The optimal way to feed your horse – Part 2: “ground feeding and pasture grazing”
In the second part to our multi-post topic of Nutrition, we are addressing ground feeding and pasture grazing. We will also touch on water consumption and salt (or sodium chloride). Ground feeding: Arguably the most natural arrangement for feed consumption that owners can offer their horses. It mimics natural grazing posture and helps to remove the risk of respiratory issues or injury from feeding apparatus. It is worth noting however, that older barns with poor ventilation are prone to dust and ammonia accumulation at the level of the floor. Keeping stalls very clean and bedding with a type of bedding not prone to create much dust can help mitigate this problem.
Horses are selective grazers and are prone to move while eating in order to mimic natural grazing behavior. As such, it is common for hay that is thrown on the ground during feeding to become trampled into dirty bedding or mud and wasted. Stalls that have been matted are much more suited to this form of feeding as they make hay contamination far less likely. When feeding extra forage to horses that live outside, it can be useful to place mats under the feeding location, particularly in areas that are sandy and have a high incidence of sand colic. Any feed that is fed on the ground out of doors is subject to the elements and it is considered better practice to feed hay under some sort of cover to prevent moldy hay being available to animals.
Pasture feeding: There are a variety of options to safely feed horses hay forage while they live turned out. Many of them include building some sort of hay rack arrangement with a small cover over it to protect the feed from the elements. These types of hay feeders often cause injury to horses, however. Feeding on the ground is only practical when the weather is ideal or when there is not a large risk of sand colic. There are a variety of different styles of fine mesh haynets that can be used for feeding horses that are turned out. Most of them dictate putting a large portion of a bale inside of the fine mesh hay net then putting the haynet on a wooden platform feeders or a used tire. This keeps the haynet localized to a single place and helps prevent horses from becoming tangled up in the hay net. An added benefit to fine mesh hay nets is that they are much less likely to cause injury should a horse manage to somehow get tangled up in them.
Grazing: Horses are designed to graze continuously, free-choice. As such, grazing can be the most natural way to feed your horse. When given a choice, horses will spend five to ten hours a day grazing. While pasture feeding can be very cost effective and potentially the healthiest way to feed a horse, it has its own detractions. It is difficult to know the content of a pasture without having it tested. If you have your pasture tested then you will know which things your horse will need to be fed in supplemental form. Horses are very active while they eat and are notorious for ruining a large part of their potential forage by trampling and defecating on it. The average horse will waste up to 3% of its body weight per day in this way. Since the average horse requires about 30 pounds of forage a day, this makes it very difficult to keep more than a few horses turned out continuously. Pasture that has been fertilized is often far too rich for horses to be turned out continuously and horses that have not been slowly acclimatized to grazing can easily founder if they are left out too long. Horses that are turned out during winter are often not able to retain a healthy weight from grazing alone. This is particularly true of horses that are not able to find shelter from wind, rain or snow. Finally, pecking orders amongst the herd can banish submissive horses to less than favorable grazing locations on the out skirts of the herd, causing them to be unable to get enough forage to remain healthy.
Water: Water is often overlooked in the broader picture of optimal horse feeding. Adult horses can consume up to 12 gallons of water a day. Horses that live in hot climates or who exert heavily will drink even more. Certain forages, such as alfalfa, will cause increased water consumption. Horses that are fed a diet that is almost strictly composed of forage will also tend to consume more water. Water needs to be clean and free from contaminants at all times. Inside the barn, it is imperative to make sure that water is not fouled with bird droppings, dirt or hay debris as horses are fairly selective about the quality of water that they will deign to drink. Automatic water sources need to be cleaned just as frequently as those that are not. Horses that live outside on pasture have the same needs. Water tubs need to be cleaned out regularly and must be kept unfrozen in winter. An easy trick to prevent the entire water trough from freezing over is to drop a basket or soccer ball into the trough. Horses will reduce their water intake when the weather gets colder but bucket warmers which keep the water above a certain temperature can encourage the maintenance of normal drinking.
Salt: Another often overlooked but necessary contribution to horse health is salt. Salt can be provided in block form or top dressed in loose form in the horse’s grain. Many processed feeds impart enough sodium chloride that supplementation is not necessary. Salt allows the horse to maintain a normal amount of water in their bodies. Dehydrated horses are prone to impaction colic. An added benefit of feeding salt is an increase in water intake during cold months when horses tend to reduce their water consumption.
If you feel your horse is lacking nutrition or not getting the most from your feed program, you might want to think about Horse Hair Analysis®. HHA, part of DePaolo Equine Concepts’ holistic equine health care approach, is a cutting edge process for evaluating the cause of puzzling health problems and horse nutrition deficiencies, culminating with a customized horse supplement.
DePaolo Equine Concepts is passionate about our equine health care products — we offer the best horse joint supplements, digestive aides for horse ulcers, comprehensive equine vitamin and mineral supplements, as well as nutraceutical supplements for horses with Endocrine, Neurologic and Mental issues.
**Next week we will discuss ground and pasture feeding. Or for more on equine nutrition, please visit the health library on the DePaolo Equine Concepts website.