About a year ago my horse, Bindi, suffered a tendon injury. She had to be laid up and was prescribed minimal exercise for quite a while. My first worry was, "What on earth is she going to do all day?!" This led me to begin investigating the option of feeding her hay free-choice.
As a side note, here in California, most horse owners don't have the luxury of letting their horses live on pasture, even part-time (sadly!). The amount of land is simply not available and a majority of the state experiences arid, desert-like climate making pasture maintenance extremely difficult. The alternative... hay. The long accepted guidelines for feeding horses hay is to feed 1-2% of the horse's body weight in pounds of hay. Generally, people then divide this amount into 2-3 meals per day. Sounds familiar, right? Well what if I told you horses' digestive systems were designed to slowly graze for 12 to 20 hours per day?! Horses' stomachs are extremely acidic and when not actively digesting, the acid can cause irritation and even gastric ulcers in some cases. Aside from health related benefits, feeding free-choice hay is possibly the easiest way we can offer enrichment to our horses' lives for the approximate 20-23 hours a day we are not riding or visiting them.
The easiest method to supply free-choice hay is to use large, full-bale hay nets. Not only does this minimize hay waste, but it slows down the rate at which the horse eats, mimicking their natural grazing habit. For horses with metabolic or weight issues, nets with smaller holes can be used to further slow down the rate that they eat. As an added bonus, you can create multiple hay stations to encourage movement of the horse throughout the day. If your horse has shoes, you will want to consider hanging the hay net high enough off of the ground so they do not get a shoe caught in the net. You could also put the large net in a high-sided feed bin, which would allow them to eat in a more natural position while not allowing them to get something caught. You could even find a way to secure the net to the bottom of the bin so that as the horse eats and the net gets lighter, he doesn't toss it out of the bin or all over his stall. Get creative with it!
10 Reasons To Feed Free-Choice Hay
A few things to consider...
Switching your horse to a free-choice feeding schedule will be quite the adjustment. At first he or she may overeat as they are accustomed to finishing meals in one sitting. The self-regulation period can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. The key is to make sure the horse never runs out of hay. This way, they truly accept the fact that the hay will always be there, and can feel more secure in only eating how much their body actually needs. During this self-regulation period, you may notice weight gain. Don't freak out! Just stick with it and you will be shocked to soon find your horse is not ALWAYS eating when you arrive at the barn. Once you've successfully made it beyond the adjustment period, you should notice a return to normal weight, and even potential weight loss. My mare, Bindi, was officially diagnosed with Equine Metabolic Syndrome (which I will dive into in another post) and she became significantly overweight. Believe it or not, this is one of the factors that led to me to begin feeding free-choice. It helps her maintain healthy insulin levels throughout the day. Sudden spikes in insulin can be can be partially to blame for weight gain in horses. Together with regular exercise, she has begun shedding the pounds and is on her way to a healthy weight.
The type of hay you use when free feeding would ideally be a high-quality grass hay such as bermuda, timothy, or orchard. A mix of alfalfa and grass hay would be OK too if you feel that your horse needs the extra protein. Free feeding legume or grain hays like alfalfa or oat hay should be avoided as they tend to to be unbalanced in mineral content and are known to lead to significant issues when fed in high quantities, long-term.
Consider having your hay tested regularly for sugar and starch content if you are concerned about weight gain. These values should be below 10%.
A low/no grain diet is adequate for most horses. Consider feeding a ration balancer to balance the vitamins and minerals of the hay you are feeding rather than feeding grain or a complete feed. Plain, small hay pellets work great as a carrier for vitamins/minerals and other supplements you may choose to feed your horse.
In some boarding situations, it may not be possible to feed your horse free-choice hay. Consider the use of a slow-feed hay net and see if the barn management would be willing to accommodate feeding your horse's meals exclusively in the net. Thee are many creative ways a hay net can be set up to allow for easy access to feeding crew. This will help the hay last longer and allow the horse to spend more hours of the day munching.
Feeding free-choice is also ideal for horses in group settings. It can minimize food aggression and stabilize the dynamics within the herd.
A full bale (which is about 80-100 lb in California) will last Bindi about 4-5 days.
Please share you success stories with free-choice feeding in the comments below!
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