Contributed by: Valerie Mellema
Free-choice feeding horses is not a feed strategy that is typically discussed. As horse owners, we’re often trained to think inside a box. We learn how to manage horses that live in a stall, eat grain twice a day and feed so many flakes of hay. However, horses prefer a more natural way of living that is outdoors and doesn’t involve scoops of grain.
Free-choice feeding offers many benefits to horses. Horses that are fed forage and allowed to eat freely don’t have the constant physical and mental stress of an empty stomach. By reducing stress, we reduce the secretion of cortisol. Increased levels of cortisol increase insulin levels and that leads to fat storage. The fatter your horse becomes, the more insulin resistant he becomes and as he becomes overweight, he becomes even more stressed. Stress can also lead to other issues such as ulcers and laminitis.
Reducing stress means reducing cortisol and free-choice feeding is one way to do this. The first step is that the horse has to learn how much food they need to maintain their body condition. However, this means that they need a consistent supply of forage. At first, the horse may “inhale” the hay you provided because they are not receiving grain and are used to feeding times. However, once they have an ongoing supply of hay, they will learn that they can eat as they want, slow down and learn to self-regulate. Once they understand that hay is always available, they will revert to their natural instincts. They will graze as usual and go back to the hay as they need it. Overweight horses will also lose weight as their body regulates itself and he burns off excess fat.
It typically takes about a week for a horse to learn self-regulation. However, it may take longer for some horses that are heavily engrained in traditional feeding schedules.
The hay that you provide is very important. Start with a grass hay that is low in calories, such as Bermuda, timothy, etc. If your horse needs more protein than what grass hay provides, you can add in some alfalfa. However, avoid alfalfa/grass mixes. The horses will tend to pick out the alfalfa and leave the grass. Sort of like a kid picking cookies over fruit. You want to keep the horses sugar and starch levels low, so you may need to have your hay analyzed. The non-structural carbohydrate level should be lower than 12% and the calories (digestible energy) would be higher than .90 Mcals/lb.
It’s vital that if you follow this feeding strategy you never allow the horse to run out of hay. Otherwise, he will go back into survival mode even if he’s out for only 10 minutes. You will need to ensure he has hay throughout the night as well.
It is normal for some horses to develop a hay belly at the beginning of this process. This is because they don’t understand that they can leave the hay and it will still be there later. They think they have to eat all they can to survive. The horse may gain some weight initially, but once their body adjusts they will lose the hay belly and weight. Slow feeders can be used to help the horse that is eating like he’s starving at first. It encourages smaller bites and allows you to introduce free-choice feeding slowly.
Movement is another important factor in this feeding plan. If you have a limited area, you can spread the hay out in piles around the pasture or paddock to encourage the horse to move around and eat hay in a grazing style. The movement helps them burn calories and keeps the digestion system in shape, which reduces the chance for colic. It increases blood flow as well, which is important for all aspects of the body, particularly the joints and hooves.