Whilst horses and humans have very different digestive systems there are some ways in which they are similar in regard to food and eating. Just like some people there are horses who seem to only eat what they need, and there are horses who would eat everything in the feedroom, rounded off with a bale of hay given the chance. So should you let your horse decide how much forage it needs to eat?
It has long been believed that the horse has ‘nutritional wisdom’, meaning that it will select the nutrients and quantities of food that it actually needs. However there is very limited empirical data to back this claim up, and the modern leisure/ competition horse actually doesn’t have that much choice in what it eats.
Whilst no horse owner would let their horse choose how much concentrate feed to have (let’s be honest most horses would have far too much), many owners do allow there horse free access to hay. The idea being that they horse can continue eating, won’t become bored, and the risk of gastric ulcers may well be reduced. This sounds ideal, and many argue that the horse will only eat as much as it needs so that it will maintain a healthy weight, but is this true for all horses?
How much hay to feed?
Your horse should receive 1.5-2.5% of its actual or if overweight target body weight as supplementary feeding.
So if your horse is the correct weight and weighs 550kg and you feed 2% of its body weight then that would be 11kg to feed a day. Assume you feed a balancer or a small feed of 500g – 1kg then you have 10-10.5kg hay to give your horse per day.
If you have a horse who needs to lose weight then work out how much they weight, and then start with 2% BW to feed. You can employ methods to slow your horse down if you need to, and of course can always soak the hay to reduce calorie intake.
I would try these two suggestions before reducing the quantity to 1.5%, and please do not feed less than 1.5% of body weight per day without consulting your vet.
Ab lib hay versus little and often
For some horses providing free range access to hay is the best and most practical way to feed them, for example horses living out often do well with access to a large round bale of hay. For horses who either have increased nutritional requirements, or are the correct weight they can have more access to forage, but what about the ‘good doers’ or overweight horses?
Horses that are stabled and given a ‘hay buffet’ will either eat too much hay, or use it as a bed or toilet area. Splitting up your horses’ hay ration into two ‘servings’, i.e a haynet at 4pm and another at 7 or 8pm would be an ideal way to slow them down. Using a small holed haynet, like a Trickle Net which is strong and robust, will allow your horse to continue to eat whilst slowing their intake down, making their hay last longer.
Does my horse know when to stop eating?
Horses which are overweight, or good-doers, may also be insulin resistant, which means that will also be resistant to another hormone called leptin. Leptin is a useful hormone which tells the brain that the horse has had enough to eat. The overweight horse effectively doesn’t have this ‘off- switch’ so it will continue to eat.
What’s in your hay?
Hay significantly differs in nutritional value and unless you have each batch of hay analysed you don’t really know how much goodness you might be providing. Hay can contain up to 20% sugar content, and batches will differ greatly. Hay made earlier in the season will be more calorific, hay made from predominantly ryegrass will contain a lot more goodness than hay made from a meadow grass mix. Whether the grass has been fertilised earlier in the growing season will also make a difference as well.
Many owners have no idea how much hay they actually feed- do you weigh hay out? You may well be providing more hay than your horse actually needs, not only wasting money but also not helping your horse to be in the best shape either.
I hope you have found this blog useful to help you decide how much hay your horse should receive. Please remember to consider how much hay your horse actually needs, the type of hay you are feeding, and don’t forget ways to provide more access to forage without allowing your horse to overeat and become obese.
If you’d like to learn more about feeding your horse you can register for details of our online Horse Nutrition course at the link below