Written by Professor Meriel Moore-Colyer, Dean of the School of Equine Management and Science at the Royal Agricultural College
Horses are trickle feeders and their digestive and mental health depends on them being able to perform this innate behaviour. Modern horse management, dominated by busy owner work schedules, travelling to competitions and ever-increasing performance demands can result in many horses having limited access to forage and being meal-fed high cereal diets.
This can leave the average stabled horse spending 10% of their time feeding and 90% standing idyll. Some horses find this regime highly stressful and develop stereotypic coping mechanisms such as crib biting, weaving and box walking. They can also develop negative health issues such as gastric ulceration, colic, metabolic syndrome and laminitis.
Access to high quality forage for stabled horses is incredibly important. Forage should make up the majority of a horse’s diet (at least 50% of the total diet) and should provide between 50-100% of their energy. Trickle feeding these nutrients into the gut maintains blood nutrient levels providing constant energy and preventing the peaks and troughs in blood glucose noted when meal feeding cereals, the latter of which can lead to undesirable behaviours.
For the pleasure horse with low energy demands constant access to high-quality forage can over-supply nutrients making the horse fat, while owners of high performance horses don’t want the ‘forage-belly’. In both cases being able to restrict the amount of forage eaten yet still keep the horse occupied and foraging is the best option.
The concept of slow feeding is to try to ensure that horses have constant access to forage. This will allow them to perform their innate foraging behaviour so reduce stress and potentially help prevent development of undesirable behaviours, while promoting gut health. Constant chewing equals constant saliva production so the buffering action can take place in the stomach. Trickle feeding forage promotes an alkaline gut and stimulates peristalsis thus allowing the gut to work as it would in the wild.
To overcome the difficulty of ‘speed-eating’ of forage, the wastage associated with feeding off the floor and long periods of inactivity, Haygain and Royal Agricultural University collaborated to develop a revolutionary forage feeder for horses; The Forager. The Forager is a sophisticated development of an original idea conceived at Nottingham Trent University and slows down the intake of forage without the horse feeding at an unnatural angle.
The forager has an inter-changeable regulator system positioned between the horse and their hay or haylage, so they have to ‘work at’ pulling the forage through the varying sized holes of the regulator. Each mouthful takes longer and is smaller than when the horse eats freely from the ground. This means their forage lasts longer. The key to this is that their feed intake is limited by speed, not quantity, and the food is available for long periods.
For more information download a free guide “Improve the way you feed your horse”
International event rider Allison Springer relies on hay steaming to see her horses through the everyday and competition-day rigors of eventing.