Horses prefer to occupy themselves with eating. In the wild, they spend up to 16 hours a day eating – and they even eat at night. However, these majestic animals don’t do this for fun, but for good reasons: To maintain their massive body weight and musculature, it’s important for them to take in enough nutrients. In addition, frequent feed intake protects against colic, stomach ulcers and behavioral problems. Excessive pauses in feeding horses are considered unnatural and unhealthy.
Learn everything you need to know about feeding breaks in horses in our comprehensive guide!
What is the natural feeding behavior of horses?
In the wild, horses are dedicated to one thing above all: eating! Horses are both permanent and herbivores. In the wild, these large animals spend up to 16 hours a day eating. So the bottom line is that horses eat constantly when they are not sleeping. Plant foods contain many important nutrients, but not in as concentrated a form as animal foods. In order for horses to maintain or increase their body weight at normal activity levels, they therefore require a large amount of feed.
Feeding breaks for horses – how long can they be?
Especially during the paddock season in autumn and winter, horses often have to make do with long feeding breaks. However, this is contrary to their nature. Horses spend about 60 to 70% of the day and 30 to 40% of the night eating. Horses are smart about this: They divide their food into intervals of about ten meals and chew everything very thoroughly and slowly. The horse’s stomach has a relatively small capacity. It can quickly become overwhelmed. Therefore, these feeding intervals and the constant availability of food are very important for the horse.
NOTE: Do you want to know how horses manage to sleep sufficiently when they also eat at night? In our guide “How do horses sleep?” you will learn interesting facts about the horse’s sleep requirements.
Whether during the day or at night, a horse would never voluntarily abstain from eating for more than three or four hours. Horses would also never fast voluntarily. A continuous intake of roughage is the highest priority for horses.
=> A horse’s feeding break should never last longer than four hours, so that horses feel completely comfortable, both physically and psychologically.
What does the average horse’s daily routine look like in terms of feeding breaks?
Unfortunately, some horse owners do not realize that a break in feeding horses should not exceed four hours. This basic natural need is often neglected.
In a study, scientists investigated how long the feed intake of box horses is interrupted on average. These were fed restrictively (meals and roughage only at set times). The study results were sobering: the feeding break of horses kept in individual stalls on non-feedable bedding averaged nine hours. This far exceeds a maximum feeding break of four hours. Such feeding practices negatively impact horse welfare, according to the researchers.
Why are too long feeding breaks detrimental to the horse’s well-being?
Too long feed breaks lead to a change in the horses’ eating behavior. Horses try to eat more food in a shorter period of time because they fear having to go without food again for a longer period of time. They finish the hay meal quickly and generally take fewer breaks from eating. However, as you already know, it is important for the delicate horse stomach that they chew slowly and thoroughly and do not “gulp down” their feed.
Restrictive feeding practices also cause horses to produce far less saliva than would otherwise be the case. It is saliva that has the job of softening aggressive stomach acid. If there is now a longer feeding break and the horse produces less saliva, it can happen that the horse’s stomach overacidifies and the stomach acid attacks the gastric mucosa.
What are the consequences of too long feeding breaks?
- Stomach ulcers
- Colic Behavioral problems
- Impaired physical and psychological well-being
What are the best strategies against long feeding breaks of your horse?
Hay from a close-meshed hay bag or feed saving net: To avoid too long feeding breaks, there is a simple approach: Since the horse needs a lot of roughage, offering hay from bags or close-meshed nets is a good solution. This will draw out the eating time. If you refill your horse’s hay nets in the morning and again in the evening, you can keep feeding breaks much shorter.
Timed feeding systems: A good way to avoid unhealthy feeding breaks is to divide your horse’s total feed into many small portions. To avoid having to feed your horse every two hours, you can use timed feeding systems. Timed hayracks as well as chip-controlled automatic feeders are useful options. An automatic hay rack opens every few hours, giving your pets access to roughage.
Automatic pasture gates: Some horse owners are coming up with creative solutions using automatic grazing gates to keep feeding breaks from being too long. This way you can also try to give your horse access to food several times a day.
Conclusion: Try to avoid too long feeding breaks for your horse!
In order for your horse to feel completely comfortable and not develop digestive problems or psychological discomfort, you should know the basic needs of horses. In contrast to us humans, horses are permanent eaters. They only eat food of vegetable origin. Moreover, horses have a high body weight, which they have to maintain with the help of plant food. It is therefore not surprising that horses have to eat a large amount of food to ensure that they remain healthy. A feeding break should never last longer than four hours. Horses also eat at night, which is why the animals should get a supply of food during this period as well.
Scientists have been able to show in studies that many stables result in unhealthy and long feeding breaks of up to nine hours for the animals. The horses have to go far too long without food and develop unhealthy eating behaviors as a result.
There are a few strategies you can use as a horse owner to combat overly long feeding breaks. For example, you can set up automatic feeding systems or offer your horse hay in close-meshed hay nets.
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