BarnBoots, Exploring Horse and Human Horizons


Mare eating at ground level.

Mare eating at ground level.

Horses evolved as trickle feeders and are designed to be constantly eating small amounts of high-fiber forage (grass or hay) over a 24 hour period in order to properly maintain their blood sugar and insulin levels, and maximize nutrient absorption. Too much food all at once, too little food, or long periods of not eating can wreck havoc on the horse’s digestive system. Feeding and management practices should reflect this evolution and encourage the horse to eat less, but more frequently and move continually in the search of food.

A crucial part of the digestion process begins with the chewing action of the teeth in order to activate the digestive enzyme amylase found in the saliva and required for the pre-digestions of carbohydrates and starches. If you haven’t already discovered this “slow feeder” movement in the horse world, we strongly encourage you to do some research.

Various slow feeder designs permit horses to eat a controlled amount of feed, constantly throughout the day/night. By increasing their chew time, slowing down their intake and actually making the horse “forage” for its food, these systems help mimic the feeding practices of the wild horse. The hay never runs out, mealtime anxiety disappears, the horses’ biological need for “chew time” is addressed, the digestive system has a chance to absorb the maximum amount of nutrient from the hay, and in the end, you actually tend to feed less hay!

For optimum health, horses should be eating with their heads at ground level. In this correct anatomical angle, the horse’s teeth and jaw are properly aligned to:

  • efficiently masticate and lubricate food before swallowing
  • wear the teeth at a natural angle
  • help avoid choke by keeping the esophagus at the proper angle
  • allow for continual drainage of the nasal passages

This head down grazing position also allows for the stay apparatus (a locking system of ligaments, joints and such) to keep the horse upright without requiring much muscle tension.

Most recreational adult horses require little more than good quality hay, water and a free-choice loose white salt supplement. Of course, depending on the, age, use, exercise level and temperament of the horse, it may be necessary to supplement the rations to ensure adequate digestible energy is provided and that the appropriate vitamins and minerals are present (and more importantly, for the minerals at least) in the proper balance.

Many minerals work in synergistic relationships and their ratios need to be carefully balanced for optimum absorption and to avoid potential toxic and/or deficient levels.

Simply adding a “complete supplement” or more feed will not address inherent imbalances in the diet!

If the diet is wrong, medicine is of no use. And if the diet is right, medicine is of no need.

A hay analysis provided by a certified laboratory will provide a solid baseline of what a particular horse is eating and should form the basis of any sound nutritional program. Blood sample tests and hair analysis can also be useful tools to help determine mineral levels in the body and point to possible solutions for ration balancing in select cases.

There are many natural ways to assist your horse in obtaining as much nutrients from its food as possible. Aside from offering a safe array of forage variety in the form of hay or grass, adding further alternative sources of nutrients in the form of herbs, fresh vegetables, fruit tree branches, etc. can provide an excellent way for horses to obtain additional vitamins from a variety of sources. Common sense and research must prevail of course: ensure that your offerings are not coming from a known list of toxic plants!

Do your research, and feel free to contact us for assistance. We are passionate about equine nutrition and becoming more formally educated as time go by! Better yet, consult with your veterinarian, or locate a qualified equine nutritionist if you are looking for specific assistance in proper ration balancing.