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Managing forage intake in stabled horses

January 29, 2021

As we get further into winter horses are likely to be spending increasing amounts of time stabled. This change in management results in changes to diet and feeding regime, with increasing amounts of preserved forage being fed. The most appropriate method for feeding forage should take account of availability of the owner’s time and facilities, the forage being fed and the individual horse’s requirements.

Horses are described as trickle feeders and are known to spend large portions of their time budget grazing. Horses which are kept under modern management regimes and especially those who spend large portions of time stabled, are known to spend less time at this important task. Many stabled horses spend large portions of time without access to forage and this has been linked to increased incidents of Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome (EGUS), development of stereotypic behaviours and a possible link to colic. Many horses are currently making the transition from field to stable and this changeover is often linked to higher incidences of these conditions.

Forage is a vital part of horse diets and it is recommended that horses receive an absolute minimum of 1.5% of body weight as forage per day. This equates to 7.5kg of forage on a dry matter basis per day for an average 500kg horse. This is vital for the appropriate functioning of the horse’s digestive tract and also provides a valuable source of nutrients and energy. In addition it is recommended that horses spend no longer than four hours without access to forage to try and limit the impact on the stomach of excess acid.

Horse owners can increase forage feeding time using a variety of methods, including haynets and forage slow down feeders. These methods can be very useful when horses are on restricted intake diets as a result of issues such as obesity or metabolic conditions. Small holed haynets have been shown to increase feeding time by 5 minutes/kg of forage consumed in comparison to large holed haynets (Ellis et al., 2015) while Morgan et al. (2016) found that small holed haynets increased average feeding time by 40% for some horses. A study  by Glunk et al. (2014) found that horses took longer to consume hay from haynets with small holes (3.2cm) rather than medium holes (4.4cm) and even longer when compared to large holes (15.2cm). A study at CAFRE Enniskillen Campus  indicated that a “slow down” forage feeder may reduce horses’ forage intake, even after an extended period of time using the feeder. These findings are beneficial to horse owners as horses can become accustomed to restricted feeding, resulting in them adapting their feeding pattern to combat the restriction, culminating in a return to higher intakes. The slow down forage feeder tested at Enniskillen Campus also resulted in very small amounts of waste forage which is likely to be of benefit to horse owners in reducing feeding costs.

Most of the slow down forage feeders on the market have been produced with the aim of replicating the natural grazing patterns of the horse when access to ad libitum (free access)grazing is neither viable nor available. They usually allow horses to eat from a lower head position than traditional haynets which are often tied at a raised height in the stable. This lower feeding position is supported by Ivestor et al. (2012) who found that feeding from a haynet increased the respirable particles in the horse’s breathing zone. Particles in the breathing zone have been linked to respiratory distress and are a key factor in the management of Equine Asthma and associated conditions. It is likely that slow down forage feeders reduce the respirable particles in the horse’s breathing zone in comparison to a haynet, therefore having a positive effect on health. The high head position seen when eating from haynets has also been linked to unnatural wear on the horse’s teeth compared to when eating from the ground. It is believed that the unnatural high head position of eating from haynets causes the horse’s jaws to align differently which can result in the teeth meeting in a slightly unnatural position, over time this can cause uneven wear.

In conclusion, the provision of an extended forage feeding period is of benefit to horse health and haynets or slow down forage feeders can assist in achieving this. These methods can be particularly useful when having to feed reduced amounts to overweight horses, and when trying to reduce the amount of forage waste.


Ellis, A.D., Fell, M., Luck, K., Gill, L., Owen, H., Briars, H., Barfoot, C. and Harris, P. (2015). Effect of forage presentation on feed intake behaviour in stabled horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Vol.165, Pp88-94

Glunk, E.C., Hathaway, M.R. Weber, W.J. and Sheaffer C.C., and Martinson (2014).The effect of hay net design on rate of forage consumption when feeding adult horses. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science Vol 34(8). Pp986-991

Ivester, K.M., Smith, K., Moore, G.E., Zimmerman, N.J. and Couëtil, L.L. (2012). Variability in particulate concentrations in a horse training barn over time. Equine Veterinary Journal.  Vol 44, Suppl. 43. Pp51–56

Morgan, K, Kjellberg,L. Karlsson, L., Budde, Kjel, E. and Ryman, M. (2016). Pilot study on workload management and feed intake time when feeding horses with small mesh haynets. Livestock Science. Vol 186. Pp63–68