Horses are built to graze.
The horse’s stomach is designed to take in feed all day long. It is so well designed for this purpose, that it actually doesn’t adapt to receiving just 2 meals a day. Stomach acid is constantly being produced, and studies have shown hunger pains to begin as early as 20 minutes after eating.
The Basics on Stomach Acid
Horses secrete acid into their stomach continuously. Humans, on the other hand, secrete acid when food enters the mind or mouth. Why? Because humans are designed to consume meals, and horses are designed to graze.
Still, why do we care? Gastric acid aids digestion by helping to break down nutrients such as protein. The acid also kills off bacteria and viruses in the stomach to help protect the body from infection. In humans, a mechanism works to prevent the gastric contents from becoming too acidic. In horses, saliva and forage buffer the acid.
In humans, a rare condition called Zollinger Ellison syndrome causes an overproduction of gastric acid and results in recurrent stomach ulcers. Back to horses… they produce acid continuously, with or without food entering their system and buffering that acid. And you know what up to 90% of performance horses suffer from? Stomach ulcers.
Conclusion: low-forage diets and feed deprivation* result in ulcers in horses.
*Feed deprivation: withholding forage from a horse for as little as 6 hours has been observed to increase the likelihood of non-glandular ulcers.
(Equine Sports Medicine and Surgery)
Physiology and Behavior
When you break it down to the basics, a horse’s stomach is like a small bucket that needs to remain partially full at all times. There is an ideal line, and if you dip below that line, the bucket sends a signal out that it needs more food soon. The horse then is triggered to seek more food to fill their bucket. As the bucket gets closer to empty, the bucket starts rattling and causing the horse to feel anxious, stressed, and hungrier. If the bucket is filled to the top, it will empty at a faster rate to reach that happy ideal line.
Imagine having 24 hours where you are responsible for keeping that bucket still. You have 2 flakes of hay and 24 hours to go. You can stuff the bucket full with hay each time it begins to rattle, and minimize the times you fill the bucket. But you’ll have to endure that rattling bucket each time, and soon you will be out of hay. The bucket will rattle for the rest of the 24 hours, until you get more hay.
If you only have those two flakes of hay, tossing just enough to keep the bucket from rattling throughout the day will extend your peace – but you’ll still run out. If you want to keep the bucket happy, you’re going to need more hay, and if you want it to last the full 24 hours, you’ll need to toss just a little in the bucket at a time to keep it in that ideal line.
Studies have shown that the signal to seek food occurs as early as 20 minutes after eating. This means that when you take your horse out for a ride, and 30 minutes down the road they start desperately grabbing for some grass, they aren’t trying to be naughty. Your horse is simply trying to stop the discomfort in their tummy! Forage and saliva is the cure to too-high levels of stomach acid. Feeding once in the morning and evening means that there are hours each day and night when most horses have uncomfortably empty stomachs. Discomfort leads to boredom habits like cribbing, pacing, destructive behavior, and even aggression.
There are SO many solutions out there today to fill the void of a pasture-less lifestyle for your horse. I know the struggle of boarding your horse, and how different facilities have different rules and comfort levels with you bringing in your own solutions. Fortunately, with so many options available, you should be able to find one that works for your horse and your barn manager.
I’ve used the Savvy Feeder and Haygain Forager and liked both for different reasons. I have yet to try the Porta-Grazer, but I really love the concept of that one! I put my reviews together of the two I have tried in a blog post that also talks about the benefits of slow-feeding in general.
I had two problems I needed to solve:
1. Slow feeders were too loud (Tucker likes to kick them around)
2. I couldn’t always make it out to fill a feeder with hay
And that’s how I discovered my personal favorite slow feeding option! A net for an entire bale of hay. That’s right – no awful stuffing of hay into a net, just a clean & simple slide of a bale into a net. With the right kind of grass hay, I had a bale lasting up to 5 days with both horses grazing it! You can read my full review and experience with the net on the blog.
You can also get yourself the same net with a 20% discount using this link.
We can’t always provide free-choice hay to our horses, or ideal grazing pastures. Sometimes it might be the best we can do to provide extra small meals whenever we can, provide in hand grazing when we’re with them, or have their scheduled feedings placed in slow feeders to extend them just a bit longer. In an ideal world, our horses would have adequate grazing land to fulfill their every need! We also all live in perfectly sized homesteads with sustainable farms and live happily ever after… But until we find that world, we’ll just settle for the best that we can do with the best we’ve got. ✌️