Problem horse behaviors, as well as some medical conditions, can be vastly improved by increasing the time a horse spends feeding. With today’s emphasis on natural horse care, many owners are realizing that it is best for horses to spend longer eating than is common in many barns and pastures today.
Feral horses spend 12-18 hours per day grazing pasture, and these wild horses don’t show the behavior problems commonly seen in domesticated horses. Weaving, wood chewing, and cribbing are some concerns, which can be alleviated by increasing feed intake times. More time spent feeding equates to less boredom, and a decrease in negative behaviors, Krishona Martinson, PhD, Extension Horse Specialist, University of Minnesota, said in a recent webinar, “Six Ways to Slow Horse Feed Intake.”
Common medical concerns, such as ulcers and diabetes, are also positively impacted by increasing feed intake times. When intake is spread over many hours, glucose and insulin responses are kept steady, and stomach acid is buffered, reducing ulcers. Feeding smaller amounts while extending the time spent feeding can help prevent these concerns.
“When we really slow down horses eating,” homeostasis can occur, preventing spikes in glucose levels, Martinson said. “Horses are always producing the acid in their stomachs, but they only produce that buffering saliva when they chew.”
Horse obesity has been increasing, with approximately 25 percent of the domestic horse population in the United States considered obese. Obesity, too, can be decreased via longer feed intake times.
“Equine obesity is kind of becoming an epidemic,” Martinson said.
It will generally take a horse three hours to consume one percent of its body weight in a hay meal. This translates to six hours of chewing per day, across two feedings. This leaves plenty of time for boredom to set in, and for medical complications related to rapid feeding to occur.
Getting horses to slow down their intake is a simple task, and there are many affordable ways to do so. Slow feed hay nets, grazing muzzles, specialized feeders, or feed obstacles are commonly used methods to slow down feed intake, Martinson said. Horses generally require a few days to adapt before they show decreasing frustration and acclimate to the protocol.
Slow Feed Hay Nets: A University of Michigan study compared three sizes of slow feed hay nets to a control group without nets. Horses using nets with the smallest opening of 1 1/4 inches spent the most time feeding, more than double that of the control group. Larger slow feed net openings allowed horses to eat more quickly, but still increased feed time significantly.
“Horses have to do a lot of work to get hay out of a slow feed net,” Martinson said.
Different types of forage grasses grow differently, and it would seem that those which grow taller and straighter would be more easily consumed when utilizing a grazing muzzle. When using a muzzle, ascertain that the horse can still drink water without a problem, Martinson cautioned.
Research with test blocks of four types of forages – Kentucky bluegrass, which is well-liked by horses and grows flat; meadow fescue, also well-liked but tall; perennial ryegrass, a lesser-liked, low-growing grass; and reed canary grass, a tall grass that is not as palatable – determined that the intake on all types of forage was reduced 30 percent with the use of a grazing muzzle.
Despite differences in growth patterns, horses found ways to adapt to the muzzles and to consume the lower-growing grasses just as readily as the tall grasses.
“The grazing muzzles only reduced intake by 30 percent, and it did it no matter what grasses they were grazing,” Martinson said.
Grazing muzzles will also impact the amount of grain fed, and slow grain intake, reducing the risk of choke. Muzzle design is a factor in the time spent feeding.
Specialized Grain Feeders
Texas A&M researchers found that a cup feeder could increase feed intake time by almost 50 percent when compared to bucket and tub feeding. North Carolina State University research demonstrated that simple homemade waffle-type feeder inserts, made from PVC piping, would slow down feed intake rates and increase consumption times over controls, making this an affordable option for those on a budget.
Adding stones or rocks to feed buckets has been practiced for years. Because the horse has to eat around the rocks, feed intake is slowed. But rocks are dirty, leave residue and can chip, Martinson said.
Bocci balls placed in feed buckets have proven to be effective in slowing feed intake, without the detrimental qualities of stones, and were more difficult for the horses to move, slowing intake further. NCSU researchers conducting this study also took blood glucose and insulin levels of horses fed with bocci ball obstacles, compared to a control group, and found that the “insulin response to feed can be attenuated by prolonging feed intake time,” Martinson said.
Horses prefer hay with a NDF (neutral detergent fiber) content of 40 to 50 percent, Martinson said. NDF is insoluble fiber, which is a measure of the plant’s maturity at harvest. Older forages have higher percentages of NDF. As NDF level increases, the horse’s ability to consume the hay decreases, resulting in a longer feed intake time. Once the NDF reaches 65 percent, horses don’t like to eat the hay.
“Simply by changing to a more mature hay, it slows the horse down,” Martinson said.
Hay should be tested to determine the percentage NDF. Then, more mature bales can be strategically used to slow feed intake. Substituting a small amount of 65 percent NDF hay for the normal hay ration — using the high NDF hay as a small portion of the daily intake — can keep problem horses busy, by increasing feed intake time. This approach works well for aggressive horses, quick eaters, or those who exhibit boredom-induced behaviors. The horse will eat the best quality hay first, and then nibble at the mature hay, keeping busy.
“Use forage quality to your advantage,” she advised.
The order of feeding can also play a roll in intake time. Horses fed hay and grain together will eat slightly more feed per minute than those fed hay first, then grain. This slight difference in intake times is significant over the long term, and simply feeding hay prior to any grain will have a positive impact.
“Horses stomachs are very small,” so feeding hay slows them down, taking longer to fill the stomach, Martinson said.
Some horses will not benefit from slowing feed intake. Endurance horses need quick energy, and require a full meal in order to have enough energy. Horses with ill health, poor appetites or poor teeth may not be good candidates for slow feeding methods, either, due to the frustration they may experience, possibly resulting in undesired poor feed intake.