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Adlib hay is something that we at Sanoanimal are big advocates for. But we keep receiving messages or comments with the following or similar content:

  • “Why is unlimited hay feeding around the clock promoted?”
  • “A working horse that worked 12 hours under saddle could eat at most occasionally during short breaks and not for 24 hours like a wild horse would.”
  • “We tried that, and the horses became excessively fat.”
  • “Perhaps it might work for 10% of the horses, such as old and sick ones. Otherwise, it leads to weight gain and makes the horses sick.”

The issue of portioning or offering hay 24/7 seems to concern many horse owners. Can it genuinely work if horses have hay available adlib all the time?

The answer is: YES!

For a healthy horse organism, it is essential that hay is always available because physiologically the studies are clear: Horses are “trickle feeders,” meaning they do not eat in meals but rather constantly consume small amounts of their (lean) feed.

Their entire system is designed for this type of nutrition. Research shows that managing roughage access restrictively leads to psychological stress and even stomach ulcers in horses.

© Adobe Stock/Ludmila Smite

However, there is a problem: our hay rarely matches what horses eat in the wild. If horses gain weight with constant hay intake, the first thing to check is the sugar and protein content in the hay. If the hay has too much sugar, horses with a sugar addiction (a problem created by humans through feeding muesli and the like) will be tempted to overeat. High protein content also leads to weight gain.

Sugar content

Ideally, the sugar content should be <10%, and for easy keeping horses, a sugar content <6% is desirable. The protein content should be between 6-9%. Additionally, the hay should be offered in closely-meshed hay nets to slow down the feeding speed.

You can easily determine the sugar content in the hay yourself using the instructions provided here.

If you have nutrient-rich hay for horses that require a low-calorie diet, consider mixing the hay with straw. The “sorting process” slows down the roughage intake even further. Offering hay in multiple feeding areas also encourages horses to move around and nibble on other hay nets.

The paddock trail system, also called paddock paradise or track system, has proven particularly effective, with hay positioned as far away from the water source as possible.

Metabolic horses

If, despite these measures, the horses gain weight with constant roughage supply, despite these measures, the horses gain weight with constant roughage supply, or if they never leave the feed to take a break, then we are dealing with horses with metabolic disorders.

Experience has shown that the metabolism is so out of balance due to past feeding management that therapeutic measures should be taken. In such cases, horses usually suffer either from insulin resistance (which, by the way, can also be triggered by stress caused by forcing the horses to take breaks from roughage) or from disturbed detoxification, which is caused by dysbiosis of the large intestine, also related to inappropriate roughage management.

Constant roughage supply

But what about the statement: “A workhorse that worked 12 hours under saddle could at most eat during short breaks and not for 24 hours like a wild horse”?

The workhorses referred to here did work 12 hours a day but not without breaks. During the breaks, hay bags were placed over the horses so they could eat. The physical work also allowed the metabolism to cope better with less-than-optimal feeding management compared to horses that idle around in our open yard systems with their herd.

The fact that horses need a constant supply of roughage is not outdated; on the contrary, scientific studies published in recent years contradict the previous practice of feeding horses in meals, as promoted, for example by official horse-related institutions and governing bodies.

© Adobe Stock/acceptfoto

The importance of the large intestine

For some years now, intensive research has focused on stress behavior and the microbiome of the large intestine, and all the results point in the direction we advocate: Horses are natural continuous eaters.

We simply need to ensure they can fulfill this need by choosing the right roughage and employing smart feeding management.

When horses develop a fat belly, it is often due to an excessively filled large intestine in combination with insufficiently trained abdominal muscles. You often see these “hay bellies” when switching from rationed hay feeding to hay ad libitum.

Since the horses have learned that they quickly run out of hay and are hungry until humans refill the hay rack, they greedily pounce on it. They have learned that they must eat quickly to get enough, or else other horses in the group will consume their share.

At the beginning of such a change in feeding, they also behave this way, as this conditioned behavior needs to be “relearned.” Initially, they may overeat hay, and due to past feeding in rations with breaks, the peristalsis is disrupted because it mainly depends on the fiber fraction in the large intestine. This sluggish peristalsis is exacerbated when grain-free mueslis containing chopped fibres are given.

Support your horse from within

Therefore, we recommend accompanying such a change in feeding with intestinal cleansing measures, such as the administration of bitter herbs that stimulate peristalsis, helping the intestinal movements return to normal. Bloating and flatulence due to gas formation from faulty germs in the large intestine can also lead to a very round belly. Horses with this issue often “fart” a lot during the beginning of training, as physical exercise stimulates peristalsis and drives the gases backward, where they are then released.

Such gas formers can multiply in the large intestine, especially when the natural microbiome is disturbed by incorrect feed or improper feeding management. The big belly must be clearly distinguished from lymph deposits, mainly found on the neck and flanks, and fat deposits, which accumulate in the back muscles and, in the final stage, as distinct pads under the skin, on the neck crest, or above the tail dock.

These lymph or fat deposits are typical signs of EMS.