Horses are grazing animals. In the wild, they eat grasses and shrubs by lowering their heads to the ground. At many horse barns, hay is fed in an elevated feeder. These systems reduce waste but make it more difficult for the horse to clear its airways of dust and debris. Here are several pros and cons to consider when deciding whether to feed your horse on the ground or in a feeder.
There are several disadvantages to ground feeding. An important one is that horses fed on sandy soils or decomposed granite are likely to consume a sizeable amount of “dirt” that can then accumulate in the bowel to cause intestinal irritation, diarrhea, and/or colic. Another is that there tends to be a significant amount of hay waste when fed on the ground—the horses trample it, soil it with manure and urine, the wind blows it away, and/or it becomes wet and moldy. This waste is unpalatable and accounts for huge losses that translate to expense, labor, and less-efficient feed intake.
There are ways to mitigate the adverse effects of ground feeding by using rubber mats or feeding in a stall bedded with mats or shavings. It is possible to protect the horse’s respiratory tract when using elevated feeders. Purchasing quality hay that isn’t dusty and is cured properly so it doesn’t break into small pieces is the first step. It is also possible to moisten the hay to cut down on aerosolized particles as the horses eat.
Whatever method you choose, keep in mind the importance of protection of the horse’s intestinal tract and respiratory tract while also ensuring physical safety in feeder selection.