In its natural environment, the horse is a grazing animal, eating up to 20 hours a day. The natural feed is grass which varies in nutrients and types throughout the year and areas the horse goes to graze.
This variation is usually marked by a change in its body condition, more likely to be thinner in winter than summer. In the case of domesticated horses, we usually must provide with additional feed to minimise this variation. Feeding your horse can be very easy or as difficult and complex as you can make it. However, same practical tips apply to all.
Lets see some practical tips on how to feed your pony.
- To mimic the natural way of horses to feed, it is advisable to feed little and often. If your horse is stabled, you should always provide a bag of hay so he does not spend hours waiting for his feed as he will be able to nibble on hay all day and night. Not only it will allow him to always have food in his digestive tract as if he was grazing 20 hours a day, but it will also keep him busy and less stressed. If the ration is over 4 litres in volume, it should be split in 2, even 3 rations if possible. Horses have a small stomach capacity and overloading it with one big ration in one go, is not good for their digestion. Not only it can cause colic but it is also possible that the horse doesn’t get all the nutrients it needs, so in fact, you might be wasting all that food.
- Good quality hay and chaff should form the bulk for all feeding programs
- Do not make sudden changes in the diet, especially when adding new feed. It must be introduced gradually over a period of 7 to 15 days so the digestive system can adjust
- Feed your horse in accordance with its size and workload. Shetlands do not eat as much as Percherons!
- Provide free-choice salt like a salt lick to give trace minerals and replace salt they loose when they sweat. if this is not feasable, then add salt to your horse’s ration
- Feed your horse at the same time everyday. Horses are creatures of habit and they will fret and stress if their feed doesn’t arrive on time. Some horses get confused or aggressive.
- Provide supplements in accordance with your horse’s needs, workload and nutrients available in his feed/pasture. Do not over-supplement as it can cause as much damage as under-supplementing
- Always feed your horse at ground level, or as close to ground level as possible. This is the natural position of a horse grazing. Putting his feed bin too high will impact on its digestion as well as his ability to breathe correctly while eating. I have heard some people saying it helps the horse build its neck muscles! Well, if your horse needs to build its neck muscles, then maybe you should look at some exercises instead.
- Always dampen hard feed, especially if powders are added or chaff is provided. Dusty rations can dramatically impact a horse’s lungs over a period of time. John Kohnke recommends to always dampen hay and always have hay on the ground instead of attached high in nets.
- Clean feed buckets and utensils, so no rotten food is left in/on them
- Store feed correctly so it doesn’t get mouldy, spoiled or wrecked by rodents
- Always check the feed for any contamination prior to giving any to your pony. Especially hay as it is quite common to have dead animals in it like small birds, rabbits or rodents who got caught during the harvest. The feed gets contaminated with botulinum toxin that has been produced by the botulism bacteria growing in rotting animal or vegetable material in the stored feed. Botulinum toxin is often reported as being one of the most potent toxins known to mankind, as only a small quantity is required to produce disease. The toxin binds strongly to nerve endings, preventing nerve impulses proceeding to muscles. This leads to the type of paralysis typically seen with botulism where animals go floppy or flaccid because they cannot move their muscles and die (DPI, QLD).
- Do not work your horse hard and fast just after eating. Horses (like us!) need a break of at least one hour after a meal before exercising.
- If a horse is only at grass, you will need 3 to 5 acres per horse during summer. Less than this and additional food will need to be provided in the form of hay as a minimum. If the grazing area is poor or overstcked (i.e. drought, winter), same applies
- Provide free choice clean water at all times and in all seasons