Is your horse turning into a very large alarm clock?
For centuries (or at least for decades) horse-people have had a rule drummed into their heads: Feed Horses At The Same Time Every Day. If you don’t keep your horses’ feeding schedule tight, you run the risk of colic.
Well, that idea has some merit. If you feed your horses at the same time every day for five years, and then one day you show up half an hour late, somebody might have gotten so worked up into a frenzy over his empty feed bucket that he makes himself sick.
So are you teaching your horse to be a delicate flower that can’t wait for you when you decide to take a nap and oversleep a little bit into the dinner hour? I’m kidding, of course, you don’t have time to take a nap!
Studies have shown that it doesn’t hurt the average horse to have a little variation in their feeding schedule, especially when horses have access to grass or free-choice hay. Although horses with a high work demand such as racehorses or four-star three-day-event horses require such a precise meting out of calories that their feeding schedule can, and should, become a tightly-orchestrated regimen, a barnful of riding horses rarely meets that requirement.
What can hurt a horse is frustration and the destructive behaviors that come along with it. A horse expecting his dinner at five PM sharp, and with nothing better to do than wait for it, will frequently turn to stable vices to deal with his disappointment when no bucket is forthcoming at the appointed time. Stall-walking, cribbing, weaving, and wall-kicking can all cause serious long-term harm to a horse’s health, to say nothing of the barn and property.
Teaching your horse about flexibility can help save your stall walls and your horse’s legs, as well as your sanity. After all, there’s nothing quite like a riding lesson extending into the dinner hour and hearing the horses back in the barn tearing the place down to throw your concentration out of the window and irritate your riding instructor no end. And no one wants to irritate the riding instructor; before you know it, you’ll hear those dreaded words: “Drop your stirrups!”
So it’s time to start playing with feed schedules. The easiest, and healthiest, solution to the impatient diner is to feed more hay. Free-choice hay is the answer to ninety-nine percent of your horse’s problems, after all. It keeps the gut moving, and it’s possible that as horse-people, we worry more about our horses’ gut happiness than anything else. If your horse is out to pasture and decides at four o’clock that grass is boring and walking up and down in front of the gate is the best way to get your attention, you might be surprised what a little hay can do.
Consider a feeder to slow down consumption. In the stall, a tightly-woven hay-net can keep just a few flakes of hay interesting for hours, as long as you’re well-versed in safely hanging hay-nets.
A hay-feeder, even out in the pasture, is doubly effective because horses don’t start anticipating a flake of hay every time you walk past — a scenario that would just create more feed-demanding behavior. Filling a hay feeder once with a day’s worth of hay lets you side-step this.
Distracting your horse with hay can let you deflect the dinner hour without too much drama. At first, don’t push your luck — just delay dinner by a half hour or so. Once you’re able to get past the witching hour without any drama, try feeding a little early. Eventually, your horse will come to understand that the feed bucket comes when you say it does, not when he says it does. Your barn will be safer, your horse will be happier, you will get to keep your stirrups in your riding lesson.