Feeding Horses in Group Settings: Managing the Mob

When feeding horses at pasture or in large paddocks, it can often be a challenge to make sure each horse gets his share of the feed, while reducing waste and feed contamination. Management is the key to successfully feeding horses in a group setting, minimizing social stress and nutritional problems.

Pete Gibbs, PhD, Dipl. ACAN, professor and extension horse specialist at Texas A&M University, grew up on a farm in north Texas that fit young horses for yearling sales, and he has a lot of experience with group feeding. He emphasizes the importance of strategic location of feeders, identifying potential problems with overly aggressive (or very timid) individuals, and recommends that horse owners spend the time necessary to actually see how and where the horses choose to eat.


Food fight
Spend time watching your horses interact so you can see how to best ensure that each one gets his share.

"The people who put out feed must stay and monitor the eating behavior of the horses," says Gibbs. "Spend some time in the feeding area to train the horses to eat from a particular trough. Horses can be trained, through repetition and repositioning, to eat out of the same feeder every time. If you just put out the feed and leave, you don't know what is really going on--which horse is eating too much or not getting enough. Strategically locate the feeders and stay and watch. Reposition them if you have to."

Over time, the horses will get into a routine and eat their grain in a manner that works well for the group.

"Feeders need to be spaced out, and the feeder for the most aggressive horse placed farthest away from the others," recommends Gibbs. "This horse will be easy to identify; it will be the one that meets you at the pasture gate and is running the others off."

Sometimes it works best to split that horse's feed into two troughs that are a few feet apart. "This keeps the bossy horse from chasing the others from their feed; he concentrates on eating the grain in his two feeders and thinks he is eating another horse's feed," says Gibbs.

The most challenging horse is the timid one who is at the bottom of the pecking order, especially if that horse is too shy to approach the feed for fear of being chased.

"This horse needs a feeder as far as possible from the others," he says. "It may be necessary to relocate that horse to another pasture or a dry lot situation to be fed separately."

The larger the group, the more difficult it can be to keep order at feeding time, says Kathleen Crandell, PhD (an equine nutritionist at Kentucky Equine Research). She says group feeding works best in small herds, with five horses or less. "Sometimes we've had as many as 15 in a group, when that's the only thing that works for our fields and facilities, but that makes it more challenging," she says.

Jerry Windham, past president of the American Quarter Horse Association and owner of Windham Quarter Horse Ranch in College Station, Texas, feeds broodmares in groups at pasture, and also has weanlings and yearlings at pasture.

"That's the way we raise them, with room to run around and be competitive," Windham says. "In the mare band, if there's a really aggressive individual, we remove her and put her with another aggressive mare somewhere else. They stabilize their relationship and get along fairly well if there's only two or three of them in their own pasture. But normally the dominance issue is not a problem. The mares tend to settle down after they've been together awhile and have established their pecking order."

"We spread our grain feeders at least 30 feet apart, or even farther if there's a timid mare in the pasture," he adds. "We'll move one way out so the timid mare will have a place to go. She's usually the one that ends up over there; the more dominant individuals will eat out of the closer feeders."

Dominance is not as big a problem with weanlings or yearlings, says Windham. "There might be two or three of them eating out of the same trough, then they all move to the next one and eat together until they have them all cleaned out," he says. "They are not as aggressive and bossy as older horses. Ours are about six months old when we put them out at pasture together, and they become a little group."

Feeding Grain in Groups

"Horses that receive grain at pasture should be fed in individual troughs," says Gibbs. "One of the most common types is a tire feeder with a concrete base poured in it (made from tires that have been cut and turned inside out)."

Gibbs says this is a relatively safe feeder, yet heavy enough that horses don't move them around much or tip them over. A regular tire doesn't work as well unless you use it just as a holder for a drop-in tub or bucket. Don't use any tires with rubber shreds exposed that a horse could chew off and swallow.

"Always use some kind of container for grain, rather than putting it out on the ground," says Bonnie Beaver, PhD (an equine behaviorist at Texas A&M). "This decreases waste and minimizes risk for horses consuming parasites or sand along with the feed. Grains are so small that you'll lose too much if you try to feed it on the ground or grass. Use containers, and feed only the amount the horses will clean up, so there's none left to mold or attract birds or other animals."

Crandell says she has three-board fences and hangs grain feeders on the bottom rail. "We had more spillage when they were hung on the top rail," she says. "We thought the horses would hit them on the bottom rail, but that doesn't seem to be a problem; they actually knock them off less. The feeders are tied to the fence, but loosely enough that rainwater can be dumped out. If one comes off, you can pull it back and reposition it on the fence without having to crawl into the field to retrieve it. The deeper feed pans work best and are less apt to spill if the horses flip them over.

"If the ground is sandy, spilled feed can be a problem," Crandell continues. "Horses trying to pick up grain off the ground may ingest sand. I've seen people put rubber mats along the fence under the feeders that are hung on the fence. When the horses clean up any spilled grain, it's clean."

Mats are expensive, but cheaper than one colic surgery or the loss of a horse. If you use mats, you must sweep the sand off periodically and keep them clean, she says.

"Fence feeders work very well, but if you get 15 horses in a group, it's too hard to feed them all at once; you start filling feeders at one end and by the time you get to the other end, the first horses have finished their grain and come running to the other end to steal feed. So in large groups, we put feed pans out in the field in a circle. We drive out there with a pickup and dump the feed in," says Crandell.

"The frustrating situation is a horse that paws and flips the pan over right on top of the feed, and you have to run back and turn it over so the horse can get to the grain," says Crandell. "We've found that holders used for salt blocks--made like a pan but with a really wide edge--work better than a regular grain pan, because it's harder for a horse to flip them over."

Windham Quarter Horse Ranch has roads along their pastures; the feed truck is driven along the fenceline, making it easier to fill the grain feeders. Plastic individual feeders are used, placed along the fence for easy access.

Windham uses specially designed feeders that are difficult for a horse to grasp with his teeth. The big, slippery lip around the tub makes it hard for a horse to pick it up. "It's the same size as a normal feed tub, but has an outer rim about four inches wide that tapers upward," says Windham. "This also makes it nearly impossible for a horse to flip it over by pawing at it; the lip catches on the ground and the tub won't turn over. On the inside of the trough there are ribs running vertically. If a yearling tries to reach in and paw with his foot, the ribs hold the grain and he can't pull the grain out with his foot."

"We got these originally from an outfit in Florida, but they went out of business," continues Windham. "Another company sells some now that are very similar. Rubberline at Muenster, Texas, makes them, using a durable rubber/plastic alloy that is safe for animals and resistant to the effects of sun or cold weather. The bowl of the feeder is quite deep, so the grain stays in. I've always felt it's better for a horse to eat from ground level, rather than up in a manger, so we really like these grain troughs on the ground."

In large groups, like broodmare bands, it's often easiest to use feeds designed for ground feeding (range cubes). Originally made for feeding concentrate supplement to cattle, these large pellets are ideal for minimizing waste, says Crandell. Their large size makes them easy for the animal to pick up from the ground, compared with grain that is too readily mixed with dirt.

"Now we (Kentucky Equine Research) are designing horse feeds that work for feeding on the ground," she says. "It's a large pellet that doesn't get lost in the grass or dirt. The horses have to chew it up and can't just swallow it whole, which reduces the incidence of choke (as sometimes happens with smaller pellets)."

The large pellets are eaten more slowly, so dominant horses can't gobble them up quickly and chase the timid ones away from their piles. "You can find large pellets for horses now in many areas of the country," adds Crandell. "Some of the larger broodmare farms have switched to this type of feed because it's a good way to feed at pasture."

The biggest problem with group feeding is that you can't regulate diet. The horses which need special care might not get the nutrients they need, says Beaver. "The best way to know how much each individual animal is eating is by feeding him separately," says Beaver. "You can have tie stalls adjacent to the paddock or pasture, where each horse walks into his own stall at feeding time to eat the grain, then walks out when finished. If you have one horse that eats fast, you might have to lock him in until they (all of the horses) are all finished or the greedy one may gobble his feed and come eat someone else's."

Crandell says one of the best methods she's seen was on a Florida farm where there were standing stocks for the horses to come into at feeding time. "The horses all knew which stall was theirs, and were locked in just long enough to finish their feed," she explains. "You have to be careful about what you use as dividers between the stocks so the horses can't get at one another, but this works well for making sure each horse gets his feed," she says.

Feeding Hay

"Hay is usually fed in flakes that are spread out in a line in the pasture, so the horses can eat on both sides of the line and are not encumbered by a fence," says Gibbs. It's all right to feed hay on the ground in a well-sodded pasture, but on bare ground you should use feeders or racks to minimize ingestion of sand and dirt, he says.

"If using large round bales, there is usually more hay wasted," he adds. "You can expect as much as 40% wastage with some round bales, depending on quality of the hay and how much scattering takes place." Some wastage can be reduced if the big bales are placed in a round bale feeder, but the hay can still get moldy or dusty over time if it gets wet.

Crandell tells about another type of round bale feeder that she once saw in South America, situated under a round open shed. The hay is protected from weather, and the horses can stand in the shade (or out of the rain) while they eat. "We've put feeders inside a run-in shed, which keeps hay dry (with less spoilage), but you have more dominance problem in there because of the smaller space; the horses can't get all around the bale," she says.

With a feeder unprotected from weather, you should either feed an amount that is eaten entirely each day (with none left to spoil) or enough that the horses always have some good hay to pick at and can leave the less desirable hay. The buildup of wasted hay should be cleaned out periodically, or the feeder moved to a new location and the old feed removed. There is usually some waste when feeding big bales, even in a feeder. Horses generally pull it out, and some gets dropped on the ground and stepped on. Most horses won't eat trampled hay if there is still fresh hay in the feeder.

A feeder designed for horses should be used; the round feeders for cattle are not as safe for horses, especially if they must put their heads through the openings. Horses will rub their manes off where they reach through, and there is always some risk of injury if a horse pulls his head out swiftly. Feeders made for horses have loops they reach between, rather than putting their heads through an opening. Check the feeders periodically to make sure they are in good repair, with no broken places or sharp areas that could injure a horse.

There are other feeders and racks that work well for small bales; some of these are round and some are square. Crandell says maintenance is important with these, also. "You have to keep checking them to make sure they are safe," she advises. "One time we had a rack with wood slats and a slat came loose. A horse put his head into the rack and pulled back. He pulled the feeder over on top of himself and broke his neck. The newer racks are metal, and a lot safer, but it's still wise to keep an eye on them and make sure they are in good repair," she says.

These hay racks usually allow the more timid horses to get away from the aggressive ones and eat on the other side of the feeder. Many racks are about five feet long, holding two or more small bales and giving plenty of room for several horses to eat. It's harder for the dominant horse to keep running around the feeder to chase off the others. If a bossy horse is so aggressive that he dominates the entire area, you will need more than one feeder located far apart.

"We've had better luck with these free-standing feeders than with fence line hay feeders (that work for cattle), except when those are in a shed and up higher," says Crandell. "They work all right that way, especially for young horses. The young ones tend to share a little better and are not as mean to one another."

"Another strategy is to put out enough feed that there is always some available, so the timid ones can come and eat when the dominant horse gets full and moves off," says Beaver. But horses tend to be continuous eaters.

"Horses are programmed to graze all day; they are constant eating machines," says Beaver. "You may have a dominant horse that spends so much time around the feeder that others don't get an adequate amount. Timid ones may develop digestive problems because they eat too sporadically and too fast when they get a chance at the feeder. If you have only one feeder, spread part of the hay out on the ground, farther away (in clean areas) so when the dominant ones congregate around the feeder, the shy ones still have something to eat," says Beaver.

Crandell says that if you are using round bales and have more than five horses in a group, it's best to put out two bales in different places so all the horses can find a spot to eat.

"If we feed square bales out on the ground in a field, we put it in small piles, and always put out two more piles than there are horses," says Crandell. "The same method applies to grain feeders. If there are more than four horses in a group, we put an extra bucket out there. If a timid horse gets pushed out of his feed, there's always another bucket for him to find."

Windham says if you are feeding hay, it's best to put it out at a different time than the grain. "We feed grain first, and don't put out hay until the grain is eaten," says Windham. "Otherwise, one horse might go over and start eating hay if she gets run off from the grain, and the others will eat her grain. We feed grain in the morning, and when we get through with that we make a second round and put the hay out in the racks. It's especially important to do this with yearlings, or one might go off and start nibbling hay and won't eat the grain. We make sure they eat the grain first."

Take-Home Message

There are many "tricks of the trade" to make sure that horses fed in groups in a pasture setting are getting the proper amount of feed and hay, without the problems of digestive upset or shy horses not getting enough feed. While there are many tips offered in this article, nothing takes the place of old-fashioned observation and trial-and-error in seeing which feeding system works best for your horses and your situation.

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey's Guide to Raising Horses and Storey's Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog, www.heathersmiththomas.blogspot.com, she writes a biweekly blog at http://insidestorey.blogspot.com that comes out on Tuesdays.

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