Wednesday 16th of September 2020

The Benefits of Natural Grazing Behaviour

When we manage the day to day activity of equines in order to ride or breed from them, we inevitably make changes to their lifestyle that are aimed at preserving their wellbeing (for example to prevent laminitis or when bringing them in from the field to ‘deflate’ a little before hard exercise!) but that also interrupts their natural behaviour.

In the wild, or if turned out for a lengthy holiday, horses will adopt a slow, rhythmic and constant pace of eating that delivers both physiological and behavioural benefits. Trickle feeding ensures a buffer layer of fibre in the stomach and near constant saliva production, both of which protect the stomach from the development of painful gastric ulcers, which are surprisingly prevalent in the ridden horse.

This constant grazing and its pattern of moving, selecting the next bite and chewing with barely any pause at all (native breed owners can testify to that…), also relaxes an equine, helping it to switch off and conserve energy while remaining alert to external threats. Compare this to the stress that horses can feel when they are stabled for long periods of time and it is not hard to see how being turned out with freedom to move and plentiful grazing can boost the mental wellbeing of many horses.

Eating from the ground means that an equine will spend large amounts of time with its head and neck lowered which will automatically encourage a gentle stretch of the topline muscles and help to drain the airways at the same time.

The great outdoors also has a key benefit over a horse being kept indoors – it is virtually dust-free. Bar the hottest days of summer when there may be some mud dust in the field, a horse grazing on grassland will be inhaling far fewer spores and dust particles than one who eats from a hay pile or hay net. Dusty hay may cause horses to develop a cough, or at worst a chronic breathing disorder if the irritation causes scarring and permanent damage to the lungs or airways. 

Thankfully there are some innovative products available that are designed to mimic the natural patterns and posture of grazing, and deliver the same benefits. The Haygain Forager Slow Feeder aims to slow the pace at which a horse can eat its allotted forage but crucially (and unlike a hay net), replicate some of the other benefits that grazing brings.

The Haygain Forager’s ‘Regulator’ grid is designed to make horses take smaller bites and keep chewing for longer (while they work out how and where to take the next bite), helping with that all-important trickle feeding, saliva production and boredom management. This grid also prevents the horse from sticking its entire nose into the hay or haylage, so if there is dust or spores present they won’t be so easily inhaled.  As the animal eats more of the forage, it will increasingly adopt the true grazing position, stretching the topline and draining the upper airways.

Pretty clever stuff, don’t you agree? There are also benefits for humans (no more dreaded hay and shavings fine blend to sort through at 7am!), which you can read all about here.

With thanks to Haygain’s contributor Sharon Smith for her knowledge and expertise in assisting with the production of this article. 

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