Horses are designed to eat little and often, day and night. However, the modern-day tendency to stable for long periods — especially when taking care of a horse in winter — means that for many, living as nature intended is not reality. Your horse’s evening haynet lasts just a few hours and then they’ve got nothing to munch on until the next day, which can trigger a whole host of health and behavioural problems. Cafeteria feeding, says independent equine nutritionist Nikki Meggison, is the ideal solution.
“Cafeteria feeding isn’t complicated,” she states. “It’s basically providing your horse with a selection of forage feeds to pick at, giving them some control over what they eat and when.”
The benefits of cafeteria feeding
For horses that are stabled, particularly for long periods, cafeteria feeding helps to enrich their surroundings by encouraging natural foraging. Here are a few ways you can implement cafeteria feeding:
1. Change their forage
Split hay into two or three haynets hung in different spots around the stable, as well as some loose on the floor.
“Not only does this help to satisfy your horse’s natural instincts, it extends their forage eating time as they’ll be moving around while they eat — and that’s what they’re designed to do,” explains Nikki.
Cafeteria feeding also helps the digestive system to work as it should. Horses need to eat for between 16 and 20 hours a day, but many currently don’t.
2. Feed fruit and veg
Feeding succulents, such as carrots, apples, turnips, beets and soaked sugar beet, is good practice because they have a high water content, which means they add hydration into your horse’s diet.
“Succulents also boost the appetite of fussy eaters or those recovering from illness,” adds Nikki. “Don’t overdo it and cut them into a size and shape your horse can tackle easily, then hide them in their hay for them to find.”
Making a vegetable kebab is another good way to feed succulents when you are cafeteria feeding. Horses and ponies love them. Veggie kebabs help to keep your horse occupied, so they’re particularly useful if they have to spend a lot of time stabled.
3. Added extras
“Processed forages such as dried grass, alfalfa chops or soaked pellets can be used for those horses with reduced chewing ability or to add interest,” advises Nikki. “A snack ball with high-fibre nuts will keep them eating for longer, so that’s a great addition to their routine too.”
The following video explains more about cafeteria feeding:
How to prevent overfeeding
“As long as you weigh everything out and use appropriate forages to suit your horse’s body condition, workload and temperament, you should have no problem with overfeeding when cafeteria feeding,” says Nikki. “Feed according to your horse’s weight, condition, age, workload and time of year, and account for any health issues.”
Remember to make any changes to your horse’s diet gradually to minimise disruption to the bacteria in the hindgut and to ensure they have time to adjust to the change in feed.