Time-Saving Feeding Tips for Horse Owners

Shortcuts that don’t sacrifice dietary balance

If only we could be as eager as our horses about feeding time. While they’re nickering and stomping in anticipation of the impending feast, sometimes we’re just struggling through this time–consuming chore. So how can the busy horse owner make feeding time more efficient without bypassing the opportunity to cast an eye on each horse, double-checking its health and well-being? We’ll explore some time-savings options in this article, but be sure you only make feeding shortcuts once you have a solid nutritional program in place.

Satiate Them With Hay

If only we could be as eager as our horses about feeding time. While they’re nickering and stomping in anticipation of the impending feast, sometimes we’re just struggling through this time–consuming chore. So how can the busy horse owner make feeding time more efficient without bypassing the opportunity to cast an eye on each horse, double-checking its health and well-being? We’ll explore some time-savings options in this article, but be sure you only make feeding shortcuts once you have a solid nutritional program in place.

“The key point to remember in establishing a healthy feeding program for your horse is to look at the horse’s anatomy and physiology, how nature designed them, and remember they are built to primarily eat forage (grasses such as hay or pasture),” says Clair Thunes, PhD, an independent equine nutritionist based in Sacramento, California. She helps owners construct diets for their horses while also teaching part-time at the University of California, Davis. “Start with forage as the backbone of your program and a goal to maintain (your horses’) weight with forage alone. This goal won’t be achievable for all horses, so if you have a horse that can’t maintain a good body condition with just forage, then you go to adding a feed that is more calorie-dense, such as a fortified performance feed or unfortified feeds such as beet pulp or oats.”

Once your feeding program is in place, you can consider chore efficiency. Thunes suggests using any of the slow feeder products on the market designed to offer restricted yet free-choice forage, mimicking a horse’s natural behavior of consuming small, frequent meals over the course of a day.

“There are many (slow feeder) options out there,” she says. With some “you can put an entire bale or an entire day’s hay into a slow feeder. There are haynets which will hold 20 to 30 pounds of hay.”

Many slow feeders are designed so you only have to feed hay once a day. “This certainly doesn’t work for all horses, but for many it will,” Thunes says. “Some adapt very quickly and will not gorge when they are free-fed.”

Automatic feeders also conserve time and effort, while offering a bit more customization for when you feed fortified options.

“There are automatic feeders that will feed hay pellets at a time you specify,” Thunes says. “Some can feed up to 720 portions in 24 hours, allowing you to simulate grazing while feeding pellets. Alternatively, if you have a horse that bolts feed or you are in a boarding situation and want to supplement provided forage, or if you have a post-colic surgery horse that needs to be fed every two hours, this is a neat solution to those problems.”

You might also consider automatic hay feeders. Denise Vukov Harris, owner of Triple J Ranch, a 16-horse commercial boarding facility in Issaquah, Washington, uses such a system at her barn.

“When we were building our facility we were looking for how to accomplish the feeding between the other owner and me,” she says. “Both of us had young kids at the time, but if we hired another person to feed it would no longer be cost-effective (for us). It has provided us with an opportunity to run the barn with just the two of us and still have our lives and our kids outside of the barn.

“We feed three times a day,” she continues. “That way we only have to load the feeders every other day. But you can set the timers to feed more frequently than that. We had a horse with ulcer issues so we set his timer to feed him six times per day so he always had food in front of him.”

Like any piece of equipment, automatic feeders need regular maintenance. If they are battery-powered, their batteries can wear out, particularly in cold weather. 

“The downside for us has been that the horses know there is food behind the panel, and some horses will kick the tub that the hay drops into, which can be very disruptive,” Harris says.

With an automatic hay feeder, she adds, she and her co-owner have great control over consistency and the amount the horses are fed. “This avoids over- or underfeeding, which is always a concern when your hired help feeds for you or when people are in a hurry,” she says.

Pre-measured supplements

Prep Work is Key

The various types of supplements, medications, and grain people use add up fast, so Harris asks boarders to pre-bag everything to simplify the feeding process. “Each horse has its own little Tupperware container, which keeps the mice and rats out, so our little ‘grain train’ wagon is ready to go first thing in the morning,” Harris says.

While pre-bagging might help save time during feeding, do be mindful of your climate. “A Ziploc bag with sweet feed for a week could mold in some climates,” Thunes cautions. Alternatives include reusable canvas feed bags, though you must clean them from time to time. She also recommends storing all grain in the original feed sack (because of potential recalls and so others can correctly identify products) placed in clean, metal trash cans to help prevent rodent problems; rodents are pretty motivated and can make easy work of plastic ­containers.

It’s also possible to be both accurate and efficient with measuring rations and additives. “I always recommend weighing everything,” she says. “For supplements, use the scoop that comes with the products. It may not be as reasonable with large operations, but I know a big barn of 60 horses that has a scale welded onto the golf cart that they drive around to deliver hay. They measure hay as they are feeding, right in front of each horse’s stall.”While pre-bagging might help save time during feeding, do be mindful of your climate. “A Ziploc bag with sweet feed for a week could mold in some climates,” Thunes cautions. Alternatives include reusable canvas feed bags, though you must clean them from time to time. She also recommends storing all grain in the original feed sack (because of potential recalls and so others can correctly identify products) placed in clean, metal trash cans to help prevent rodent problems; rodents are pretty motivated and can make easy work of plastic ­containers.

You can also weigh hay as you have time earlier in the day and set it out for later. “For feeding pellets and textured feeds, get a scoop, measure in the desired weight of feed, and mark it,” Thunes says. “In the future, (you can) fill the scoop to the mark and know you are feeding the correct amount.” Avoid over- or underfeeding by always weighing hay (and grain); feeding by eye or scoop is not accurate and wastes both feed and money.

A busy veterinarian, Dan Gillis, DVM, of Animal Medical Center, in Boise, Idaho, works with small animals and equids and also co-runs a private ranch where he keeps roping, reining, and a variety of English riding horses. He and his wife, Katie, often meet each other coming and going; between full-time jobs, a 7-year-old daughter, and horses, time is at a premium.

Currently, the Gillises are upgrading and building a new ranch on 40 acres where facility layout and chore efficiency will be prime considerations.

“We definitely want to have a smooth flow between feeders and horses,” he says. “We like to set a batch (about two bales per horse) of hay out at each feeding station, which we then feed from for a week. I put all the hay out on the weekends. If the right amount of hay’s there for the week, it’s nothing as far as time when feeding.”

Gillis puts the hay out in barn alleyways or between paddocks in small stacks. “That way … hauling by hand or a wheelbarrow is avoided.”

The Gillises store their 80 tons of hay in a hay barn, separate from the horses and the main barn to reduce fire risk and dust problems. Being able to get all their hay in one large quantity saves time and money, cutting back on how frequently they purchase hay and get it delivered. Buying in bulk also makes it easier to perform a nutritional analysis and then balance horses’ individual rations with feed and supplements. “Having hay when you have horses is a good investment of time and money; you’re never sorry you have too much hay,” says Gillis.

Automatic waterer

Healthy, Hydrated Horses

We know that having fresh, clean unfrozen water in front of horses is crucial for their health. Accomplishing this in an efficient way can be challenging, especially for large properties with far-flung pastures.

Automatic waterers are good options and can offer peace of mind and time-savings, especially when you have a lot of horses to deal with,” says Gillis. “We are looking at nonelectric automatic waterers for our new place. (They) work like a frost-free hydrant, so there’s never any standing water in them. In the winter there’s nothing worse than frozen water, which can lead to dehydration and impaction colic. If you provide them with a good water source it is amazing how much they drink—and they need it!”

In your effort to be chore-efficient, don’t overlook the importance of examining and running your hands over your horse each day. Feeding is a convenient time to check for injuries and body condition. “I definitely think that having lights is critical when trying to feed horses so you can see,” Gillis states. “If you work (a full-time job) and it’s winter, that means you feed in the dark twice a day. That makes it easy to miss small lacerations or puncture wounds. Sometimes you can miss moldy hay. Good-quality headlamps and/or good lighting are important.”

Taking time in the moment to prevent something worse from happening down the road can end up as a time saver. As they say, a stitch in time saves nine!

Take-Home Message

In the end, chore efficiency at feeding time might only be possible with a paradigm shift. “We are so familiar with our own routine it’s often hard to make changes,” says Thunes.

Step back and think of novel ways to offer your horse’s meals while still providing optimal nutrition.