Feeding Hay and Horse Wellbeing
The article below was written by Vikki Fowler (BVetMed BAEDT MRCVS), Veterinary Equine Dental Technician, based in the UK. This article was originally posted on Facebook on 31 December 2020 and is shared here with her permission.
At the time of publishing this page, Vikki’s post had received 5100 likes, 2600 comments and a massive 22,000 shares on Facebook.
What is the longest a horse can safely go without food?
More and more I see horses and ponies stood for long periods of time with no hay or haylage. Usually under the guise of a “weight control diet”. So how long can a horse be without food before damage is done? And what damage is done?
For those with a short attention span, I’ll give you the answer to begin with - 4 hours, maximum.
Horses are grazers. They are designed to eat constantly. They have no way of storing their acids and digestive enzymes, they’ve never needed to. They have no gall bladder to store bile and their stomachs release acid constantly, whether or not there is food in the stomach and intestines.
A horse’s stomach only holds approximately 8-15 litres. Depending on the substance eaten, it takes on average 4-6 hours for the stomach to completely empty. After this, the acids and enzymes start to digest the inside of the horse’s stomach and then the intestines. This causes both gastric and intestinal ulceration. It has been estimated that 25-50% of foals and 60-90% of adult horses suffer from ulceration. But I won’t go into detail about this, there is a lot of information around about ulcers.
So is that it? Are ulcers the only concern?
No, having an empty stomach is a stress situation for a horse. The longer they are starved, the more they release stress hormones, cortisol predominantly. Cortisol blocks insulin and causes a constantly high blood glucose level. This stimulates the body to release even more insulin, and in turn this causes fat tissue to be deposited and leptin resistance. Over time this causes insulin resistance (Equine Metabolic Syndrome). All of these mechanisms are well known risk factors for laminitis and are caused by short term starvation (starting roughly 3-4 hours after the stomach empties). Starving a laminitic is literally the worst thing you can do. Over longer periods, this also starts to affect muscle and can cause weakness, and a lack of stamina so performance horses also need a constant supply of hay/haylage to function optimally.
Let’s not forget horses are living, breathing and feeling animals. We talk about this stress reaction like it’s just internal but the horse is well aware of this stress. Door kicking, box walking, barging and many other stable vices and poor behaviour can be explained by a very stressed horse due to food deprivation (we all have that Hangry friend to explain this reaction). Next time you shout or hit a horse that dives for their net, remember their body is genuinely telling them they are going to starve to death. They know no different.
But surely they spend the night asleep so they wouldn’t eat anyway?
Not true. Horses only need 20mins REM sleep every 24 hours (jealous? I am!). They may spend a further hour or so dozing but up to 22-23 hours a day are spent eating. So if you leave your horse a net at 5pm and it’s gone by 8pm, then by 12am their stomach is empty. By 4am they are entering starvation mode. By their next feed at 8am, they are extremely stressed, physically and mentally.
Now I know the cob owners are reading this mortified. I can almost hear you shouting at your screen “if I feed my horse ad lib hay he won’t fit out the stable door in a week!!”
I will say that a horse with a constant supply of hay/haylage will eat far less than the same horse that is intermittently starved. They don’t eat in a frenzy, reducing the chance of colic from both ulcers and over-eating. Cobs included.
However I’m not suggesting you sit your cob in front of a bale of haylage and say have at it! There is a difference between ad lib and a constant supply. There is much we can do to reduce calorie intake and control weight whilst feeding a constant supply.
The easiest is small holes nets. There are many. Trickle nets, greedy feeders, nibbleze, trawler nets etc. My personal favourite is the Shires Soft Mesh 1”. They don’t cost the earth, they are easy to fill and they don’t have knots so are much gentler to the teeth. Now often I suggest these types of nets to owners and the owner tells me “Oh no, *** won’t eat out of those”. This is nonsense. If he was left with it, he would. Remember, you can give a normal net and one of these for them to nibble at after. Better than leaving them with nothing at all.
A few other tricks. Hang the net from the ceiling/rafters, it’s harder to eat out of a net that swings. Soak the hay, a minimum of 4 hours to be effective. Mix with straw but be sure to introduce the straw slowly and make sure it’s top quality and a palatable type e.g. Barley or Oat, otherwise they won’t eat it.
Don’t forget exercise. The best way to get weight off a horse is exercise. Enough exercise and they can eat what they want!
And lay off the bucket feed and treats! Horses on a diet require a vit/min supplement in the form of a balancer but that’s it. The odd slice of carrot or suede won’t do any harm but no licks, treats, treacle, molasses, cereal based rubbish. Even if it says low sugar or the marvellously misleading “No added sugar”! Your horse would rather have a constant supply of hay, I promise.
Written by Vikki Fowler BVetMed BAEDT MRCVS
A few edits for the critics:
Firstly, feeding a constant supply does not mean ad lib feeding. It means use some ingenuity and spread the recommended amount of daily forage so the horse is never stood without food for more than 4 hours. I am not promoting obesity, quite the opposite, feeding like this reduces obesity and IR. This can be done whilst feeding your horse twice a day as most horse owners do. Just think outside the box for your own situation.
Secondly I am in the UK and this post is UK specific, use some common sense when reading. Yes in warmer climates, soaking hay for 4 hours is dangerous and studies show 1 hour is plenty in hot weather but in the UK’s arctic climate, a minimum of 4 hours is required. Equally the UK feed exclusively grass hay. I cannot comment on other types.
Thirdly, yes every horse/pony and situation is different, but this is a law of nature and all horses have this anatomy and metabolism. How you achieve this constant supply is individual, the need for it is not.
Fourthly, the use of hay nets in the UK is very very high. I’d estimate 95% of horses I see are fed this way and very very few have incisor wear or neck/back issues as a result. Yes, feeding from the ground is ideal, but a constant supply, I feel trumps this. Again with ingenuity both can be safely achieved.
Finally, straw can be fed to horses safely, introduced very slowly, with fresh water always available, plus a palatable and digestible type of straw which will depend on your area. Again many horses in the UK are bedded on straw and most of them eat it. This is not a new concept to us.