Rationing Hay for Horses With Metabolic Problems

Sourcing lower energy hay and implementing slow-feeding strategies can help reduce your horse’s risk of becoming obese and developing metabolic problems.

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Feeding your horse’s hay in a hay net can help his ration last longer. | iStock

Q: My easy-keeper horse had laminitis a few years ago, and ever since then I have controlled his hay intake to ensure he maintains an adequate body condition score. My concern is his hay ration does not last him 24 hours, even with a hay net. I have heard that horses should not go without hay, therefore I am wondering what management tactics could help his hay last longer? And should I be concerned when his hay runs out?

A: It is great to hear your horse has maintained a healthy body condition (which should be 4-5 on the Henneke scale) after recovering from laminitis. As you know, it can be very challenging to manage these easy keepers.

You are correct in that it is important to ensure that horses do not have extended periods of time without access to hay. However, for horses that tend to be overweight, they are typically unable to have free-choice hay because this can result in obesity, which is a serious health concern. 

The Importance of ‘Trickle Feeding’ for Horses

The reason horses need access to hay or roughage for most of their time stems from how they have adapted to eat. Horses are trickle feeders and graze for upward of 18 hours per day. Therefore, their anatomy is designed to support trickle-feeding behavior. For example, unlike in humans, when horses chew, it stimulates salivation. Saliva is important for both moistening feed and as a gastric buffer, so it’s crucial to consider chew time when determining how to feed your horse his hay rations.

Additionally, the stomach continually produces gastric acid—even when the horse is not eating. Lack of forage in the horse’s stomach creates a much more acidic environment and can increase the risk of gastric ulcers developing.

There are many anatomical reasons to support trickle feeding, but it is important to keep in mind that obesity is also a serious health issue in horses. It is not always as simple as hanging a hay net and hoping our easy keepers can pace themselves.

How Much Hay to Feed an Easy Keeper

When restricting forage, you must still meet the minimum hay intake of 1.5% of the horse’s body weight daily. For example, a 1,100-lb horse needs to consume a minimum of 16.5 lbs of hay daily. Be sure you are implementing slow-feeding methods, such as hay nets, and offering multiple feedings so the horse is never without hay for longer than four hours.

If you have an easy keeper and he runs out of hay an hour or two before his next feeding, it is not a cause for concern if he seems content otherwise. However, if he is having any prolonged periods (three to four-plus hours) without hay then you might need to consider management changes such as feeding him more often. Additionally, if the horse is displaying unwanted behaviors—for example, wood chewing—during the hour or two he is out of hay, this is a sign that you might need to adjust your feeding schedule. In situations when labor is not easily available, there are a few different automatic feeders on the market that could be used as well.

Hay Quality for Horses With Metabolic Issues

A commonly overlooked aspect of feeding easy keepers is evaluating the energy content of the hay—that is, the calories it offers. If your easy keeper is running out of hay too quickly, testing it to evaluate the energy content should be the first step. Easy keepers should eat Grade 3 or 4 “utility hay” based on the American Forage and Grassland Council grade scale. This is hay that is lower in digestible energy, with acid detergent fiber (ADF) content of 41-45% and neutral detergent fiber (NDF) content of 54-65% on a dry-matter basis.

When we match the quality of the hay to our horse’s needs, it can make the management much easier. For example, with your easy keeper, if you source lower-energy hay, it might mean he can consume more without gaining excess weight, so his daily hay ration could last longer.

Straw as an Additive for Easy Keepers

Another management tactic for these horses is to incorporate some straw into their ration. Straw is the byproduct of cereal crops (what is left over after the grain is harvested). Horse owners can use it for easy keepers because it is low in nutritional value and, therefore, low in energy. Please note that due to straw’s low nutritional value, you should not offer it as the primary forage for a horse, but it can make up to 25% of their forage.

As with any diet change, introduce straw over a minimum of seven days so that the horse can gradually adjust and to reduce the risk of gastrointestinal upset. Another key consideration you should make for any horse, but especially those consuming larger amounts of indigestible fiber, is water intake. Be sure your horse is receiving adequate salt and has free-choice access to a fresh and clean water source.

The goal of either sourcing lower-energy hay or incorporating some straw into the ration is to increase the amount of roughage the horse can consume, which helps prevent any fasting periods and increases chew time without significantly increasing digestible energy intake. Test both your hay and straw prior to feeding it to your horse to be sure it is safe for them. If you are unsure of the safety of a forage source, consult a qualified equine nutritionist prior to feeding it.

Even with lower-energy forage, and incorporating straw, slow-feeding tactics are often still necessary. If you are using a hay net, and your horse is continuing to eat too quickly, you could reduce the hole size of the net, or even double-net the hay to slow him down.

Slow-Feeding Tactics

Anytime you implement a new slow-feeding tactic, for example, double-netting, observe your horses to ensure they can consume the hay. Occasionally, if it is too difficult for them, they could become frustrated and give up on trying entirely.

Each horse is truly an individual, so you might have to experiment with a few different types of hay nets or slow feeders prior to finding one that works best for your horse. As horses get used to eating from hay nets, they become more skilled with it, and you might be able to gradually work them to nets with smaller holes or double-netting. Slowing down their intake is important, of course, but also consider any ways in which you can increase your easy keeper’s movement. You can use hay balls or play around with the paddock setup. For example, using multiple smaller hay nets so horses must travel between them or even setting up a track system are great options to encourage natural movement.

Take-Home Message

Overall, carefully managing easy-keeping horses and those at risk of obesity is imperative for their health. However, it can be challenging to provide them with adequate roughage while ensuring they do not become overweight. So, if your horse is on a good slow-feeding program and you have tested your hay, rest assured that your horse will be fine if he runs out for an hour here and there. However, if he experiences prolonged fasting periods, investigate the various management tactics you can use to reduce his time spent without forage.

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Written by:

Madeline Boast completed her master’s in Equine Nutrition at the University of Guelph and started an independent nutrition company known as Balanced Bay. She has worked with a variety of equids—from Miniature Ponies to competing Thoroughbreds. Boast designs customized balanced nutrition plans that prioritize equine well-being, both for optimal performance and solving complex nutritional issues and everything between. 

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