There are many options for feeding your horses and mules in the backcountry. When deciding how I am going to feed my horses and mules on any given trip, I take into account the time of year, region and the subsequent available graze, regulations for the area in which I will be traveling (i.e. requirements for weed free hay) and the weather I may encounter (will it snow?). The ideal situation is traveling in an area with a lot of nutrient rich wild grasses, but this is not always the case. Below I have shared what I typically do when traveling in my area.
Hobbles and Highlines
If I am going to an area that has good grazing, I very rarely take any other feedstuffs with me. Then, when I turn my horses and mules out to graze in the backcountry, I never turn them all out at the same time. Those that I have turned out are contained with two-leg horse hobbles and I keep a close eye on them. The others are waiting their turn on the horse highline (also known as a horse picket line).
As a general rule, a very hungry horse will take multiple bites of grass between steps. I do not worry about them wandering off until they start taking one or more strides between mouthfuls. To me, this means they have satisfied the empty feeling in their stomachs and I had better think about rounding them up. How long? On very good grass, my horses and mules can get a bellyful in 45 minutes to an hour. In sparse grazing, it may take a couple of hours. However, having chased my horses and mules down the back trail too often, I try to remember that old saying: "It is better to count ribs than tracks."
Some people refer to a horse highline as a horse picket line. When I say horse picket line, I am referring to staking my horse or mule out from a picket pin pounded into the ground to a single leg picket hobble on the horse. This allows the animal to graze in a large circle around the pin. When I picket any of my horses and mules in the backcountry, I choose an area free from trees, rocks or anything else that could snag the rope. To protect the environment, I move the picket often to prevent my horses and mules from overgrazing the area. When picketing my stock, I typically picket the most dominant animal(s) and allow the subordinant horses and mules to graze with two-leg horse hobbles. This keeps the dominant horse in camp and, in theory, the rest are also more inclined to stay.
When I need to take a supplement of some kind because the available graze is poor, I will take a grain type supplement with the highest protein content per pound for maximum efficiency. I never feed the supplement first. I will graze and water my horses and mules as usual and then feed the supplement on a full belly to reduce the chance of colic.
If conditions dictate that I need to pack in hay, I will choose a hay with as much protein as possible, such as a high quality alfalfa. Before I leave, I will be sure to introduce this hay to my horses and mules if it is significantly different than what they usually get to reduce the chance of colic from a sudden change in feed. In my area, many outfitters make a separate trip to camp ahead of time with just hay so that they don't have to bring extra head of horses and mules on the trip just to pack in feed. Before doing this in your area, check with your local Forest Service Ranger for any regulations that may apply.
Hay and Hay Cubes
Sometimes I like to feed hay just because it is more time efficient than grazing in the morning and in the evening. My horses and mules can fill their belies on hay in the same time it takes me to make my morning coffee. Because I leave the animals on the highline when I feed hay, it also saves me time putting horse hobbles on everyone and then rounding them up after they have eaten.
I have fed hay cubes on occasion, although they are not necessarily my preference. They are a more efficient feedstuff in that there is less waste because they are fed in a feedbag or nosebag. However, my horses and mules didn't seem to like them as much. This may have been simply do to unfamiliarity. Additionally, it is best to bring a feedbag or nosebag for each horse when feeding hay cubes.
Full bellies, happy horses
Whichever way you decide to or are required to feed, remember that hungry horses and mules can be a real problem on the trail, so be sure that you can feed your horses and mules well. Horses and mules with full bellies keep their mind on their job. Hungry animals are more likely to be watching for grass and not paying attention to where they are putting their feet. Horses and mules with full bellies are also more content in camp, which make for a more relaxed trip for everyone.
Would you like more information?
Russ On... Leave No Trace Ethics
Russ On... Picketing your horses and mules
Outfitters Supply™ Library: Feeding Horses on the Trail
Russ On... Use of Highlines
Russ On... Starting your horses and mules on Hobbles
Learn About the Different Styles of Horse Hobbles