Horses NEED Free-Access to Forage
It’s commonly known that wild horses graze for at least 13-15 hours per day and that the equine digestive tract is specifically designed to digest small amounts of a wide variety of high-fibrous feedstuff on an almost continuous basis. To embrace husbandry practices that work in opposition to the horse’s natural digestive system is asking for health problems.
As part of their natural digestive process, horses constantly produce stomach acid. This acid production is not triggered when the horse eats but is continual, even when the horse is not eating! Meanwhile, horses only salivate when they are chewing. Horses that forage continuously can produce up to 7 or 8 gallons of saliva per day! This saliva serves as an acid buffer, neutralizing the hydrochloric acid in the stomach, as well as lubricating the food.
Unfortunately for most domestic horses, this constant production of acid combined with human-induced restriction of forage (which also limits saliva production) creates tremendous health concerns. If a horse is not chewing enough throughout the day to produce adequate buffering saliva, the resulting acid build-up can present itself as ulcers, cribbing, colic, choke, gorging, cribbing, laminitis, stall vices, and other behavioral problems.
Gut Motility is Dependent on Mobility
In the wild, horses travel a minimum of 10 miles per day, sometimes up to 30 miles per day. Most of this is slow/casual travel between favorite grazing areas and watering holes. Wild horses can also go anywhere from one to three days without water. While this thought may be terrifying for those of us who care for colic-prone domestic horses, the constant gentle exercise and slow intake of a wide variety of fibrous materials (including grasses, weeds, fruits, vegetables, seeds, sticks, and twigs) of wild horses keep them at very low risk for colic.
On average, domestic pastured horses only initiate 4 miles of movement per day, regardless of the size of the enclosure they live in. Even horses living on pastures of more than 30 acres in size still average only 4.5 miles of movement per day! Meanwhile, stalled horses gave turnout time in a yard average only 0.6 miles of free daily movement. Given this wide disparity between wild horse movement and domestic horse movement, it’s logical to conclude that many common health issues – and especially the high incidence of colic from impactions of hay and/or sand – are a direct result of the domestic horse’s lack of physical movement. Our traditional practice of exercising domestic horses several times per week, or even daily for short periods, does little to address this overall predicament. It is only a constant, gentle physical movement that ensures consistent internal movement of feedstuff through the hindgut.
The low rates of daily movement for domestic horses combined with the high nutritional values of most commercially harvested hay also mean that if we are not careful in domestic settings, offering horses free access to hay can result in obesity and metabolic disorders. Domestic horses often stand in one place (i.e. confined to a stall or parked in front of a stationary hay pile/feeder) for many hours, eating large volumes of high-quality forage simply because this is what we place in front of them. It is instinctual for a horse to eat as much as it can when food is available because in the wild they never know when food sources will become scarce again.
The Stress Factor
Not only is forage restriction dangerous for horses due to excessive acid production but it is also incredibly stressful for a horse to be denied its natural instinct to graze. This stress causes the release of the hormone cortisol, which in turn leads to elevated insulin. When insulin is high, it tells the body to store fat. You see where this is going…
Because of these interwoven dynamics, some horses that have been on a restricted-forage diet will gain weight very rapidly when suddenly given free-access to hay. The reason has to do with the sluggish metabolic rate they’ve developed over time. When forage is parceled out only a few times a day, the horse’s body responds by going into “survival mode,” where his metabolic rate significantly slows down in an attempt to conserve body fat. This creates a cycle of ever-increasing obesity. This cycle can be reversed, but only with adequate movement/exercise and permanent removal of the hormonal fat-storing response that forage restriction creates. And, it takes time for the metabolic system to return to a more normal state of functioning. Most horse owners give up much too soon when attempting to rehabilitate a metabolically-compromised horse.
Slow hay-feeders can provide an effective solution to these challenges for many horses. When used strategically to enhance natural herd behavior, slow feeders are also an excellent way to do reduce stress and increase daily movement. As their name suggests, these feeders slow down the rate of consumption by providing access to the hay only through small openings. When slow feeders are kept full, they allow the horse to graze whenever he wants, thereby eventually prompting the horse to eat less at one time.
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