With many parts of the world affected by weather extremes, feed for horses is getting more expensive and less readily available, so it makes sense to stretch what you can get as far as possible.
So how do we do that without compromising our horse’s health and well-being?
It’s a question I’ve been thinking about a lot lately as my horses have challenged me to balance the quantity they need for healthy gut function (and not eating weeds), with keeping them down to healthy weight, most being mature riding horses verging on the fat side!
One of the big discoveries I made is that hay fed loose on the ground can be gobbled up quickly leaving the herd hungry for more even after eating their entire ration which is based on their combined body weight.
How much hay?
It’s easy to work out – I have seven horses in one herd – there are four that weigh close to 400kg and 3 that weigh around 500kg so that’s a total of 3100kg. As they have no pasture to speak of, I’m feeding them 2.5% of their body weight in food a day – that’s 10kg per 400kg horse and 12.5kg per 500kg horse – a combined total of 77.5kg.
As they get a small feed of chaff and minerals which weighs less than a kilo each, I’m left with providing 77kg of hay so I weighed my bales and they average 17kg each resulting in 4.5 bales per day for the herd. Phew – I knew I did maths at school for a reason!
Homemade hay feeders
So I started looking for ideas on how to make some way of containing hay that made them work to get it and could be easily put up in several places around the 10 acres they occupy.
To combat the guzzling nature of horses that have no pasture, I made hay feeders that have a mesh screen they have to pull the hay through and it stops them tossing it all over the place to get to the seeds. I ended up replacing the wire mesh with slow feed hay nets to slow them down even more, and to save their teeth from damage.
I had to put a screen on one so that the ‘feeder hog’ (2nd in command) allowed someone to share with him!
The biggest issue with this is that they just stand around in one place for a large part of the day – at least they have to walk down the hill to get to the water. Some days they go out to graze a strip of the track so the amount of hay is halved, and they get to walk a lot further back to the water.
My breeding herd has also presented a challenge in that some of them can cope with grass and need it, while others couldn’t. My old broodmare who is generally a good doer had developed greasy heel from being allowed too much rich grass in spring because I mistakenly assumed she would need extra to make all that milk for her foal.
I’ve discovered through trial and error in the process of clearing up the greasy heal, that the tall stemmy grass with seeds (usually cocksfoot and ryegrass) will cause her leg to flare up right away.
I could actually see more swelling and weeping of toxins at the end of the day when she was allowed out on the seedy grass.
My solution was to set up a track around the paddock to stimulate more movement, and slash the seeded grass on the track, leaving it for a couple of weeks to dry out – it was even rained on so that washed more sugars out.
Freshly slashed grass can have more toxins that affect horses as the grass tries to recover, so it’s a good idea to leave it at least a week or two before allowing horses back on.
Now, as the track gets eaten down, I can let the youngsters in the middle for a few hours a day to eat a bit extra, and the mare can stay out on feed she can tolerate, supplemented with a bit of hay and her regular minerals and chaff.
The beauty of this is that the mare can move around with the herd so no one feels left out or in need of running through a fence. It’s also a great way to wean a foal as they are only stopped from drinking and not from being near their mum.
The more I look for information on using tracks, commonly called Paddock Paradise, the more I see it as the ultimate way to keep horses and stretch the grass consumption over a longer period of time too.
During the drought, the track can be the sacrifice area and the majority of the pasture can survive with reduced or minimal grazing.
In spring, the track is the safest place for equines prone to laminitis, tender hooves, and behavioral problems associated with ryegrass consumption – or even with weed consumption such as flat weed (false dandelion) that causes stringhalt.
In this case, you would need to scrape the track back to bare dirt and feed hay 24/7.
To counteract the problem of manure and not having the ability to pick it all up (most of our pastures are on steep land so impossible to use a ‘poo sucker’ as I call them), I’m setting up a track in every paddock so the horses can be rotated around them, allowing some to rest.