What are the best ways to feed a herd their grain and their hay?
There are wonderful benefits to herd living. Horses are at their most natural, they can roam around, and they have settled into a hierarchy where the top dog rules the roost. This is great, except feeding time can present some problems. Hay time is when the low guys on the totem pole can become injured, and when they are likely to miss out on some feed. This problem is compounded if your low guy on the totem pole is already a “hard keeper”. What to do?
Let’s tackle the hay first, as this is most common for horses in a herd. Here are some guidelines to keep everyone safe.
- Bring a two legged buddy to help you if need be. It can be quite dangerous to walk into a group with some hay.
- Do not feed horses near gates or fences. This limits escape routes for less dominant horses. Fifty feet is a good distance.
- Create multiple piles of hay. A good rule of thumb is to make one or more piles more than you have horses. So, for a herd of three, make four piles. For a herd of 10, make 12 or more. Stick to a 50 foot distance if you can. You may find that this becomes obsolete after a while, or you may need to increase the number of piles you make.
- Avoid using troughs or mangers if you can. Often, these are put on the fence, which limits escape routes at the same time they are attracting a crowd. If they are placed in the field, you still have a solid object that can injure your horse accidentally, or when he is trying to push another horse or being pushed by another. The use of slow feeders is also problematic in this respect, but most slow feeder designs I have seen are not metal or wood, are low to the ground, and could easily be jumped over if need be.
- Feed the dominant horses first. This will probably be super easy, as these guys are the ones who follow you around and basically scream “me first, me first”.
- Be consistent. Do the same routine every day if you can and the horses will know and trust the routine.
- Watch. Study the dynamics of the herd and adjust accordingly over time. Also keep a close eye on the hard keepers and less dominant guys to be sure they are not losing weight. (As a side note, this is just one of many reasons to make sure your Vet does a dental inspection and treatment every six months. You don’t necessarily need to float that often, but it never hurts to have your Vet check those chompers out.)
- Get creative if you need to. Do you need to switch some horses around from pasture to pasture? Do you need to build a little catch pen so that you can be sure Mr. Skinny gets enough? Do some of the higher up horses need grazing muzzles part of the day?
- If the pasture dynamic changes because a horse moved in or out, or someone is in season, be extra cautious during these times (this also applies to neighboring pastures). The system is out of whack, and may take a few weeks for the new routine to solidify.
Catch pens are super for letting herd horses have some privacy during grain feeding time. I'll add that they are also super for some turnout if the pastures are just too wet.
For feeding grain, it’s helpful if everyone is on the same grain and same supplements. (Yeah, right!) This is when your creativity will be called into action. It’s tempting to feed more dominant horses first, then the less dominant ones and hope those guys are fast eaters and the top dogs don’t come over and steal their rations. You could consider using a tub designed to slow eating down, or you could add your own obstacles to the food bin. You can also consider feeding the less dominant guys in a catch pen, or when you bring them to the barn for grooming.
What are your thoughts on feeding a herd?