The Modern Equine Vet
October 2023
Vol 13 Issue 10 2023
Click Here to View Full Issue


Feeding Method Affects Equine Health, Well-Being

Different feeding methods have different effects on equine health and well-being, according to a recent study, sponsored by Morris Animal Foundation.

Feral and wild horses can spend about 16 hours per day grazing. Changing their access to food affects their natural behavior and leads to health problems.

To understand these changes better and how they might affect domesticated horses, Morris Animal Foundation-funded researchers looked at several feeding methods including free-choice feeding or unlimited food access, slow-feeder, which also allows unlimited hay access but requires the horse to pull hay through a net, and an automatic box feeder.

They divided 15 polo horses into 3 groups—automatic box feeders, slow feeders and allowing horses free choice—to see their effects on the horses’ cortisol levels, circadian rhythm and behavior. The horses were fed by 1 method for 15 days, when body weight was measured, and blood was collected before being switched to another form of feeding. Behavior was assessed during the last 24 hours of each feeding method.

Horses using automatic boxes and slow feeders consumed less and exhibited slower weight gain. Both methods effectively regulated food intake. Horses with the freedom to choose when to eat ate more hay than the others, and saw the highest weight gain rates, suggesting that this approach might not be optimal for overweight horses. Horses with access to free choice feeding or a slow feeder spent more than half their day doing natural activities such as foraging.

Conversely, horses using the box feeder spent only about a quarter of their day eating, and this treatment increased the time that horses spent standing, sniffing the ground and ingesting their own feces. Furthermore, horses using the box feeder displayed more signs of aggression.

During the study, the researchers noticed that horses became more aggressive as the feeders’ sizes became smaller and access to the food became more difficult. To mitigate this, researchers suggested that if horses are given a limited amount of food, it’s important to ensure enough space for each of them to eat without feeling crowded.

Taking care of horses means more than just giving them a place to stay, food and water. It means giving them an environment where they can do things that are part of their natural behavior like grazing,” said Jéssica Carvalho Seabra, a PhD-candidate in the Department of Animal Science, Federal University of Paraná, Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil, and a researcher involved in this study.

“Selecting the right feeding technique can extend the time horses engage in natural behaviors, reducing the incidence of chronic stress and potentially curbing the emergence of abnormal and stereotypic behaviors in the long run,” Ms. Carvalho Seabra said. MeV

For more information:
Carvalho Seabra J, Hess T, Martinez do Vale M, et al. Effects of different hay feeders, availability of roughage on abnormal behaviors and cortisol circadian rhythm in horses kept in dry lots. J Equine Vet Sci. 2023;130:104911.