If your horse is a fast eater, you may think she’s greedy; but in fact, she may just be a little stressed out. Here’s what you can do to help.
If you have visited with me about your horse, listened to my lectures, or read my book, you know that everything I do is based on feeding horses in sync with their instincts and physiology. Horses are grazing animals and are designed to consume forage virtually all day and night, taking just a few minutes here and there to rest. It’s not surprising then, that some horses may be a touch overzealous in their eating habits, and end up consuming their food too quickly. It’s important to learn what you can do to slow your horse down if she’s a fast eater.
Why is my horse bolting her food?
The most common reason a horse eats too quickly is stress. Just as in humans, eating is a comfort and can offer temporary relief from boredom and anxiety. For horses, this stress comes from the fear of not getting enough, and can be due to inconsistent feedings or competition from herd mates. So although it may seem counterintuitive, one of the best things you can do to slow down a fast eater is offer her a constant source of food and get creative with how you deliver it, rather than restricting it altogether.
1. Reduce stress by free feeding
An empty stomach is incredibly stressful for a horse, both physically and mentally. Stress produces a hormonal response – the secretion of cortisol, which starts a vicious cycle of obesity. To halt this dangerous cycle and reduce the flow of cortisol, we need to stop the source of stress!
Horses instinctively know how much food they need to maintain overall body condition. But when they experience gaps in their forage supply, they perceive themselves as starving and go into survival mode, “inhaling” every batch of hay you provide. Amazingly, when they are allowed to have a never-ending supply, they will calm down, eat less, and self-regulate their intake. I have witnessed this hundreds of times – once your horse gets the message that hay is always available, that she can walk away and it will still be there when she comes back, she will take a break and lose interest in stuffing herself.
For most horses, it takes about a week for them to start to self-regulate. For some, it can take up to two months. But it does happen eventually – give your horse the chance for her instincts to kick in.
All this being said, free choice only makes sense if the hay is low in calories, as well as low in sugar and starch. You can’t expect your horse to slow down and lose weight if you give her all the “candy” she wants. Grass hay (Timothy, Bermuda, orchardgrass, brome, teff, etc.) tends to be lower in calories than legumes (alfalfa or clover).
2. Use slow feeders
The purpose of a slow feeding system is to simulate grazing. Horses in a natural setting eat small amounts of forage as they wander in search of the next tasty morsel. When used properly, slow feeders are an excellent way to reduce stress. As their name suggests, they slow down the rate of consumption by providing hay through small openings. When slow feeders are kept full, they allow the horse to graze whenever he wants, thereby encouraging the horse to eat less and still have free access to forage.
There are many devices on the market that slow down hay consumption by encouraging smaller bites. These are worthwhile but keep in mind that you need to introduce them very slowly, allowing your horse to become accustomed to this new eating method. If your horse gets frustrated, it can defeat the purpose and cause the hormonal stress response that leads to fat storage and fast eating. Slow feeders can be used inside stalls, and ideally, placed in several locations outside to encourage movement while grazing, and reduce competition at the food source.
The best approach is to find a slow feeder that can be placed safely on the ground. Chewing with the head low is more in line with a horse’s natural physiology. It creates even pressure on the teeth and allows the jaw bone to move freely in all directions. Furthermore, the muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments and bone structure are not stressed when horses can grab hay in a straight downward motion. Eating with their heads down also protects their eyes and respiratory tract against mold spores and dust, and provides for better nasal drainage.
Start by placing some hay in the feeder and loose on the ground next to it. After a few days, most horses will get the hang of the slow-feeder. Some take longer, so don’t force the issue – let your horse get used to it at her own pace. Supervise your horse during the adjustment period and watch for signs of frustration. This is a form of stress and needs to be avoided.
3. Soak your hay and grain
Soaking your hay in hot or cold water has several advantages. If you soak your hay for a longer period, it can reduce the number of water-soluble carbohydrates and offer more fiber with fewer calories. So although your horse may consume damp hay at the same rate as dry, she is still taking in fewer calories. Damp hay also has fewer dust and mold particles for your horse to inhale.
You can try feeding hay to your horse 20 minutes prior to grain, so she’s already a little full (it’s like eating a salad before an entrée). You can also soak your grain into the consistency of oatmeal, spreading out the number of calories per bite. If you horse tends to devour her grain, get creative. Try putting large rocks in the bottom of your feed bin or screwing in large, tough, non-splintering and non-toxic balls to slow her down. You can also try feeding from a wide shallow bin rather than a deep bucket that she can dive into.
If your horse tolerates a grazing muzzle, it can allow her to spend some time out on pasture with her buddies. But if the muzzle continues to cause frustration and stress after the initial adjustment period, it can have the opposite effect you want it to. So pay attention to your horse. Limit use to no more than three hours per day. The benefits of exercise and companionship in the pasture can outweigh the downside of short-term reduction in forage intake, but it has to be the right fit for you horse.