Ideal Feed Frequency for Horses

Q. I’m considering moving my horse to a barn where he will get some turnout. I have found several possibilities, and some have more amenities than others. I’m noticing a difference between barns in number of meals per day and time between feedings. At our current barn he gets fed forage twice a day, but I’m wondering what the ideal length of time between forage meals is when a horse isn’t continuously grazing?

A. Horses in their natural setting spend most of their time eating. As a result, they secrete stomach acid constantly, which is buffered by the saliva released while they chew their food. Conversely, many horses today are kept in stables for at least some or all of the day and are fed discrete meals. Most commonly, horses receive two meals a day, although some barns with the ability to do so will feed three or more times a day.

Obviously, the more frequently a horse receives forage, the more similar his environment becomes to the way horses evolved. The risk for conditions such as gastric ulcers and colic lowers, as do stereotypic behaviors linked to boredom and stress, such as weaving and cribbing. The horse’s stomach is mostly empty about six hours after being fed, with nearly all the larger fibrous particles passing within 12 hours.

Therefore, it’s ideal to ensure horses are fed forage at no more than six-hour intervals. While this might be doable during the day, it’s unlikely to be feasible to feed very late at night or in the very early hours of the morning. To keep some forage in the stomach, I would ensure that horses are fed breakfast no more than 12 hours after being fed dinner.

A possible feeding schedule would be along the lines of 7 a.m. breakfast, 3 p.m. lunch, and 11 p.m. dinner. While this schedule spaces meals out nicely at eight-hour intervals, it is not very realistic, except perhaps for those keeping horses at home or with very small boarding barns. More realistic would be to feed meals at 6 a.m., 1 p.m., and 6 p.m. with the possibility of a fourth meal at, say, 10 p.m. This would provide forage at no more than eight-hour intervals.

Of course, barns can make hay last longer and reduce the time between meals by using hay slow feeders such as small-holed haynets. This can make a forage meal that a horse would normally consume in an hour last several hours. Automatic pellet dispensers also exist that you can use to feed hay pellets at predetermined times such as the middle of the night. These can be particularly helpful when you do have longer periods between hay meals.

While some barns offer horses continuous forage access, this might not be appropriate for all horses if the quantity consumed is not controlled. Easy keepers will balloon in this scenario, gaining undesirable amounts of weight. Again, small-holed haynets can be very useful in these situations, as they allow for a controlled amount of total forage consumed while making that consumption last longer.

I commend you for taking feeding frequency into consideration as you shop for a new boarding situation for your horse. While things such as arena access, footing, availability of trails, etc. are important factors to us as riders, your horse likely doesn’t care about most of these things. He will likely be much happier is a situation where he gets fed frequently when not on turnout. You yourself might see the benefits of reduced colic and gastric ulcer risk.