Feeding Free-Choice Forage
If there’s one thing I would like all horse owners to know–it’s how important forage is to the horse. Too many people base their horses’ diets around a concentrate, when in fact, it should be the other way around and based on forage instead.
It’s important to understand that horses’ GI systems are designed to take in small amounts of forage on a near-continual basis. If they’re on ample pasture, then this usually isn’t an issue, but as we all know, many horses aren’t. And of course, this is when hay needs to be fed. But how much hay and how often?
One way to know is to simply monitor your horse’s body condition. This is what I used to do. If my horses looked fine in the winter, then that meant I was feeding enough. If they began to lose weight, then I fed a little more. But these days, I have a different strategy. I feed hay free-choice.
I’m fortunate in the fact that we bale our own grass hay and usually have plenty to go around. I put up several hundred bales in my barn each summer–usually more than I know I’ll need. The colder the weather is, the more I feed. If I still have plenty extra when the end of winter rolls around, I simply sell it. No big deal. But I try to make sure my horses always have hay available to eat.
I usually offer hay in several places: in the stalls (especially if it’s rainy or snowy), in one spot not far from the barn, and also strewn out in a larger pasture. This way, they have something to eat no matter where they are. I also like spreading it out in the pasture so they have to move around to get at it.
Depending on the weather, I might feed anywhere from a bale to two bales per day for my four horses. Some people might think this is crazy or wasteful, but I would rather my horses have plenty than not enough. I’ll tell you why.
Like I stated before, the horse’s digestive system is designed to take in small amounts of forage around the clock. Not only does the act of chewing and keeping fiber moving through the stomach prevent gastric ulcers, but it also keeps the intestines moving and healthy. (Adequate, clean water is very important too!)
The other reason I feed free-choice hay in winter is because the digestion of fiber is also a very important way for horses to keep warm. Eating hay literally produces heat within their body! So going without hay for even a few hour in brutal temperatures could be a problem.
Another important reason to feed forage free-choice: horses kept stalled or in small lots may easily grow bored when they run out of food. Boredom and/ or the stress of not having available forage can lead to stable vices such as cribbing, wood chewing, or weaving.
Some people may be concerned that their horses will overeat if they feed forage free-choice. I can tell you this has not been the case for me (at least not with hay). My horses do not eat constantly. I’ll often find them dozing or sometimes just standing around. They also have play time on occasion where they tear around the pasture (much to my dismay!)
Others may think they can’t afford to feed free-choice hay (or they simply don’t have time to keep throwing hay out), but this is where slow feeders come into play. They can really slow your horse’s consumption, which will ensure hay is available nearly all the time. Granted, you may need to invest in several slow feeders (especially if you have several horses) and depending on the size, you may need to fill them up more than once a day, but they do work, and they can make a huge difference for your horse.
And please remember that horses don’t sleep throughout the night like we do–they’ll need plenty of hay to get them through this time as well (especially in frigid weather).
As Equine Nutritionist, Dr. Juliet Getty says, feed your horse like a horse. And feeding free-choice grass hay is the best way to do this!
Note: Alfalfa and other legume hays, although great for many situations, are not the best choice for free-choice feeding as they are high in protein, calories, and certain minerals, like calcium, which may lead to mineral imbalances.