Night falls, and it’s time for bed. Your horse has had his last hay meal of the day and is comfortably in his freshly cleaned stall for a good night’s sleep. All’s well, right?
Actually, if you’ve fed loose hay, you might be the only one enjoying a comfortable evening. According to Irish and Scottish researchers, horses can consume loose haylage quickly and end up waiting so many hours before their morning meal that it could affect their health.
“Recent recommendations highlight that when horses go more than four hours without food, they’re technically fasting,” said Barbara Hardman, a postgraduate MSc from the University of Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, in Scotland. “Foraging (the behavior of consuming forage) is a ‘highly motivated’ behavior for horses, meaning that it’s critical that they perform it for not only their gut health but their mental health, as well.”
When horses are allowed to graze at will, they typically forage about 10 to 14 hours per day, Hardman said during her presentation at the 15th Conference of the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES), held Aug. 19-21 in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. It’s important, however, to remember that that definition of “day” is a full 24-hour period, and not just the daylight hours, she added.
“Even when horses are fed unlimited haylage during the day, it’s highly unlikely that they’ll have enough forage for their nighttime budget in a stable, as any hay provided would be rapidly consumed in that environment,” she said. “Nocturnal husbandry is often an overlooked facet of equine management.”
Owners might believe they’re providing optimal welfare for their horses at night without realizing horses’ need to forage during those hours, Hardman explained.
“There is a common misconception that horses will find greater comfort in a large straw bed compared to a night in a field,” she said. “However, more than four consecutive hours without forage puts a horse at greater risk of gastrointestinal issues such as colic, gastric ulcers, as well as the development of stereotypical behaviors like crib-biting or weaving. In addition, if they are bed-eating (consuming their bedding), they’re also more likely to consume their own feces.”
When horses have to be stalled overnight, however, the use of slow-feeders can help prolong their foraging throughout the night hours without disrupting their resting patterns, she said.
In their study, Hardman and her fellow researchers performed a preliminary investigation of the nighttime behaviors of four horses—all about 9 years old—in different feeding conditions while stalled overnight. All four horses received all three feeding types, including loose haylage provided on the ground and two kinds of slow-feeders. One slow-feeder was made up of a large plastic container that distributed haylage through bars on the bottom front side of the container. The other feeder featured a solid plastic container with a lid that dropped progressively as the horses pulled the haylage through holes in the lid. Both feeders were designed for use on the ground.
The researchers used infrared LED cameras to take photographs every 30 seconds for 17 hours, from 3 p.m. to 8 a.m., for seven days per horse, per feeding condition. (Data analysis was completed on the final two days after each horse had the opportunity to get used to the new feeding condition). The scientists evaluated the images and created behavior charts indicating how much time horses allocated to behaviors such as eating, standing resting, lying down, moving around, and standing alert.
Hardman found that when the horses had slow-feeders, they spent 95 to 120% more time foraging (depending on the feeder design) than when they had loose haylage on the ground. Interestingly, they also seemed to spread out the foraging time more during the night, with.
What’s more, Hardman noted that when the horses had loose haylage, they spent 72% more time searching around in their bedding, possibly consuming their straw bedding and feces and, in the case of straw consumption, putting themselves at possible risk of impaction colic.
However, longer consumption periods didn’t mean horses were so occupied eating that they didn’t get any rest, said Hardman. Resting periods—whether standing or lying down—didn’t differ from one feeding condition to the other.
“If horses have to be stabled on restricted forage diets, slow-feeders can be used to extend feeding times for horses, potentially preventing bedding ingestion, coprophagy (eating feces), or the development of stereotypical behaviors,” said Hardman. “If they’re on ‘inedible’ bedding (such as wood shavings), this could increase the fasting hours and lead to an increased risk of ulcers.”