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Free-Feeding Hay: When Will My Horse Slow Down?

Free-Feeding Hay: When Will My Horse Slow Down?
By Clair Thunes
Q:I started free-feeding grass hay to my horses about three weeks ago, and they haven’t slowed down a bit. In addition to their free-feeding, they get a small amount of alfalfa hay (about 5 pounds each day, divided into morning and evening feedings) and a flax-based supplement and multivitamin. When will they stop pigging out on the day on the hay, and are there any signs of concern I should look for?
A:Kudos to you for wanting to feed your horses in a way that aligns more closely with their digestive anatomy and physiology. It can be a little scary to watch your horses gorge day after day. The majority of horses do self-regulate after several weeks. Some do so more quickly and some take longer. Of course, there are always the exceptions to the rule who just do not self-regulate.
It is important to pay attention to your horse’s body condition and weight. I would recommend performing a condition score and weight estimate on your horses every two weeks so that you can determine objectively if any are gaining weight. Some horses might be gorging and yet their weight might not change. Excessive weight gain, especially in breeds at risk of metabolic disorders, is always a concern no matter how hay is fed. Pay particular attention to the formation of neck crest fat.
Some things that might help this transition include:
Consider hay quality and getting it tested
Ideally when free feeding hay you want a hay with low in nonstructural carbohydrates (NSC, or starch and water soluble carbohydrates less than 12% on a dry matter basis) and on the lower end for calories (under 1 Mcal per pound better yet closer to 0.8 to 0.9 Mcal/lb). This means that, despite having free access to the hay, the hay being fed has less nutritional value than a forage with higher NSC and calorie content. This will help prevent your horses from gaining weight while eating free choice.
The acid detergent content (ADF) will help indicate the amount of the hay that’s indigestible. Generally staying with an ADF between 35-40% tends to be good options for horses eating free choice. A lower ADF is preferable for competition horses and breeding/young stock. Be careful not to get hay that is so indigestible that there’s a risk that it might cause impaction colic due to poor digestibility. If testing hay is not feasible look for bales that have a lower leaf to stem ratio, because hay with more stem generally the hay is lower in NSC and calories.
Typically alfalfa is not recommended as a hay for free feeding due to its higher calorie content. As long as you do not experience weight gain I think it is fine to continue the alfalfa. However, if weight gain starts to creep in consider dropping the alfalfa hay or at least reducing the amount fed. If you’d like to feed some alfalfa for example as a source of higher quality protein or to mitigate ulcer risk, then perhaps switch to pellets that can be more carefully weighed out.
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