Feeding Behavior: What's Natural for Your Horse?

Your fat horse, skinny horse, high-energy horse, and laminitic horse all have different dietary needs; so how do you design a feeding program that mimics how horses' feeding habits have evolved? According to Andrea D. Ellis, BSc, PhD, senior lecturer in equine science and leader of the MSc program in Equine Health and Welfare at Nottingham Trent University's School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences, in Nottinghamshire, England, everyone from equine nutritionists to horse owners can learn something from examining a horse's natural feeding behavior and optimizing diets based on that knowledge. She presented on the topic at the 2011 Alltech International Animal Health and Nutrition Industry Symposium, held May 22-25 in Lexington, Ky.

In order to understand why horses act the way they do when food's involved, Ellis said, "The origin of feeding behavior and how it relates to digestive physiology must be understood."

Ellis explained that a horse's natural feeding behavior is triggered by "physiological changes and signals, such as hormones, nerve signals, and homeostatic mechanisms" that induce a hungry feeling in the animal. "These then lead to a strong motivation to carry out the required behavior, such as lowering the head, sniffing, tasting, chewing, swallowing, and foraging," she added.

Researchers have observed that free-ranging horses (i.e., those feeding in a "natural" manner) generally have 10 to 15 "distinct feeding bouts" in a 24-hour span, and tend to spend 10 to 14 hours per day foraging. Ellis noted that "nonfeeding" bouts typically last for an hour or two and rarely exceed three hours.

So how does this compare to the feeding behavior of a domesticated horse that might spend much of his day in a stall?

"In domesticated horses, provision of feed other than pasture is common and often necessary due to a lack of pasture or due to management focused on sporting activities," Ellis explained.

Domesticated horses are often fed two to three times per day with "long fasting periods in between," Ellis noted. She explained that feeding routines such as this can "lead not only to physiological problems (such as stomach ulcers and colic), but also to stress-related problems. Stereotypies--such as windsucking, weaving, and stall/box walking--occur in response to a chronic perception of stress or anxiety (in the horse) caused by the inability to carry out a strong behavioral urge (e.g., chewing, walking, roaming, eating, flight, and social interaction)."

Ideally, Ellis explained, domestic horses should be allowed as much pasture access as possible (unless you need to restrict grazing access for health reasons). In the event that a horse is stabled for large portions of the day, she suggested a few solutions that could allow for more natural feeding behavior:

  • Offer high levels of low-energy forage;
  • Avoid set feeding times when possible by implementing a more continuous feeding program, as anticipated feeding times can increase anxiety and stress;
  • Consider using feed tubs and hay nets that slow down feed intake; and
  • Present the horse with multiple forage feed stations within the stall to encourage a natural "grazing" movement.

Additionally, Ellis suggested that providing good quality straw bedding (for those horses not prone to impaction colic, as horses might ingest the straw) could keep horses busy. She noted horses on this bedding often spend time rummaging through and exploring the straw.

But ultimately, "horses need to chew," Ellis explained. "It is not just that they are greedy or awkward or annoying - it's an innate behavior. If we don't manage it right, horses will find replacement behaviors (stereotypies) or some become dull and 'give up.' In addition, (chewing) has direct impact on digestive tract health."

Ellis cautioned that all feed changes should be made slowly, especially those involving increased turnout with ample grazing, as too much feed intake can cause colic and other gastrointestinal problems.

About the Author

Erica Larson, News Editor

Erica Larson, news editor, holds a degree in journalism with an external specialty in equine science from Michigan State University in East Lansing. A Massachusetts native, she grew up in the saddle and has dabbled in a variety of disciplines including foxhunting, saddle seat, and mounted games. Currently, Erica competes in eventing with her OTTB, Dorado.

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