Feeding Free-Choice Forage


Hi! My name is Casie Bazay. I'm a mom, a freelance writer, and a certified equine acupressure practitioner.

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27 Responses

  1. Marjorie Beyer says:

    How is Tifton 85 Coastal Hay to use for free choice feeding?

    • Casie says:

      Hi Marjorie–I’m not sure, to be honest. It may be higher in protein and non-structural carbohydrates than typical grass hay. It’s bermuda grass, right?

  2. Wendy says:

    I have one large pony that is always too fat. I am worried that he will eat himself to death if I free choice feed him He is 24 years old and has a couple of hours on pasture in the winter time. Summer time he wears a grazing muszzle. He will eat anything that remotely looks like food. He doesn’t chew wood or have any vices, but I’m worried about trying free choice hay. Any words of advice?

    • Kathy says:

      Does he have a companion that keeps him moving? Plenty of room to trot and run on his own? Does he get plenty of exercise? (Companionship helps with boredom also) Maybe you could try a hay net with small (1″ or 1-1/4″) holes and still feed your regular twice a day feedings. That will slow him down and keep him occupied longer. You can also split his regular breakfast into 2 or more slow feeders and spread them out so he has to move around to eat. (Same with dinner.) Also what I wrote below about very gradually increasing amount of feed over time – always in slow feeders. Also what Janet said here about lower quality (not garbage) hay that he could nibble more of without getting fat. Good luck with the pony!

  3. Janet says:

    I like to feed my horses plenty in the winter too. I feed mature grass hay. Not yummy, lush, green, fine prime hay, but good mature grass from a nice field and harvested dry. If I fed the primo hay I see some people feeding I’m sure my horses would pick up every little strand, but mine is not el-primo (I have a horse with metabolic syndrome) so I keep sugars down. The more I feed, the more they waste. I don’t think I over feed, but they are just picky and obviously not hungry. Even if I put in hay nets, they pull out the more stalky stuff and get the finer strands of hay. The waste bothers me, I’m raking it up. Oh well, I guess if they were hungry they’d eat it.

    • Kathy says:

      If you hay nets have holes that are over 1-1/4 inches, I can see where there would be lots of waste. Check out HayChix nets. They pay for themselves very quickly. I use both the 1-1/4″ and 1″. Every single one of my customers who has purchased the 1-3/4″ or larger (from other companies or feed stores) comes back for the smaller holes.

  4. Kathy says:

    Yes! Thank you for that! People often comment to me they can’t free feed because their horse will overeat. That’s not true 99% of the time. When horses know there is food available any time, they will nibble and self-regulate. I used to feed twice a day and the horses would be shivering. Within 5 mins of starting to eat grass hay, they would stop shivering, even when the temps were below freezing and the wind was blowing. That tells me grass hay is the most efficient way for them to burn calories to stay warm. (I’ve read that alfalfa takes LESS calories to burn so it does NOT keep your horse warmer – aside from the calcium-phosphorus imbalance and oftentimes higher price.) Mine don’t wear blankets but have access to a 3-sided shelter. They largely use it as the bathroom & prefer to be outside. Now they get 24/7 grass hay in HayChix nets and a Porta-Grazer (love both types for different reasons). One is a small Arab who is an easy keeper. The other is a large QH who is very active. They eat together and both maintain their weight without getting fat – or getting bored. AND horses lose that “food anxiety” when it only comes a couple times a day. Very cool to have your horse voluntarily leave food to come see what you’re doing & hang out with you vs being antsy and possessive about dinner.

  5. Kathy says:

    On transitioning to free choice – some horses are cool with going directly from twice a day meals to 24/7 hay with no “transition.” Though you should be prepared for them to eat a little more until they realize the 24/7 thing is ongoing and not just the magical appearance of more food today. (I sell slow feeders & my clients generally tell me about 2 weeks for their horses to self-regulate.) Other horses take some transitioning or they will blimp out. My young horse had been fed once a day for her first 3 years & had LOTS of food anxiety when I got her. I had to very gradually put out more food in the slow feeders (starting with just 2 flakes, then adding a handful, then 1/4 extra flake, then 1/2 extra flake, etc) over time before she finally relaxed and quit pigging out. That took a couple months. But the payoff is now she doesn’t get antsy about food & hog it from the other horse.

  6. Jeannine Hinderman says:

    You didn’t mention round bales. Thats what we feed in winter. I find my horses do not get fat but do get plump lol. They don’t get much exercise it seems. All they want to do is stand and eat. Is that ok? We feed barn stored hay at 13% protein and I have never seen them eat it down to the ground before. They love it and it eases my mind they have food at all times in this crazy weather.

  7. Elizabeth Stopp says:

    Thank you for this article Casie. I am in the UK and trying to get people to understand this is a nightmare !

  8. Shona Douglas-Coulthard says:

    Have you ever had any teeth problems with slow feeders? I saw one horse had been eating out of one and it’s enamel was worn off it’s teeth so I am a little wooried to use slow feeders now.

    • Casie says:

      I haven’t, but I guess that could happen with certain feeders. I think the net ones would be easier on the teeth than the hard metal or plastic ones.

  9. Michael says:

    Could you please tell me what hay you grow and what are the growing conditions in soil and moisture. Thank you.

    • Casie says:

      We bale native mixed grass hay–it has bermuda, fescue, crabgrass, and several other species in it. I believe we have sandy loam soil, but not for certain.

  10. Michelle says:

    I highly agree with this. It’s so important to free feed…& I also have slow feeder hay nets and acerage. I transitioned a horse who was stalled & fed a flake of alfalfa in the am & pm and he did pig out at first but he soon self regulated. Now we are on 12 acres and in California so they only have green grass in the rainy times. I think the trick is to make sure you don’t get to yummy of grass hay. Also having herd mates and plenty of movement is also key. I have an energetic Arabian in the herd so he keeps the others moving. Keeping horses in our domestication can be challenging but doing our best to come as close to natural is what is best for the horse. They are so much happier & healthier….and not having set feeding times makes interactions with them so much better because they are not always worried about eating. To me that’s one of the biggest bonuses for the human side of the equasion✌️❤️

  11. Ashley says:

    Hi there, I have my horses and donkeys out on pasture to free graze 24/7 and usually have a roll of hay out as well. However I have a gelding that is 28 and can no longer eat hay. What would you recommend for him?

    • Casie says:

      Hi Ashley, I would recommend adding soaked hay cubes or pellets to his diet and possibly some beet pulp as well. This will help ensure his fiber needs are being met. This is what I did for my old mare (whom I recently lost–she was 33).

      • Ashley says:

        I do give him soaked cubes and he is on triple crown senior that is a beet pulp based feed. Should the soaked cubes be provided at free choice like hay?

        • Casie says:

          If he’s holding his weight okay, I wouldn’t worry about it. Just try to feed small meals often, if you can so he won’t be going for long periods of time with nothing to eat. I assume he eats grass when it comes in?

          • Ashley says:

            He tries to, I do find wads of slobbery grass though so I’m not sure how much he is actually able to get down. His weight has always been a struggle in the 10+ years I’ve had him. He’s an acceptable weight but by no means where he should be.

            • Casie says:

              Have you had his teeth checked? An infected tooth or uneven teeth can greatly affect their chewing ability. If he needs to gain weight, I’d consider feeding more meals or adding some soaked cubes or pellets free choice (if he’s in an area where other horses won’t eat it all). I started feeding my seniors three times a day this past winter and it really helped both of the to pick up some weight.

              • Ashley says:

                Thank you, I will try that. His teeth are checked about every 6 months now due to his age. But there isn’t much left of his molars according to the vet.

                • Casie says:

                  It may just be a matter of feeding more then. I also feed TC Senior mixed with either soaked pellets or chaffhaye. I make it pretty soupy so there’s little risk of choke.

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