Free to forage… (March 2016)

Keeping any animal calls for dedication to providing the correct management, feeding and exercise to ensure that good welfare is maintained, and generally the larger the animal the more time-consuming this process seems to be. I see a wide range of stable management practices from the stable kept to field kept, from the show pony to showjumper to endurance horse, and it always interests me to know why people follow the regime they use. Sometimes finances dictate or influence the chosen system, sometimes convenience takes priority. For many owners, the horse’s welfare is paramount and no expense is spared to provide warm rugs, good quality haylage, stable toys and the best possible care.

There has been a huge increase in awareness of certain management practices, one being the use of fibre-based feeds as the healthiest and most natural form of feed stuff, particularly where there is a risk of gastric ulcers. However, it appears that one key piece of information here has not been recognised and it so interested me, that I wanted to bring it to your attention.

Over ten years ago, Thorne and his colleagues conducted a study into the feeding behaviours of horses given a single form of forage, eg hay, and horses given a choice of forages including short chop and long chop forages. This study found that the horses with the choice of forages, spent far more time sampling each and deciding which one to eat, than horses presented with just the one type of forage. There were individual preferences for the forages eaten in the multiple forage condition, indicating that the horses liked to select which forage they consumed, and spent considerable time choosing this through natural foraging behaviour. The horses in the study were tested in both the single forage and multiple forage conditions for a week in each, and only showed stereotypic weaving behaviour in the single forage condition.

Now this study interests me, because it shows how although we focus on providing fibre-based diets for gut health and to encourage our horses to spend time quietly munching hay rather than showing stereotypic behaviours, it seems we have missed a trick here. Perhaps the fear of too much change in a horse’s diet potentially causing colic, made us reticent to consider a multiple forage diet. I see haynets with the tiniest holes intended to lengthen the time spent eating hay for some horses, but perhaps the owner also doesn’t like wastage of hay in the bedding. However, a foraging horse enjoys spreading his hay about, selecting the precise pieces he wants to eat and working back over the mess he has made for several hours! Horses will utilise a toy for a short period of time, but it doesn’t replace natural foraging behaviour which has an inner motivation linked to, but not entirely the cause of feeding behaviour – foraging fulfils a need in its own right!

A horse with several forage options given on the ground, will make a bit of mess, but the horse really doesn’t mind this – it is far closer to natural behaviour and has the additional benefit of allowing the horse to adopt a natural grazing position for longer, (producing the correct spinal and muscular posture and aiding respiratory clearance of any dust particles). In case you are wondering, yes I have tried this system of giving several forages to my horses and they are actually eating less! They have access to soaked hay, soaked oat straw, chaff and alfalfa and yes we have some wastage, but they are not needing any extra feed to supplement this, plus they are spending noticeably more time picking and choosing what they want to eat. All new feed stuffs were introduced in small amounts so their guts could accommodate the different fibre types, and they choose their favourite each day, with the hay still being their main preference. Soon they will be able to go out in the field again, but they have always shown interest in hay given in the field as well, particularly when the grass is full of sugar and fast-growing – they know that they need something stalkier in their tummies as well, and in a natural environment, grass doesn’t grow in fields with boundaries….


So I hope this has given you some ‘food for thought’, particularly if you have a horse which shows stereotypic behaviours or one with weight issues you are trying to deal with – multiple forage may be the answer for you and your horse.