Why you should feed your horse on the ground

ground level feeding

For many years my horses ate from hay racks or from feed troughs or buckets mounted in their stalls. I liked it because there was less waste and everything stayed more contained — or neater.

But as with many “improvements”, sometimes it’s better to go back to what nature intended.

Horses were designed to eat with their heads and neck down. I was reading an article yesterday about horse racing, bemoaning the fact that so many racehorses break down at very young ages. Now, while this is probably not a significant factor, someone pointed out that feeding from raised haynets (which most racehorses do) or waist high feeders, puts strain on a horse’s skeletal system and soft tissue because of the unnatural position. Research has also shown that elevated head and neck positions can cause induce extension, or hollowing of the back.

Feeding at ground level is not only more natural, but it helps reduce the risk of choke and colic by slowing the rate of consumption (now Curly would argue with that, I’ve seen her gulp down her food at a tremendous rate, even from the ground!). However, when eating with their heads down, horses must chew their hay and grain more thoroughly and what they are eating is mixed more thoroughly with saliva. By increasing the amount of chewing per mouthful, this allows horses to extract more nutritional benefit from each bite.

Ground level feeding also reduces the chance of respiratory issues as when a horse’s head is lowered, it encourages their airways to drain.

Curly feeding from a Nibblenet
Some years ago, I replaced our metal hay feeder with Nibblenets. The bags have 1.5″ openings which contain the hay quite well. They limit waste and keep the horses busy much longer.

While the above benefits were easy for me to see, one of the ones that surprized me is that a head down grazing position promotes natural wear of a horse’s teeth. This is because the posture allows the jaw bone (mandible) to come down and forward in the atlantoaxial and temporomandibular joints. In plain English, this means that the mandible can move up and down, side toside, and forward and back without restriction. There are several benefits to this: teeth wear in a more natural pattern and horses are able to optimize the particle size of their food.

Because everything with horses seems to have an “it depends” element to it, feeding from the ground also has its risks. Ground feeding can also increase a horse’s chance of sand colic (which occurs when a horse ingests sand and it builds up in the large colon.) and can increase a horse’s parasite load. If you live in an area where the soil is sandy, you should consider using slow hay feeders to prevent that.
We’ve been feeding our horses from feeding pans on the ground for several years. We go back and forth on the use of slow feeders for hay. We haven’t been using them this summer because the horses have had plenty of grass, but in the winter when the hay blows away in the snow, they can be very helpful.
What do you do?

One thought on “Why you should feed your horse on the ground

  1. Feed on the ground. Always. I used to have a low height hay rack..it was a wire ‘basket’ -semicircle in shape, attached by one side to a corner of the stall and was about hip high at the top. Narrow at the ground end, and wide enought at the top to accommodate several flakes of hay. It still kept “most” of the hay inside, and the horses were able to eat with their heads down. I can’t remember seeing one lately, I got mine from a garage/barn sale years and years and YEARS ago. The only problem I could see with it is if one kept a halter on a one’s horse, it might catch somewhere in the feeder. But the gaps in the bars/ mesh were big enough to get a hand through, and I never keep a halter on a horse…I only halter when I’m actually leading or handling the horse. Otherwise, it’s on a hook or hanging on the fence rail outdoors.
    One point I’d learned from boarding my horses at a stable that had hanging feeders/hay bags…reaching UP to eat is unnatural and if the hay is dusty, a lot of that dust is inhaled by the horse. The barn with those head high hay baskets was filled with coughing horses, including mine. When I insisted on the horse’s hay being put on the floor of the stall, I got a lot of resistance and outright refusal from the barn lord. That’s when I bit the bullet,put up fencing and a shed and brought my horses home. I didn’t have the facilities the stable had but my boys were kept the way I wanted them to be kept.

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