Are your feeding practices doing your horses more harm than good? - Equine Health and Welfare

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Are your feeding practices doing your horses more harm than good?

HCBC Staff
Created: January 30, 2018

Horses are designed to forage and move continually in social groups. Domestic housing and feeding practices have interfered with this behavior.

A few days ago you brought your gelding in from the pasture where he’s been living 24/7. Because you have a show in a few weeks, you’ve decided to stall him during the day so you two can polish your skills. Today, however, he seems dull and is off his feed, with mild colic signs. The sudden change from pasture to hay and grain must have upset his digestive system. You’ve always made the springtime shift to pasture from hay and grain gradually but, as it turns out, the reverse transition should be gradual, too.
This is just one example of how our feeding practices can greatly affect our horses’ gastrointestinal (GI) health. To understand how to shape our management techniques to benefit our horses, we need to first look at the diet horses adapted to eat from an evolutionary standpoint.
The Horse in Nature
Horses evolved in an environment where they grazed more or less -continuously—about 14 to 18 hours a day, says W.B. (Burt) Staniar, PhD, associate professor of equine nutrition at Pennsylvania State University, in State College.
And for good reason—digestion in horses is less efficient than digestion in ruminants, says Staniar, so the horse’s feeding strategy is to eat a lot of forage to get the necessary nutrients. “This forage … has a relatively rapid rate of passage through the tract, producing lots of feces,” he says. “As long as the horse has plenty of forage, this (rapid rate of passage) doesn’t matter.”
This strategy works well for horses, which wander, graze, and eat continually except when resting. In fact, locomotion (e.g., traveling, grazing) is natural and necessary for the equine GI tract to function properly.
“There was a study that showed that horses in stalls maintained a lower pH in the stomach (a more acidic environment) than the horses allowed to move around in paddocks,” says Kathleen Crandell, PhD, an equine nutritionist with Kentucky Equine Research, in Versailles. “The movement also helps gut motility. This is why confinement is one of the risk factors for colic.”
Another thing that affects digestion in natural settings is social contact, which Crandell says gives horses a sense of security so they can settle down and eat. Being herd animals, the comfort of being together reduces their stress levels and -allows them to follow each other in normal grazing behavior.
“Those are the three aspects (free movement, foraging, and social interactions) of normal equine behavior that we have interfered with when we started putting them in stalls or small pens,” she says. “We limited their locomotion and meal-fed them. They have lost some of that foraging behavior, and even if they can see other horses when they are in stalls, it’s not the same as having continual social contact.” This also adds stress to their daily lives.
These changes can affect horses in -several ways. Some of them adopt abnormal behavioral stereotypies such as cribbing, weaving, and stall-walking. They might also develop health issues such as gastric ulcers, colic, or laminitis due to the unnatural conditions, feeds, and practices of modern horse-keeping.
The horse’s small stomach, designed to handle modest amounts of high-fiber food continually, works best if the horse is eating a little bit throughout the day and night. It can’t hold a large meal eaten all at once; it’s smaller than a cow’s rumen or a human stomach, relative to the rest of the digestive tract.
The horse’s gut also works different from ours. Humans, like other predatory species, eat nutrient-dense meals (such as meat) and don’t have to eat again for quite a while, whereas a prey animal like a horse is eating a larger proportion of fibrous material all the time to gain an equal amount of nutrients and is constantly on the move, on the lookout for predators.
“We’ve imposed our type of eating on the horse, thinking a horse can eat meals like us, which is unnatural and also detrimental to his well-being and gut health,” says Crandell. “It is convenient for us to feed the horse just twice a day; we don’t stop to think about the horse’s natural feeding behavior and how the digestive tract works.”

This article continues in the January 2018 issue of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care. Subscribe now and get an immediate download of this issue including this in-depth feature on ways to manage horses to improve their digestive health.
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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,, she writes a biweekly blog at that comes out on Tuesdays.

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