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Feeding Practices

Written by Sue Stuska, Ed.D.

This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.2

As horse keepers, we spend a lot of time seeing to our horses’ nutritional needs. We know that healthy eating is both physically and psychologically important to the horse. These reminders will help keep our friends happy and healthy.

Feed on a regular basis. Horses are creatures of habit. If you feed promptly at 6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. every day, that’s admirable, and your horses will anticipate the feeding hour. On the occasional times you’re late, your horses will grow impatient. However, you don’t have to lock yourself in to specific times if your schedule is not that predictable. If, instead, you always feed within a two-hour window each morning and each night, your horses will adapt to that flexible schedule too.

Provide feed at least two times a day. Horses are grazing animals, with digestive systems designed to ingest and/or process roughage twenty-four hours a day. If your horse is confined to a stall, or in a paddock without much edible roughage, you must provide hay at least twice a day to keep his digestive system working. Horses that aren’t provided roughage through the day may chew on the boards of their stall or fence and can do a lot of damage. If you can provide grazing during part of the day, or hay more than twice a day, that’s even closer to nature and is better.

Mature horses that aren’t working, or that don’t work very hard, don’t necessarily need grain. If you feed grain, divide the day’s ration into at least two portions; several small feedings are more thoroughly digested than one large one.

Secure the grain storage container to positively prevent horse access. A digestive tract full of roughage‹like hay or pasture‹will cue the horse to stop eating. Grain is a much more concentrated feedstuff, and the horse can consume much more without feeling full enough to stop. Providing an unnaturally high level of carbohydrates, too much grain can cause abdominal distress, colic, founder, and even death. How much is too much depends on the animal (an average meal for a horse in hard work can be deadly for a small pony).

Store grain in a way that rodents can’t get into it. A large trash can with a tightly-fitting lid is a relatively inexpensive container. Rodents can carry disease, damage bags and waste feed, and do a lot of damage chewing on your barn. Eliminating the free meals will discourage them from staying around.

Be aware of each individual horse’s feeding habits and notice changes. A horse being “off his feed” is often the first sign of illness; dribbling feed or chewing with his head sideways can indicate tooth problems.

Keep clean, fresh, comfortable temperature water available at all times, except when the horse is hot from work or has been deprived. Providing water so the horse can drink at will is the most natural method of providing water. Always check the water source when you feed; contaminated or frozen water may deprive him of the fluid he needs to process his feed, causing serious digestive problems.
If the horse has been worked hard, or has been deprived of water (during trailering, for example), cool him down and provide a few swallows of water at a time, over time, until he is no longer thirsty. Hand grazing, if he’s been on pasture, is useful during this time to help restore electrolytes and gradually add roughage. If he’s not had access to green grass, or if the grass is particularly lush, hand grazing will allow you to limit his intake. You can also groom him or walk him as he cools down. Feed hay, and then any grain, only after he has had his fill of water.

Keep salt available free choice. Salt is one nutrient the horse will self regulate (unless he is bored or has been deprived, in which case you’ll need to regulate his intake). Choose a form (granular or block) that fits your stabling/turnout style. While his grain mix will have some salt in it, an additional free choice source is necessary so he can meet his changing daily needs. Warmer weather, sweating, and hard work will increase his need for salt. Salt supplements can be chosen according to the type of roughage (grass or grass and legume); block are available, as are granular mixes. If your horse gets grain for working energy or weight maintenance, and his ration is balanced, your best choice is plain white salt. Balanced means that you have chosen a commercial grain mix based on the nutrients in your horse’s base ration (hay or pasture) and on his/her classification (working, lactating, etc.). This, by the way, is the latest recommendation; the popular brown-red trace mineralized salt is formulated for farm animals in general and is lower in some minerals‹like copper‹than our horses need.

Absolutely avoid cattle growth/antibiotic additives, found in some cattle block supplements and some cattle feeds. Generally, feed mills don’t mix these additives in the same machinery used for horse feed mixing to avoid any trace of leftover mixture. Additives such as monensin and lasalocid are highly toxic‹even deadly‹to horses. A very small quantity is enough to jeopardize your horse’s health or life. If your horse is to be pastured with cattle, investigate their feed and any supplements first. If you have any doubts, consult your veterinarian before turning your horse out.

Never feed dusty or moldy feed. Dust is a respiratory hazard that can cause immediate problems (coughing) and long-range problems; you can jeopardize your horse’s respiratory health years from now by feeding dusty feed now. Mold can be of more immediate concern‹it can be life threatening. Routinely check each bag and bale as you feed; a portion of the bag, or a few flakes only, can be bad. Do not hesitate to pass over any feed that looks or smells questionable‹don’t take chances. Dispose of this feed, or, if you put it aside, be sure to mark it clearly “do not feed” to alert anyone else who might be sharing feeding responsibilities.
Buying from a reputable dealer who keeps feed in stock with a brisk turnover helps ensure your feed is fresh. However, any feed can mold due to processing or storage before or after you receive it. Store hay where air can circulate around the bales, and keep grain from getting damp. Feed hay and grain in the order in which you bought it (first in, first fed) to provide the freshest feed to your horse.

While routinely checking hay for mold, check for trash or foreign matter that might have gotten baled with the hay. Buying from a reliable source minimizes these problems, but do not entirely prevent them due to the nature of hayfields. Choose feeders that are easy to keep clean, and scrub them as often as necessary to keep old grain from accumulating in crevices and molding.

Avoid sudden changes in rations. The horse’s digestive tract is prepared to accept whatever he has been eating, and sudden or substantial changes can cause painful and even deadly digestive upsets. Mix in gradually increasing proportions of the new feed with the old over a number of days to make the change safely (for the first couple of days, feed 25% new and 75% old; follow this with a couple of days of 50% of each, etc.). Introduce horses to spring pasture, or renewed fall pasture after a dry summer, by gradually increasing their access (time) over a period of days. Depending on the quality and quantity of pasture, you may need to start with only 1/2 hour per day. Muzzles are marketed to limit grass access; while they generally work, they can get rubbed off or get caught on a post, so their use should be limited to times when the horse can be watched (like when you’re cleaning stalls).

Allow time between eating a meal and undertaking strenuous work. Your horse needs time to digest, just as any athlete does. This does not preclude a relaxed trail ride, some work in hand, or quiet arena work after eating.

Never grain a hot or exhausted horse. Allow plenty of cool-down time, with a few swallows of water at a time until he’s had his fill, and time to pick at short grass (if he’s been on pasture), before feeding. Hay should be fed before grain.

In general, feed hay before grain to take the edge off the horse’s appetite. Water him first, if he has not already had all he needs.

Hardworking horses on high grain rations need turn-out and decreased grain rations on their day off. Stalled horses need daily exercise or turn-out time.

Measure feed by weight, not volume, initially. The scoop or coffee can you used to measure his old grain ration may hold more (or fewer) calories and nutrients of the new feed. When starting a new hay or grain, determine how much the horse should eventually be getting by weighing the old and new feeds. Hay bales vary in weight depending on their size and on how tightly they are baled. Grain mixes vary by the ingredients (corn is more dense, therefore heavier, than oats) and the processing (flaking, crimping, etc.).

Feed horses separately if at all possible. Most important with grain, this ensures that each one gets the ration you intended him to have and minimizes the possibility of injury to horses fighting over the feed.

If you group feed, allow plenty of room for all the horses to eat at once. Space the feeding stations well apart, and put out at least one extra container of feed. There needs to be plenty of room for the inevitable milling around as the horses check out each others’ feed. Avoid feeding in areas where a horse could get pinned in a corner or up against a fence; the horses need to be able to pass safely by each other.
The extra feeding station gives the low horse in the dominance hierarchy a place to go when he gets chased away from his feed by a more dominant herd mate. Space the containers far enough apart that a dominant horse cannot monopolize more than one. Watch to make sure that the least dominant horse can get far enough away to feel safely out of reach of his herd mates; otherwise he may not try to eat. If one horse consistently misses out, he’ll have to be separated from the herd long enough to eat his share.

Distribute feed from a safe place. This is particularly important if children help you feed. The milling around and interactions between pastured horses and the enthusiasm of a stalled horse can be dangerous for a child or even for an uninitiated adult helper. Feeding grain from outside the enclosure, or putting out the hay before turning the horses out, may be safer alternatives.

Make it difficult for the horse to bolt his grain; he’ll get maximum nutritional value if he chews thoroughly. Feed in a wide, flat tub rather than a deep narrow one. If your horse already bolts his grain, add large smooth hard (river) rocks or handfuls of chopped hay to make him slow down and be more selective.

Do not feed mowed grass clippings; they ferment rapidly when left even for a short time in a pile. Absolutely prevent access to ornamental plants and shrubs; many are toxic to horses.

Follow a regular parasite control program. This minimizes potential parasite damage and ensures that you’re feeding the horse‹and not his parasites.

If you have any questions, do not hesitate to ask your local horse feed dealer and/or veterinarian.

This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.2

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Sue Stuska Ed.D.

Sue received her doctorate from Virginia Tech. In addition to teaching equine studies at several colleges and universities, she has worked at various jobs in the equine industry; her current position centers around the wild horse herd on Shackleford Banks, a barrier island in coastal North Carolina.