Make horses work for food to avoid boredom

Exercise good for digestion | Specialist advises using a grazing muzzle to extend eating time and prevent wood chewing

RED DEER — Horses left to their own devices spend most of their time eating.

About 70 percent of a 24 hour period is spent either foraging or eating, said equine specialist Lori Warren of the University of Florida.

Unlike other livestock, they will also eat at night.

“These meals might last a few minutes, or depending on forage, it might last many hours of non-stop eating before they move on to another activity,” Warren told the Alberta Horse Breeders Conference held in Red Deer Jan. 10-12.

Many horses are raised in confinement, and although they receive a well balanced diet, they also spend less time eating it, which gives them time to do other things that may not always be healthy.

“How we manage horses, what we feed them has really changed how they interact with their diet,” said Warren.

Horses on pasture might travel three to five kilometres a day, which gives them exercise and keeps their bowels moving. They are also likely to be among other horses, which provides stimulation.

“For our convenience, a lot of horses are meal fed, two times a day,” she said.

Confined horses require special care. Their feed might meet their physical requirements, but it does not address their psychological needs.

Warren said it is not always practical to turn horses out to pasture, but their owners need to find a way to prolong the time the animals eat.

Owners can slow down a horse’s eating time by using grazing muzzles or feeders that make them work for their feed.

Wood chewing and cribbing may result if the horse has no food and nothing to do.

Warren also advises matching the hay to the horse.

Growing horses or hard working horses may need grain for extra energy. Thin horses or those with bad teeth may need concentrates.

High level performance or growing horses as well as lactating mares and thin horses may need grass alfalfa mixes or alfalfa hay.

Mid maturity hay with lots of leaves should meet the requirements for average performance horses and pregnant mares.

Ponies, miniature horses and idle ones may receive a grass hay or coarser hay, which slows them down when they eat. This type of hay also has a lower nutrient quality.

The type of feed also affects digestion and behaviour. Concentrates may be nutritionally balanced, but they take less time to eat compared to long stemmed hay, which re-quires considerable chewing.

Research has shown a horse chews 3,000 times for every kilogram of hay eaten but much less when eating grain. Long chewing produces more saliva to aid digestion and buffer the stomach.

Horses can produce 30 to 60 litres of saliva per day, which is recycled as water in their bodies.

Modern feeding practices can cause ulcers because the stomach passes the food through too quickly.

Colic and laminitis are also possible when there is lots of time between meals.

Horses also want variety. They prefer short, vegetative grasses and grazing in areas where there is a mixture of plant species.

However, they cannot tolerate drastic changes in diet. Mixtures can be introduced gradually to horses that are meal fed so that they can pick through it.

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