In the UK, grass growth is slowing and most horse owners are changing their horse’s management for the winter. Most horses will be fed forage (hay, haylage or maybe straw) during winter, out in the pasture and/or in the stable. Considering the cost of preserved forage, how can we reduce wastage? And for stabled horses, how can we ensure forage is eaten slowly enough to reduce long periods with nothing to eat?
First and foremost, it’s important to choose appropriate forage for your horse: late cut, high-fibre, low energy for good doers and overweight horses and ponies, and early cut, higher energy for poor doers and hard-working horses.
There is a wide variety of options and a number of products to help solve the challenges of keeping wastage to a minimum and slowing rate of intake.
Feeding forage on the ground in the pasture is usually a poor choice for a variety of reasons, and often isn’t allowed at livery yards. Even hungry horses leave some hay on the ground, which will form a mat over the grass, killing it. If a large pile of uneaten forage builds up, it will form a mulch that will increase the depth of mud and, if not removed before the next winter, will increase poaching and encourage weed growth. If all the hay from the previous day’s pile is raked up, there is no problem with this technique.
Hay feeders on hard standing are probably the best – albeit most expensive – option. Nets can be put over the bales to slow eating down and reduce wastage. Large tree pots or half barrels with drainage holes and a block or some bricks in the base, or specially-designed plastic feeders such as a hay hutch can be used to avoid wastage on the ground, and these can be moved daily to avoid killing the grass underneath. Grid-topped ‘slow’ feeders can also be used in the field and stable, and these are useful to avoid forage blowing away and to reduce rate of intake. Ensure the feeder is safe, with no sharp edges.
Filled small-hole haynets can be left on the ground, but absolutely never with shod horses and never in muddy conditions. Specially designed ‘hay pillows’ with a canvas base and mesh top are useful, but again not in muddy conditions, nor for shod horses.
It is healthier for horses to be fed from ground level, for their teeth and for their neck and postural muscles. However, there is a balance between this ideal and both wastage and rate of intake. Hay bars and other corner feeders allow forage to be fed at ground level without being dragged into a dirty bed and wasted. Versions with small mesh grids that slow intake are available.
Horses should never have periods longer than 4 hours with nothing to eat because this increases their risk of stomach (gastric) ulcers. So reducing the rate of forage intake is key for overnight-stabled horses who cannot be fed ad lib forage.
Ideally, forage with an energy level that allows ad lib feeding – so there is always some available to the horse – should be chosen. In practice this can be difficult or impossible, due to the very low energy requirements of some horses including those who are resting and/or overweight. Straw can be fed as part of their forage ration, which can increase the amount fed, but if this is not an option for example due to allergies, then some way of slowing rate of intake is necessary.
Small holed haynets are an option, and these can be hung low for stabled horses who do not wear shoes. Never hang regular haynets low because even unshod horses can catch their feet in them, and this can be fatal. Specialist haynets are available, although some owners use two haylage nets, one inside the other. Hanging nets away from the wall can also slow intake. Grid slow-feeders are also an option for the stable, and a variety of commercially available products can be found online, as well as instructions for building your own.
There are a variety of options available to help make winter forage-feeding easier for your pocket and your horse, and it might take some trial and error to find what works best for you and your horse.