If Not Hay, Bedding: Something to Chew on Overnight

The night hours for stalled horses can seem terribly long, especially when it means there’s nothing to eat until morning. For their health and welfare, horses need to have something to munch on during the night hours, say German scientists—whether it’s a constant supply of forage or the straw they sleep on.

(Editor’s note: Straw should be high quality and, like any forage, introduced slowly. Rye straw can contain ergot alkaloids, which can be poisonous to livestock, including horses. See “Use Caution When Bedding Horses on Rye Straw” for more information. Straw ingestion can also increase impaction colic risk. Consult with your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist before making changes to your horse’s diet or introducing edible straw.)

“Feeding practices must take into consideration the natural feeding behavior of horses, ensuring that neither during the day nor at night do horses have to pause their feed intake for longer than four hours,” said Miriam Baumgartner, Dr. med. vet., PostDoc at the Technical University of Munich, Germany; chair of organic agriculture and agronomy in the School of Life Sciences Weihenstephan; and part of the Ethology, Animal Husbandries, and Animal Welfare Research Group.

Horses housed on straw bedding can maintain their regular feeding behavior by chewing and ingesting this lower-quality roughage overnight. But horses on straw pellets and especially on wood shavings can’t, Baumgartner said. “The majority of horses on nonedible bedding do not have the opportunity to take in food for about nine hours on average,” she explained. “Four hours is the maximum acceptable limit in terms of welfare. In practice, this is clearly exceeded.”

When deprived of feeding opportunities overnight due to their nonedible bedding, horses “rebound” in the daytime, explained Baumgartner’s department colleague and fellow researcher, Margit Zeitler-Feicht, Dr. agr. In their study of 104 individually housed horses, they noted that those stalled on nonedible bedding consumed their daytime rations faster with fewer pauses than horses living on straw, Zeitler-Feicht said. These horses also ate their evening meals faster, meaning they had no hay left—nothing to eat—sooner in the night than horses on straw. This rebound (gobbling) effect could suggest their welfare was compromised, she explained.

“It is not acceptable to prevent horses from eating all night long,” said Zeitler-Feicht. “It is a basic need of high priority that horses eat about 70% of the daytime and about 40% of the nighttime. Horses divide their feeding units into approximately 10 meals spread over the 24-hour day. Hence, horses should not be prevented from taking in food during the whole night for any reason.”

If horses can’t be on hay all day (due to excess weight, for instance), caretakers can ensure they have trickle feeding of hay overnight through slow feeders, the researchers said. Caretakers who simply prefer shavings can still offer their horses straw in feeding racks. If weight gain is an issue, owners can work with nutritionists or offer high-fiber, low-energy forage while cutting back on concentrated feeds.

“As an ethologist, specialized in horse behavior and welfare, I know that horses have evolved in a way that requires permanent food intake,” Baumgartner said. “As a veterinarian, I also know that from physiological reasons horses need to take in food almost continuously in order to prevent them from health problems in the digestive tract. As a result, due to common feeding practices (feeding restrictively) only horses on edible bedding in single housing systems are able to fulfill their physical and psychological needs.”