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Feeding Horses
First Posted Jan 31, 2010
Jul 22, 2010

Slowing Them Down Restricting Free Feeding of Forages

by Shea Porr, Ph.D.
Superintendent, MARE Center

In a Seminar given at the MARE Center on Thursday, Jan 28, 2010, Shea Porr was one of the speakers and was excellent. Her presentation addressed the practice of slowing down a horse's eating by restricting free feeding of forages. She began with the evolution of the horse and concluded with different ways to restrict the horse's free forage. The following is an outline of her presentation and is quite self explanatory:

Isn't Free Choice Hay Good?

  • Sparce grazing
  • Movement required
  • Annual weight changes

Basically the above covered the horse's eating habits--there was a sparcity of food when grazing, the horse had to keep moving in order to get enough forage. The movement was good for the digestive system as well as for exercise. There were weight changes seasonally--winter, summer, spring and fall. Obesity was not a problem.

Current Management

  • Meal fed
  • Grains

  • Speed of Intake/two or three feedings a day with lots of time between and some turnout
    Dominance Issues
  • Lack of Exercise
  • "Lush" Feed Year Round

In this section Dr. Porr addressed how we feed our horses with rich grains, etc. She noted that our horses do not graze 18 hours a day but rather eat two or three times a day (speed of intake) so their digestive systems are really not working as intended. She also addressed dominance issues in the herd where some horses push the others out and consume much more than their share while others do not get enough food. Since the animals are not constantly moving they do not get the exercise needed and are often fed lush foods year round. All of these problems can lead to health issues such as obesity, insulin resistance, colic, arthritis, etc.

The Guts of the Matter


  • Forages

  • Little food all day long

  • Low intensity activity constant

The above tells us how horses were intended to eat.

    Chewing Time
  • Saliva production

  • Particle size

  • Bolting feed

  • Rate of Passage>

By studying the two charts below you can see what happens to the food that your horse eats as well as the statistics on how the gut works. Above are the issues that come into question regarding how domestic horses are fed and the problems that are a result of that.

More Guts


  • 2-4 Gallons

  • Acid production

  • Minutes to hours to empty the stomach

  • Small Intestine

  • 1-8 hours to empty the small intestine

  • Nearly all digestion/absorption takes place in the small intestine

  • Cecum
  • 5 hours

  • Fermentatin of fiber takes place in the cecum
Body length 164 cm, mean digesta retention = 30 to 35 hours

Free Choice Forages

  • Not a "bad" thing but...
  • Current pasture nutrition
  • Overconsumption - cost

  • Can consume 3% body weight or more/2% body weight consumption a day adequate

  • Overconsumption - health

  • Obestiy

  • Colic

  • Founder

  • Wasted hay
  • Do we want to restrict access to hay?

Restricting Free-Fed Forages

  • Limit Speed of Intake Forage Always Available

  • Continuous rate of passage

  • Improves digestive efficiency

  • Reduce grain

  • Health Improvements

  • Ulcers, colic

  • Improved weight maintenance

  • Reduce boredom and bickering

  • Less hay wasted

Grills...Not the Cooking Kind...

  • Hard grill/Mesh that only permits a small amount of hay to be pulled out at a time

  • Constructed to allow hay to be up against the grill at all times

  • Some recommended specs

  • 3/16" wire

  • 2 x 2" openings

  • Wood should be painted smooth

  • Can be metal (smooth)

  • Clean regularly

Nets and Ropes

  • More portable

  • Can be loose, suspended or confined

  • Hanging when empty is a risk

  • "Play toy"

  • Some specs

  • Hay bags double them up

  • Hockey nets, golf driving range nets

  • 3-5 mm netting

  • 4x4 cm or around 1 1/2 inch openings

  • Close top opening securely

Feeding Horses