The horse’s monogastric (single stomach) digestive system evolved to eat high fibre forages in small amounts for long periods of the day. Take wild horses for example, they will graze for around 12 to 18 hours a day, eating a wide variety of different plants, while moving constantly as a herd with their heads down grazing.
Unfortunately, domesticated horses are often locked up in small yards or stables, provided large meals one to two times a day, and their feed bins are often provided at chest height. Consequently, our horses are unintentionally placed under high levels of stress from this unnatural feeding system. As well as this, increased exercise levels, high grain diets, transport, other management changes, and exposure to heat can all lead to a disturbed gut microbial population that can have many negative consequences from behaviour changes to reduce immune function.
Management Strategies That Can Be Used To Reflect How Wild Horses Eat
- Ensure that horses have access to a diet that provides adequate forage to maintain gut health which has been established at a minimum of 1.5% of their bodyweight each day in forage and even better would be to strive for 2% of bodyweight. This would be 7.5-10 kg each day of pasture, hay and chaff for a 500 kg horse.
- If possible, provide turnout time with a buddy in a grassy paddock where they can put their heads down to graze. Kohnke (1999) explains that feeding at ground level or allowing a horse to graze with its head down for a few hours each day will facilitate drainage of fluid, accumulated mucous and airway secretion, as well as inhaled contaminants from the lower airways and lungs.
- If no pasture is available, daily forage requirements can be met by providing ad-lib access to a round bale of hay or if using small square bales, weigh hay to ensure that horses are receiving their minimum requirements. To help mimic extended grazing, slow feeder hay nets can be used to slow down hay consumption and extend eating time.
- Offer as wide a variety of feed ingredients to your horse’s ration as possible to broaden the nutrient profile provided to the horse. Due to the numerous nutrients that are needed by animals (essential amino acids, trace minerals, phytonutrients present in plants) that have no established daily requirements, so the best way to cater for these nutrients is to provide a wide variety of foods. For example, use a couple of different forages, such as pasture with numerous plant species, plus different types of grass, cereal, and legume hays. If extra calories are required, you could use a small amount of concentrate feed that incorporates different (cooked) grains (if grain is safe for your horse), or you could also use a combination of other ingredients like copra meal, beet pulp, lupins, full fat soybean meal, oils etc. There is no need to make rations really complicated, the idea is to just offer some variety (Richards, 2021).
- Increasing the number of meals provided and reducing the size of each meal is better than providing one to two large meals a day.
Remember any changes to the horse’s diet needs to happen gradually, to allow the microbes in the digestive tract time to adapt to the new ingredients. Balance vitamin and mineral deficiencies by using a good quality supplement like MegaMin Equine Enhancer, and don’t forget to supply unlimited access to fresh drinking water.
Kohnke, J. K.-J. (1999). Feeding Horses in Australia. Barton: Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation.
Richards, N. (2021, August 4). 5 Ways One Balanced Diet Can Be Better Than Another. Retrieved from FeedXL: https://feedxl.com/5-ways-one-balanced-diet-can-be-better-than-another/