Give Horses a Week To Learn To Use Automated Feeding Stations
Automated feeders might change the way we manage horses—particularly when feeding herds with various nutritional needs. Distributing customized amounts of feed and forage to individual horses at multiple intervals throughout the day could be ideal for their welfare and ours. Replacing humans in this tedious and time-consuming task, automated feeders can free up our time while ensuring our horses get the nutrition and foraging they need.

This utopic situation depends, of course, on whether horses can learn to use the feeders safely and effectively. Equipped with automatic doors, food dispensers, and microchip readers, automated feeders are far more complex than other automated devices in the horse industry, such as waterers. According to a new study, though, horses learn to master automated feeders within a few days, using it safely and efficiently, said Linda Kjellberg, PhD student, of the Swedish National Equestrian Centre in Strömsholm and the Department of Anatomy, Physiology, and Biochemistry at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala.

“Automatic feeding stations for horses are becoming more popular, and there were questions (among owners and researchers) about how long it took for horses to learn to use them,” Kjellberg said.

“Most horses learned to use them very quickly, especially the easy (keepers), who learned to feed from these stations in two to three days,” she continued. “Some horses took longer, but, on average, two-thirds of them had learned it within a week.”

Observing 22 Horses Learning To Use Automated Feeders

To test horses’ ability to learn automated feeder use, Kjellberg and her fellow researchers followed 22 Swedish Warmblood geldings, aged 3 to 18, as they learned to use automated forage and grain feeders, set in a paddock, that open with automatic microchip reading.

Each horse wore a neck collar equipped with a preprogrammed chip that signaled the feeder to distribute the appropriate amount of food for that horse up to 20 times a day. The feeder itself works as a station with six closed stalls that open individually when a horse approaches, Kjellberg said. The horses in this study received concentrated feeds, minerals, and forage through automated feeders (although the study only focused on their learning time for forage), but feeders can also provide balancers, supplements, and medications according to each horse’s preprogrammed needs.

Each horse received one-on-one training from an experienced handler who taught the horse to lower its head, for example, for the microchip reading and how to enter and exit the stall.

They found that by the fourth day of training, almost half the horses had learned the system well enough to get at least 90% of their ration, Kjellberg said. By eight days, 71% of the horses had reached this goal. At 16 days, that figure reached 95%. Older horses, in particular, needed more training sessions, Kjellberg said. Easy keepers—who are highly food motivated—were the fastest to learn how to use automated feeders.

Mild and Easy-To-Address Risks With Automated Feeders

Feeder use wasn’t without a few issues—mainly related to social hierarchy, said Kjellberg. “There is a risk that (higher-ranking) horses might block a feeding stall, making it impossible for other horses to get access,” she explained. “We had a situation like that the first week, when we introduced this system to the horses.

“Also, one very easy (keeper) quickly learned that if he just stayed in the stall, he would get forage at least once an hour,” she continued. “But as soon as we got the automatic concentrated grain stations in operation, he had to leave the forage station to go check if he could get some concentrated feeds. Therefore, we recommend giving horses concentrated feed in these kinds of systems as well, to keep a flow going through the stations.”

Another risk is that certain horses learn to open the exit doors and chase out the horse that’s inside feeding, “stealing” his feeding time. “In our feeders, we reinforced the doors, but some horse succeeded in getting in anyway,” Kjellberg said. “Stable managers must therefore check the horses and, if necessary, maybe remove an individual from the barn.”

Kjellberg: Benefits of Automatic Feeders Outweigh Investment

“Using automatic feeders for horses gives the stable manager the opportunity to have horses with different nutritional needs together without risking obesity due to feeding ad lib or needing to bring the horses into the stalls to feed them,” said Kjellberg. “Since these feeders are timed-controlled, it’s also important to learn to manage the feeders to ensure that horses are given a proper ration—for health reasons but also for their welfare.”

Using automated feeders is an investment, she said, but it pays off through reduced labor costs while making sure horses live good lives. “As long as we measure each horse’s forage intake rate, the risks to their health and welfare are minimized. Of course, achieving high welfare in an open barn is complex, and feeding is just one important part. People must also remember to monitor their horses daily in the barn and strive for good composition in the herd to avoid injuries.”