Your Horse's Eating:Fasting Pyramid

Did you know that doing a little basic math can result in profound changes for your horse's behavioural and physical health? Horses are 'trickle-feeders'. This feeding style, very different from our own, results from how horses have evolved to access and digest food. They move almost continuously, while taking in small amounts of forage (that other animals find hard to digest) each step of the way. In total, horses eat for 14 - 20 hours a day, depending on forage quality and availability in their area. When they aren't eating, they undergo very short periods of fasting - generally no longer than a full hour at a time. During fasting, they may be moving at a quicker pace, resting or sleeping, or engaging in a wide-range of other behaviours important for their individual or collective survival. Unlike us, horses are built to thrive on cellulose-rich, hard to digest, plants. Horses have a relatively small stomach, about the size of a medium pumpkin, and a long intestinal tract with a specially dedicated fermentation chamber. The horse's stomach produces acid continuously, up to 1.5 liters an hour, to aid in the digestion process. In contrast to humans, the majority of saliva production in horses is triggered by chewing. Horses produce anywhere from 20 - 80 liters of saliva a day, depending on their size and how much 'chew' time they have. This is important to understand, as saliva not only helps begin the food digestion process, it also buffers the acid being continually produced in the horse's stomach. When horses aren't able to trickle feed, physical and/or psychological problems can develop. Horses fed set 'meals', which are quickly consumed, are subjected to long periods of fasting. Such feeding conditions not only cause horses stress (which can result in the creation of unwanted behaviours), it can also result in the development of gastric ulcers and an increased risk of colic. Calculating the total of combined hours a day your horse eats vs. how many hours they fast is a valuable exercise for horse owners. As I explain to clients, this calculation can help us determine whether the horse's eating-to-fasting pyramid is right-side up, or upside down. A right-side up pyramid looks like this:

As you can see, the majority of the pyramid is taken up by eating. Unfortunately, some common feeding practices result instead in an upside-down pyramid. An example:

  • Horse is fed hay 3 times a day. Horse consumes each feeding in 2 hours. Three feedings X 2 hours = 6 hours of eating time each day. A little simple math shows us that this horse is then experiencing 18 hours of total time fasting per day.

As you can see, this example horse's time spent eating vs. time spent fasting pyramid is upside down:

Fasting consumes the majority of this horse's pyramid, greatly increasing the likelihood this horse will develop physical and/or behavioral health issues.

Many of the cases I see for behaviour problems have these upside down eating-to-fasting pyramids. While this may not always be a direct cause for the horse's primary behaviour problem I have been called out to see, addressing this sort of pyramid will always help indirectly address the issue. This is because being fed in a way that causes an animal stress results in a higher baseline level of daily stress for that animal. When an animal's daily baseline stress levels are chronically high, that animal will have a hard time learning new, wanted behaviours and coping with any other stressors they may experience as part of daily living. Such chronic stress also negatively impacts their long-term health and performance. If you find that your horse's pyramid is upside down, even small changes to your feeding practices can result in a more right-side up pyramid. Increasing the number of times a day your horse is fed, scattering hay piles over a wider area, or using small-hole, slow-feeder hay nets are all good ways to start making positive changes for your horse's pyramid. A recent study found that small-holed, slow-feeder hay nets increased the amount of time it took horses to eat a feeding of alfalfa by 87%. For our example horse, this small change could instantly result in time spent eating increasing from 6 hours a day, to 11.2 hours a day - with very little cost or effort on the owner or barn manager's part. For horses who are stalled for certain times of the day, using multiple slow-feeder hay bags in different locations of the stall can not only positively affect the pyramid, it can also increase the number of steps the stalled horse needs to take. As a pleasant side-effect for the horse's caregiver, using multiple feeders for each horse can also cut down on the number of feedings a day. While my horses aren't stalled, 11 slow-feeders for 5 horses, scattered around a large sacrifice paddock, means I only need to feed twice a day - and I'm usually putting the second feeding on top of remnants from the first feeding. Small changes in how we feed and manage horses can profoundly impact their health and welfare, and having a look at your horse's eating:fasting pyramid is a great place to start. #horsebehaviour #horsewelfare


© 2020 Lauren Fraser. All rights reserved.

Lauren Fraser Equine Behaviourist | British Columbia | Canada

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