Overnight Feeding: That midnight snack might not make your tummy very happy… But then again, you’re not a horse.

To maintain your horse’s digestive health and general welfare, you should consider trickle feeding your stabled horses during the night so as to better mimic natural foraging behaviours, according to an Irish researcher.

This article is also available in Spanish click here to read.

“If horses have to be stabled on restricted forage diets, slow feeders can be used to extend feeding times overnight,” said Barbara Hardman, a post-graduate MSc from the University of Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, in Scotland.

Unlike humans, horses have nearly continuous feeding needs that don’t stop during the night, Hardman explained during her presentation at the 15th Conference of the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES), held August 19-21 in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

Handlers tend to not consider the night-time hours as feeding time, she said. But in fact, those hours make up part of the 12-hour-per-day average of foraging behaviour that horses perform in natural conditions. When these needs aren’t met, horses can experience gastrointestinal issues, including colic and ulcers, as well as stress-induced conditions like cribbing and weaving.

Trickle feeding through the use of slow feeders can prolong the feeding process overnight, making forage last significantly longer through the night hours, said Hardman. Depending on the feeder type, hay or haylage can take more than twice as long to consume. With breaks included, the horses can even still have hay available in the early hours of the morning.
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“Not providing horses with enough food overnight to fulfil their physiological and behaviour needs actually violates two of the five freedoms—freedom from hunger, and freedom to express natural behaviour,” Hardman said. If horses go more than four consecutive hours without food, even during the night, they are technically fasting, she added.

In their study, Hardman and her fellow researchers from Royal (Dick) and from Unequi Ltd, UK, carried out preliminary testing of overnight feeding conditions on four horses. Each of the four horses was given haylage either on the ground, in a bar-style slow feeder (Harmony Trickle Feeder), or in a hole-style slow feeder (Pacefeeder), for seven nights per feeding condition (a five-day adaptation period and a two-day observation period). The researchers observed the horses’ behaviours using infrared cameras for 16 continuous hours, ending at 8 a.m.

They noted that in this group of horses, the bar-style feeder increased consumption time by 95%, and the hole-style feeder by 120%, compared to ground feeding, Hardman said. Depending on the horse and the feeder, they would even still have haylage available between 3 and 6 a.m., whereas they would finish the free-fed hay by 10 p.m. to midnight.

Even so, their resting times—whether standing or lying down—remained the same across all three feeding conditions, she added.

Worth considering also was how the horses spent their time once all the haylage was consumed, according to Hardman. “Horses on loose haylage spent 72% more time on browsing in bedding, which may have involved ingestion of faecal matter and straw, increasing energy intake and the risk of colic,” she said.

While owners often mean well by confining their horses to stables at night, they could be unwittingly disregarding important health and welfare concerns if their horses aren’t having their night-time foraging needs met, Hardman explained.

“Nocturnal husbandry is often an overlooked facet of equine management,” she said.

Study highlights:

  • Horses have nearly continuous feeding needs that don’t stop during the night.
  • Owners should consider slowing down forage consumption using a trickle feeding system.
  • Horses that were fed forage using a slow feeder system still had haylage available between 3 and 6am.
  • Horses that were free-fed forage on the ground ran out by 10pm to midnight and spent time browsing on their bedding.

This study’s findings were presented at the 15th International Equitation Science Conference in August at the University of Guelph, Ontario Canada.

Download the conference proceedings by clicking here.