Tips for Feeding Horses in Groups

Q. My horses are happiest living together as a herd, and as an at-home horse keeper, I’m always looking for ways to keep my horse chores easy and efficient. My “boss” horse at feeding time is also my easiest keeper, so he carries extra weight while the others are a little leaner than I’d like. Do you have any tips or tricks you could offer about feeding horses in group situations, and can you recommend one kind of feed is best for horses of varying ages and activity levels?

M.B., via email

A. Managing horses in groups has numerous benefits for their behavioral health. However, as you have found, it has its own set of management challenges. I would recommend initially spending some time observing your horses at feeding time to see how they interact, what the pecking order is, and how long they each take to eat. This will give you some data to work with to develop a management plan.

Due to the varying needs of your herd, they really need to receive supplemental feed individually. There are a number of ways you can do this. The most obvious is to bring them in to stalls to be fed; however, this is not very time efficient. Although, if left to eat as a group you should plan on staying with them to supervise, so depending on whether you have stalls available and how long it would take to bring them in and then turn them back out, it may not use as much time as it might seem.

Assuming you leave your horses out, there are a number of fence-line feeders on the market that you can purchase. Each horse needs his own feeder, and the feeders should be spread out along the fence at intervals of about 30 to 50 feet. Fence-line feeding tends to be easier and safer for the human feeding the horses, as there is no need to enter the field. However, if one horse does move to steal another’s feed, they only have 180 degree access and escape, which could increase the risk of kicks and bites. In my experience, though, once horses have established a hierarchy, it often just takes the approach of the dominant horse and perhaps a flick or an ear and a tail swish for the less dominant one to give up and walk away.

You can train your horses as to the order in which they get fed and the location of their feeder. Splitting your boss horse’s feed between two feeders putting the second feeder between him and the next horse along the fence may help deter him from stealing others’ meals. When he has finished his first feeder he can move to his second feeder, which is open. Make sure that the horse that is lowest in the pecking order is located well away from your boss horse. If this lowest ranked horse is very timid and has been harassed previously over feed, they might not want to come up to eat. You might need to remove this single horse from the situation while the remaining horses eat. In your case you might be well served to remove the boss horse if his nutritional needs are that different from the other horses.

Also, make sure that there are rubber mats along the fence line or under feeders so that if feed spills they can eat it from a clean surface. Another consideration with spills is that there is data showing that turning feeders over and spilling feed acts as a motivator for that horse to seek out feed from a different feeder. Therefore minimizing overturn feeders might make feeding time less stressful. Further data from the same study showed that the most antagonistic behavior was seen when horses were fed from shared mangers. Mangers tend to cause crowding, so antagonistic behavior in such a setting could increase the risk of injury.

One of the most ingenious methods of feeding grain to a group of horses I have seen was in Wyoming where a client had a group of five or six horses together. She had a coral build into the corner of her field so that she could shut them in a relatively small area. Each horse was then given its food in a nosebag. Some just got a carrot, while others got a couple of pounds of grain. Each bag was identified to the horse by a piece of colored ribbon. While the horses ate, she went off to do barn chores. Half an hour later, came back, took the nosebags off, and opened the gate back to the field. Obviously horses need to acclimate to wearing a nose bag, but she informed me she had been feeding this way without event for years.

For hay, if feeding loose or in small nets, these again need to be distributed around the area and there should be at least two more piles/nets than there are horses. If feeding large round bales with more than five horses, you will likely need two bales. Ideally round bales should be under some kind of cover to prevent it from spoiling. Research from the University of Minnesota has shown that if not fed in some kind of round bale feeder losses can reach 57%. The study showed certain feeders cut this to as low to as 5%. Horses fed uncontained round bales consumed less hay per day (1.3% of body weight) and were found to lose weight, likely due to the large amount of wastage. Those fed from a variety of different feeders had intakes ranging from 2 to 2.4% of body weight and an energy intake 19 to 42% above requirement, which led to weight gain.

Feeding hay off the ground can increase the horse’s risk of contracting botulism, because botulism spores are found in soil. If hay becomes trampled into the soil and then is consumed, the horse can be at risk. Feeding from bales left for some time increases that risk, as there is time for the necessary toxins to form. Therefore, provide only enough hay for a few days or less. All soiled hay should be removed.

As for a feed that you can feed everyone, if they are all mostly able to maintain their weight on your hay, then the best choice would be what the feed industry refers to as a ration balancer. These tend to be high-protein feeds (although some are lower) and heavily fortified with minerals and vitamins. They’re designed to provide what’s typically missing in forage-based diets and have a small 1 to 2 pound-per-day serving size. Nearly all the large feed manufactures offer ration balancers. If your horses require more calories than your hay provides, then some companies have feeds with moderate intakes at the 3 to 4 pound level. These are more heavily fortified than the typical performance or senior feed, have a considerably smaller daily recommended intake, and should work well across a broader range of needs.