We often see horse owners refuse to feed adlib hay under the premise that horses very rarely learn to self-regulate and it isn't suitable for obese, EMS or Laminitic equines. We also see devastated horse owners desperately trying to make the decision between the idea of an obese horse or a horse that struggles with restricted hay.
There seems to be a gap in the equine world where owners with fat or obese horses with added anxiety and resource guarding behaviours fall into. Having an obese horse has its own problems but having a horse with intense anxiety, resource guarding behaviours and ulcers does also. Unfortunately, there’s also a common misconception that a horse with EMS cannot live on adlib hay without worsening their already somewhat compromised condition.
Our experience with adlib hay varies but ultimately is a very positive one. We’re in the fortunate position where we look after other people’s horses daily, and although we love them all like our own, it’s much easier for us to be patient with a horse and take a step back to look at the whole picture than it may be for the owner. There are very few horses who just know how to self-regulate right from the get-go, which is why creating an environment that encourages movement, exercise, increased fitness levels, stamina, weight loss and muscle gain is so, SO important.
We as owners control every aspect of our horse’s lives – when they eat, what they eat, whether they spend their time in a herd or in a stable, what exercise and movement they get and how often, the list goes on. When owners have restricted their hay for such large portions of their lives, relinquishing control and allowing them to eat however much hay whenever they want can mean your horse stands there all day to begin with - feet planted, eating what seems like their body weight in hay. Obesity is of course something owners need to be vigilant of, but the issues caused from restricting hay are often issues that go ignored.
If we go back to basics, we know a horse is designed to eat constantly throughout the day and night. The stomach of a horse is the smallest unit of their digestive tract and can hold roughly 8-15 litres and depending on what they’ve digested, takes 4-6 hours for the stomach to completely empty. When we feed our horses in short bursts, they often consume their hay at a quick rate, spending the following time between refills hungry. After the 4–6-hour period it takes for the stomach to empty, stressy behaviours can start to occur which leads to a greater risk of ulcers, food guarding issues and aggression or anxiety.
Turning your horse onto grass may seem tempting as a way to get around this issue but if your horse is laminitic prone, suffers from EMS or other metabolic issues and is grass affected, this just isn’t practical. Unlike the grasses that grow in the semi-arid environment horses are adapted to and thrive in, the grass found in the UK is very high in sugar, potassium and nitrogen and also lacks largely in fibre, making it an unsuitable source of forage for our domesticated horses. This means when a horse digests grass, their digestive system pulls every nutrient and mineral from their forage naturally, creating an array of issues. A species appropriate diet should consist of low sugar, low potassium, high fibre forage as seen in the wild.
I am not by any means suggesting if you stable your horse for the majority of the day or they receive very little movement, to then start feeding them adlib hay with no additional management changes. However, I am saying we should be looking at creating environments for our equines that still implement free choice, natural behaviours and adlib hay whilst encouraging our horses to achieve enough movement daily that they then reap the rewards. Equines that have a past of being fed restricted hay have possibly been left hours without forage before. If we keep letting the hay run out, we’re teaching our horses that the hay is limited, therefore precious and they will at some point be left hungry without forage – possibly frustrated, anxious and stressed.
Through the countless horses and rehabs we have cared for, we’ve seen for ourselves that horse’s that do turn into hoovers around adlib hay CAN learn to self-regulate given they are provided with time and the right environment. Creating an environment where any anxiety and stress related issues around hay are lessened and one that ALSO encourages movement and fitness, is surely the best of both worlds.
PB Livery feeds adlib meadow hay on a paddock paradise in herds of all ages, sizes, breeds and medical needs. We feed all adlib hay in nets, be it in hay boxes, large bales or small hung nets. All hay is meadow hay and is strategically placed around each track to encourage movement as opposed to staying in one area.