How forage restriction affects horse behavior

Horse owners sometimes use fenced parcels without grass to keep their animals in proper body condition. Considering that grazing horses spend approximately 16-18 hours each day grazing, what do horses with restricted access to pasture do with their time?

"Some horses require less forage than others and therefore can live in areas that contain a lower volume or density of forage," said Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., a nutritionist at Kentucky Equine Research.

  • Limited forage intake may be appropriate for:
  • Horses with metabolic disorders, such as equine metabolic syndrome and insulin dysregulation, must be allowed access to forage with no more than 10% non-structural carbohydrates.
  • Horses with laminitis, particularly chronic cases.
  • Horses with osteoarthritis, which benefit from weight control that would relieve pressure on inflamed joints.

Even "healthy" overweight horses can benefit from decreased grazing to prevent or delay the development of metabolic problems.

"On the other hand, horses with decreased intake may be at risk of developing gastric ulcers, particularly in the upper stomach, a syndrome known as equine gastric ulcer disease," Crandell noted. "Additionally, horses could also be at risk of developing oral-type stereotypes," she added. Also, although weight control in arthritic horses is important, affected animals must be able to move to keep their joints in good condition.

Study design

To gain a better understanding of what horses on restricted grazing do, researchers from Western Kentucky University evaluated how horses "organized" their time and compared their behavior to that of horses on unrestricted pasture. They found that horses on restricted grazing lost weight, as expected, and still spent a great deal of time grazing or trying to graze in restricted areas. The rest of their time was spent simply standing or performing other unspecified behaviors. "The time organization of restricted grazing horses has been altered and therefore may pose some behavioral and physiological problems," suggested Crandell.

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