Healthy eating is about more than the feeds that horses consume. The habit of eating and the way the horse eats engages it physically, mentally and emotionally, nourishing the horse beyond the nutrients and calories consumed.
Modern feeding practices often stray significantly from favourable ways to feed horses. These seemingly small infractions over time contribute to various metabolic, gastrointestinal and mental illnesses. Even the simple head-down posture adopted when horses eat naturally has a purpose — it encourages drainage and thus cleansing of respiratory passages.
By nature’s design, the horse is a trickle feeder, engaged in eating many, many hours of the day. Under ideal circumstances, eating is coupled with movement in horses, rightfully so as their gastrointestinal track depends on this movement for digestion. Beyond satisfying the horse’s nutritional needs, this activity brings emotional and mental balance.
Horses managed as meal feeders, consuming their daily rations in a short period of time, often develop stereotypic behaviours and stable vices such as cribbing, wood chewing, and weaving. Horses managed in such a manner frequently experience digestive distress such as stomach ulcers as well.
Behaviour is also intertwined with feeding style as the behaviours of a hunger-driven horse can quickly escalate into what is perceived as ill manners.
As a result of frequent forage eating, horses have evolved to continually secrete hydrochloric acid into their stomachs. To offset this acid flow, horses rely on the buffering capacity of continual saliva production stimulated by chewing. When this balance is upset, such as occurs in meal feeding, gastric ulcers are probable. Metabolic balance is also taxed when horses rapidly consume feeds, especially rich feeds. Since the horse’s metabolic machinery is designed to regulate a slow, steady, mild influx of nutrients, especially glucose, ongoing bombardment of blood sugar spikes, as is common in modern management, inflicts considerable metabolic damage over time. This is especially troublesome for the easy-keeping equines.
Many factors influence the way we feed horses, seasonal variation being the largest. In the winter, supervised pawing of well-stocked forage pastures is ideal yet is not always available or possible. Horses thrive from the movement and simple nutrition inherent in this practice.
When green grasses are not available, dried forages become the mainstay of the horse’s diet and as a result management becomes more involved whether hay is fed indoors or outdoors. Since the amount of hay that the horse will consume is the first practical piece of information needed, it is advisable to weigh feeds, not every day, but certainly long enough that one becomes familiar with how volume and weight correlate. You may be surprised at the volume of 20 pounds of grass hay, for this is approximately the weight of hay required by a 1,000-pound horse. Quality forages are long stemmed and naturally high in fibre content. These quality forage diets, particularly the grasses, are intimately connected with beneficial horse-feeding practices, as the sheer volume of well-chosen forages creates busywork for horses.