico or Canada. I also follow Horse Plus Humane Society on Facebook. I quickly realized that what they post about what they see and what this USDA training module says SHOULD be happening are not lining up at all. I am already delving into this gross discrepancy. Stay tuned for more about this!! I think I might be opening a huge can of worms!

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