By Clair Thunes
Q: I have a fair amount of experience feeding senior horses. At one point I had three of them on either hay pellets or hay cubes due to dentition issues that prevented them from eating long-stem hay. Because they could consume the cubes or pellets fairly quickly, there would be long stretches during the day and night where there was no forage for them to eat; at that point, they started chewing wood in the barn and on trees. –Karen, via e-mail
I currently have two seniors, one of which will chew on his buddy’s hay and spit out the quids, so chew time is not a problem. Before, I had one gelding who would not only chew his hay but would then eat other horses’ quids, which resulted in mild impactions throughout in the last two years of his life.
My question is: What can I do to appease the need to chew for equids that can only eat hay pellets or cubes, chopped hay, or complete feeds because their teeth are no longer effective for chewing long-stem forage? Would small-hole haynets allow them to just get a few pieces of hay at a time to chew on while reducing the risk of impactions caused by swallowing unchewed long-stem forage?
A: Chew time is an important consideration not just because it gives your horse something to do and more closely resembles the horse’s natural feeding behaviors, but also because chewing results in saliva production. Saliva lubricates the feed being consumed, helps its passage down the esophagus, and contains a significant concentration of bicarbonate and calcium–both of which buffer stomach acid.
Horses in a natural setting spend the majority of the day foraging and chewing, and they constantly secrete stomach acid whether they are eating or not. The near-constant chewing and saliva secretion continually buffers the secreted acid. The highly fibrous plant matter being consumed also buffers stomach acid and forms a floating mat on the surface of the acid, preventing it from splashing around.
When the horse spends less time chewing—whether its due to reduced forage intake, the type of forage, or the method of forage provision—he produces less saliva and can’t buffer the stomach acid as well. This could increase a horse’s risk of developing gastric ulcers
in addition to developing undesirable behaviors such as wood chewing, as you’ve described.
Meal-feeding restricted amounts of hay reduces total chewing compared to the amount of chewing that would occur if the horse was on pasture full time. Many horses will consume a flake or two of hay in less than a couple of hours, leaving long periods between meal times with no chewing. Slow feeders can increase the time spent chewing and, thus, producing saliva.
For horses with poor dentition, long-stem hay might no longer be a viable option because they cannot chew it adequately. Hopefully, this results in quids—balled-up mouthfuls of partially chewed hay that fall out of the horse’s mouth. I say “hopefully” because the other option is that the horse swallows the inadequately chewed hay and is at risk of impaction colic should the hay get stuck in the gastrointestinal tract. Of course, the major downside to quidding is that the horse gets no nutritional value from the hay when it’s not actually consumed.
Some senior horses appear to chew hay fine, but don’t maintain or gain weight with it as they have in the past. This could be because they’re no longer as effective at digesting hay as they used to be. Some of these senior horses might develop loose manure due to mild colitis caused by the hay irritating the colon. I have worked with several such horses, and all have improved in body condition and manure quality by consuming a diet made up either partially or completely of hay pellets.
Hay pellets or cubes
are a good solution for horses with poor dentition and other horses that might require pelleted diets, such as those described previously or with equine asthma that need dust-free or low-dust feed. However, because the hay has been chopped up to a very fine size prior to being turned in to the pellet, it takes very little chewing to break the pellets into an easily swallowed size. This results in reduced chew time and saliva production. If your horse eats a flake or two of hay in only a couple of hours, the time it will take him to eat a similar weight of pellets will be substantially less.
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For your horse that reliably spits out quids when chewing hay, you could continue to give him access to a small amount of hay; however, I suspect that the majority of the saliva being produced during chewing ends up in the quid and not in the stomach. Additionally, there is the risk that some of the hay is being consumed and increasing impaction colic
risk, so I would discuss hay-feeding strategies with your veterinarian. Small-hole haynets might result in better overall chewing and fewer quids, so this might be a good option, as well, but again I would discuss this with your veterinarian who can fully assess your horse’s situation.