Commentary

Do Horses Need Hay Around the Clock?

Do Horses Need Hay Around the Clock?

Horses' digestive tracts are set-up to receive small meals almost constantly, secreting stomach acid always, and most of their digestive tract volume is dedicated to forage fermentation.

Photo: iStock

Q. I have heard that horses need hay kept in front them all the times, but also that they don’t need 24-hour access to hay. I feed my 20-year-old horse 8 ounces of protein feed in the morning with two to three flakes of hay, and then turn him out on the pasture in afternoon until it gets dark. Now that it’s dark at 5: 30 p.m., I bring him in but don't give him any hay for the night. Am I feeding him enough?

Loren, via e-mail


A. Accurately evaluating if you’re currently feeding the right amount of hay is challenging because I don’t have all the information I need about your horse and what you’re currently feeding. There are really two ways to look at your question:

  1. The first is are you feeding enough to meet your horse’s nutritional requirements; and
  2. Are you feeding enough to maintain gut health?

I will try to address both using some general considerations and hope you’ll find it helpful.

You’re correct that some owners/barns keep forage in front of their horses 24 hours a day while others meal feed. If you think back to where horses come from, they evolved in an environment where they could eat around the clock. Because available forage was low in nutritional value, they had to eat a lot of it, and their digestive tracts evolved accordingly. As a result, their digestive tracts are set up to receive small amounts of food almost constantly and always secrete stomach acid; most of their digestive tract volume is dedicated to forage fermentation.

Traditionally, our domesticated horses were fed in the morning before they went to work. They might receive a meal during the day in a nose bag or similar and then would receive another meal or be turned out on return from work at night. Meal feeding has remained our model for feeding horses even though few horses work all day and this pattern of feeding goes against how their digestive tracts are designed. Feeding this way was a necessity of the lifestyle, and meal feeding remains a mainstay of feeding practice in many barns.

When we apply these considerations to your horse, you’re doing a combination of both as you meal feed, but your horse also gets access to pasture for at least some of the day. It sounds as though your horse likely has feed for most of the daylight hours, assuming the morning hay lasts until turnout. However, overnight there is no feed available. Having no forage available overnight goes counter to the way your horse’s digestive tract is designed. Yet it’s how many horses are fed.

That said it’s also true that the risks of developing issues such as equine gastric ulcer syndrome and some forms of colic increase when horses are meal fed and go for long periods without forage access. So feeding some forage after return from pasture might benefit gastrointestinal health especially now that you are bringing your horse in earlier and the time spent in the stall without forage has increased.

This brings us to the other consideration: Are you feeding enough to meet your horse’s nutritional needs? The first consideration, and what I am going to focus on here, is calories--are you feeding enough calories to maintain body condition? Reducing your horse’s turnout time on pasture means less time for him to consume pasture and the possibility he’s consuming fewer calories. I say possibility because horses have actually been shown to consume the greatest amount of pasture when they are initially turned out, so reducing turnout time might or might not have a significant impact on total pasture intake.

However, at this time of year pasture quality drops off considerably. Rate of plant growth is reduced, so there’s a strong likelihood that your horse is not getting the calories from the pasture that he did over summer and early fall. This could lead to a loss of condition. Not knowing what condition your horse is in currently, I can’t determine whether this would actually be beneficial or not for your horse.

If current condition is ideal, then a loss of condition should cause concern and would require that these missing calories be provided some other way such as additional hay. This could be achieved by feeding some hay when you bring your horse in which would also help solve the issue of the long overnight period without feed.

If your horse needs to lose a little weight, or the reduction in pasture intake does not cause a loss of condition, then you could look at restructuring your current feeding program to spread out the hay you are feeding throughout the day and overnight. Instead of increasing hay intake in this scenario you could feed some of the morning hay in the evening.

Whether you feed more total hay or spread out the current hay fed, consider using a slow feeder so that it takes longer for your horse to eat the hay you are feeding. Some horses can handle constant access to forage without gaining undesirable weight. This typically requires finding an appropriate hay that has low nutritional value and restricting access with slow feeders. However, not all horses adjust to this even when the hay is of low nutritional value and display undesirable weight gain and therefore must have their intake limited.

One last general rule of thumb to keep in mind when debating the issue of whether you’re feeding enough total feed is how much feed your horse is consuming as a percentage of body weight. Research suggests that most mature horses in grazing situations consume 1.5-2% of their body weight per day as dry matter. While studies have shown wide variation in the amount consumed by each individual, veterinarians and nutritionists typically recommend a minimum of 1.5% of body weight as dry matter to maintain gut function.

Hopefully as you consider these general guidelines and your current feeding program they will help you to determine how best to make feeding adjustments if you decide changes are necessary.

About the Author

Clair Thunes, PhD

Clair Thunes, PhD, is an independent equine nutrition consultant who owns Summit Equine Nutrition, based in Sacramento, California. She works with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the United Kingdom Pony Club. Today, she serves as the regional supervisor for the Sierra Pacific region of the United States Pony Clubs. As a nutritionist she works with all horses, from WEG competitors to Miniature Donkeys and everything in between.

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