feeding and care of horses
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BeetNote Foraging behaviour

Foraging behaviour

To a certain extent, wild animals are in a constant state of near starvation. By this we mean to say that they almost always experience shortages in their diet. By varying that diet, within the context of what is available, the animals try to get as near to the optimum situation which is possible in their environment.

Their bodies apply complex feed intake control patterns based on physical, physiological and biochemical feedback mechanisms in order to ensure an adequate nutrients intake.
Animals evolve along with their diets; they adapt continuously to new situations. So its instincts encourage the animal to sample different types of food.W

ith our domesticated horses, we may have been encouraging wrong behaviour. Grass on its own may provide all the nutrients that the horse needs, but it doesn’t satisfy the horse’s needs to try and test different types of food.

Throughout the year, the nutrient value of the grass changes. Therefore, throughout the year, the needs of the horse are not always met. This can lead to stereotypical behaviour if the horse cannot fulfil its needs. We can fulfil the nutritional need with 2 well-balanced meals per day, however this will not fulfil the horse’s need to forage all day. This can lead to stereotypical behaviour, such as weaving, crib-biting or eating excessive amounts of its straw bedding.

So we are feeding our horses in the complete wrong way?
The short answer is: perhaps we are. But before we start feeling guilty about our lack of understanding, it must be said that we are also doing a lot of things right. We feed a variety of feeds, tailored to the needs of the horse’s lifestyle, training level and status. We monitor the horse’s weight and condition and we have the vet nearby in case we need him.

To add to what we are doing right, we can try to match the feeding pattern as much as possible to the natural behaviour of the horse, which is not as difficult as it sounds. We already provide our horses with a varied range of feeds, so we are halfway there.

The key to improvement is providing various feed types, in various sizes, tastes and textures throughout the day. Think of the components: roughage – fibres – concentrates – supplements.

Feed versus feed management

Nervousness, colic or refusing to eat are regularly thought to be caused by a product itself (‘cereals will make him fizzy!’  ‘He does not want to eat his hay!’) But the problems might be caused by the way in which we keep horses and offer them feed. In some cases, it has become so different from the natural behaviour of the horse, that it cannot fulfil its natural needs of grazing and searching for food, which can even cause the horse to become sick.

Try to keep your horse as long as possible occupied with its food, have it chew as much as possible and offer variety in his diet. Add for instance a portion of straw to the roughage meal. This will keep your horse happy and healthy.