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Hay: The Favorite Lunch Munch for HorsesBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · March 30, 2011

As part of their nature, horses have a built-in desire to chew. Evolving as wandering herbivores, horses in their natural state graze off and on all day long, spending up to 65% of their time in this activity. A stalled horse's chewing instinct apparently remains strong even if the horse's nutritional needs are fully met by various feed products other than hay.

A study at Cornell University was designed to learn a horse's preference for loose hay or a complete pelleted feed. Horses were put on one of two treatments: free-choice loose hay or free-choice complete pelleted feed. Each horse could get a serving of the alternate product by pressing a plate. After the horse learned to press the plate once for an alternate serving, the mechanism was set to give the reward only if the plate was pressed an increased number of times.

Horses with free-choice loose hay did not progress beyond pressing the plate once for a serving of pellets, while horses with free-choice pellets learned to press the plate as many as 13 times for a serving of hay. In addition, horses with free-choice pellets spent 11% of the time nosing through their bedding, a foraging activity, while horses on free-choice hay spent only 1% of their time foraging, possibly indicating their need to chew and swallow fiber had been more completely met.

Owners of stalled horses are advised to provide some hay or turnout/grazing time if possible, and to split the ration of pelleted complete feeds into a number of small meals spaced throughout the day. This strategy may help to combat boredom and reduce the tendency of stalled horses to develop stereotypic behavior such as weaving, cribbing, and kicking.

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