The Risks of Herd Feeding Horses

One of the core principles at Tribute® Superior Equine Nutrition is that each horse deserves individualized nutrition. This is because there are many factors that are assessed to determine the best products to complement your forage and support your horse’s health, wellness and performance.

Providing individualized nutrition is often at odds with the common horse-keeping practice of horses being kept in a herd setting, either part or full-time. A herd can be as little as two horses sharing a common space, like a dry lot or pasture, to many horses sharing a common space. Some, or all, of your horse’s diet may be fed in a group setting, depending on your management system.

While some horses are only turned out individually, many horses spend at least part of their time in turnout with companions. Horses are social creatures by nature, and creating opportunities for herd interaction often improves a horse’s quality of life. Group turnout also requires less infrastructure than individualized turnouts, decreasing the amount of fencing and number of run-in sheds, and can decrease day to day labor needs.

Risks of Herd Feeding Horses

Feeding horses in groups does create several challenges. These challenges are present for both hay and concentrate (horse feed) feeding, but are more pronounced when feeding concentrates in herd settings. Such challenges include:

  • Horses not receiving the appropriate ration to support their nutrient requirements
  • Weight gain – dominant horses eating too much feed
  • Weight loss – submissive horses unable to eat enough feed
  • Increased risk for choke – submissive horses often eat very quickly due to fear
  • Increased risk of injury when horses chase their herd mates away from food sources
  • Increased risk of injury to horse handlers during feeding time

Managing Forage Intake in a Herd Setting

Forage is a portion of the horse’s diet that is often fed, at least in part, in a group setting. Managing forage intake in a herd is less challenging than trying to feed grain in a group setting, but still requires some thought to ensure each horse receives adequate amounts.

On well managed pastures, horses require minimal management to ensure forage intake is met. In fact, a larger concern is overweight horses eating too much grass. A grazing muzzle can be used to limit intake for these horses.

Feeding hay in group turnout can create more challenges due to competition between horses. Some tips to feed hay in group turnouts include:

  • Carefully consider how to group horses together. This can include separating based on energy needs, like keeping easy keepers in one turnout and harder keepers in another, but also should include consideration of horse temperament and group dynamics.
  • Offer more “eating spaces” than the number of horses. This will prevent a dominant horse from hoarding hay.
  • Spread hay sources out to limit competition.
  • Adjust hay rations fed while horses are separated to account for group feeding behavior. Some horses may require more or better-quality hay to maintain their weight. In a mixed group, it may be beneficial to feed a moderate quality hay in turnout and for easier keeping horses during their stall time, but supplement harder-keeping horses with higher quality hay individually.  
  • Monitor horses and adjust groups or feeding strategies as needed.

Can You Feed Your Horse’s Feed in a Herd Setting?

Ideally, all horses should be fed horse feed individually. Even in a group of horses that have very similar nutritional requirements, it is difficult to ensure that each horse is receiving the appropriate amount of feed.

It is possible to feed horses their feed individually in a herd setting, but it takes some additional steps to mitigate some of the risks listed above, such as:

  • More feed buckets than horses placed a distance away from each other – this allows horses to move to another bucket when a dominant horse chases submissive horses away. Placing them at a distance away from each other decreases competition.
    • Pros – No additional infrastructure expense.
    • Cons – Difficult to ensure each horse gets the required amount of feed, risk of injury from horses chasing each other and increased waste, as buckets can be tipped over.
  • Catch pens – these are small pens, usually built along a fence line in a large pasture. Horses are placed in their individual pens at feed time and not released until all horses are finished eating.
    • Pros: Horses can be fed individually with limited additional labor of moving horses.
    • Cons: Some horses will still feel pressured and bolt their feed as there is limited true separation between pens, as well as an increased investment in infrastructure.
  • Small number of catch pens – similar to the above, but only certain horses are placed in pens. Options include placing the most dominant horses in pens, so they don’t chase more submissive horses, placing horses with special nutrient requirements in pens to eat individualized rations or putting horses that take longer to eat in pens.
    • Pros: Can allow for the most at-risk horses to be fed individually, or in the case of penning the most dominant horse, allow more horses to consume their entire ration. This is also less initial investment than catch pens for every horse.
    • Cons: Same as above and decreases the ability to feed every horse individually.
  • Feed bags – these are small bags that are placed over the horse’s muzzle and attached with a strap that goes over the poll.
    • Pros: Each horse can be fed individually. No additional infrastructure required.
    • Cons: Risk to handler when trying to place each horse’s feed bag on in a group setting. Putting the feed bag on the most dominant horses first is advised.

Even taking careful steps to mitigate the risks of feeding horse feeds in a herd setting, this approach is still not appropriate for every horse and horses fed in a group setting should be carefully monitored during feed time.

If you have questions about your horse’s feeding program, contact us for a free, personalized feeding plan.

Article By: Nicole Rambo, Ph.D.
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