Feeding Styles and Equine Health


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A recent equine study examined how different feeding methods could affect a horse’s behavior and health.

A very human phrasing for one’s diet is “you are what you eat.” That goes for animals as well. In fact, evaluating the effects different feeding methods have on a horse was the focus of a recent Morris Animal Foundation-funded study, with the results published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science.

Researchers noted that feral and wild horses can spend about 16 hours per day grazing. Changing their access to food can affect their natural behavior and lead to health problems. To understand these changes better, Morris Animal Foundation-funded researchers looked at several feeding methods including free-choice feeding or unlimited food access, slow-feeder, which also allows unlimited hay access but requires the horse to pull hay through a net, and an automatic box feeder.

“Taking care of horses means more than just giving them a place to stay, food and water,” said Jéssica Carvalho Seabra, a researcher involved in this study. “It means giving them an environment where they can do things that are part of their natural behavior like grazing.”

Researchers found that horses using automatic boxes and slow feeders consumed less and exhibited slower weight gain. Both methods effectively regulated food intake. Horses with the freedom to choose when to eat had the highest hay utilization and weight gain rates, suggesting that this approach might not be optimal for overweight horses.

According to the study, horses with access to free choice feeding or a slow feeder spent more than half their day doing natural activities such as foraging. Conversely, horses using the box feeder spent only about a quarter of their day eating, and this treatment increased the time that horses spent standing, sniffing the ground and ingesting their own feces.

Furthermore, horses using the box feeder displayed more signs of aggression, the Morris Animal Foundation said. During the study, the researchers noticed that horses became more aggressive as the feeders’ size became smaller and access to the food became more difficult. To mitigate this, researchers suggest that if horses are given a limited amount of food, it’s important to ensure enough space for each of them to eat without feeling crowded.

“Selecting the right feeding technique can extend the time horses engage in natural behaviors, reducing the incidence of chronic stress and potentially curbing the emergence of abnormal and stereotypic behaviors in the long run,” Carvalho Seabra said.

For information on other Morris Animal Foundation studies on equine health, visit morrisanimalfoundation.org/horses.


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