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Behavior of Stabled Horses Affected by Meal Feeding Frequency and Roughage By Kentucky Equine Research Staff · September 4, 2012

Stereotypic behaviors such as wood chewing and cribbing are often displayed by stalled horses but are not usually seen in horses in free-roaming conditions. Boredom, discomfort, and hunger are possible explanations for these behaviors in horses that are confined to stalls.

A study was conducted at the University of Kentucky to determine the effects of grain feeding frequency and roughage availability on the behavior of stabled horses.

The study involved four horses kept in box stalls for one week after which they were assigned to one of four week-long dietary treatments. Treatment one was eight meals per day with unlimited roughage. Treatment two was eight meals per day with limited roughage. Treatments three and four were two meals per day with unlimited and limited roughage, respectively.

For the first two treatments, grain was provided by automatic feeders every three hours beginning at 7:00 a.m. Grain was provided at 7:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. for the second two treatments. Total grain provided each day was the same for all treatments.

Hay, grain, and water consumption was measured during each treatment period, and the horses were videotaped for two ten-hour periods. Three random five-minute segments per hour were evaluated for frequency and duration of drinking, eating hay, chewing, walking, sleeping, standing alertly, cribbing, pawing, picking at bedding, and scratching.

When the effects of the treatments on behavior were analyzed, no differences between treatments were seen for duration or frequency of behaviors during the daylight period. However, there was a significant difference between treatments for duration of time spent eating hay during evening hours. Horses fed eight times a day with constant access to hay spent more time eating hay than horses fed twice a day with constant access to hay.

Cribbing appeared to be worse during the middle of the day, and pawing was most frequent near feeding times. Pawing behavior declined as horses got more accustomed to the automatic feeders.

Most hay was eaten during daylight hours. The horses spent more than 25% of their time during the day eating hay, but less than 15% of their time eating hay during the evening and night. The horses slept less than 25% of the time during the day as opposed to more than 50% during the evening and night. The horses slept for shorter periods through the day and for long periods at night, especially between midnight and about 7:00 a.m. These results led to a recommendation that automated feeders be set to avoid feeding during the hours of darkness to prevent disruption of the natural behavioral patterns of the stabled horse.

This article was based on information in a paper titled “Effects of Meal Feeding Frequency and Roughage on Behaviors of Stabled Horses” by A.M. Gill, A. Parker, S. Leak, and L.M. Lawrence. The complete paper can be found in Advances in Equine Nutrition, Joe Pagan, editor.