Feeding Horses on the Trail, by Dr. Ruth James

Feeding our horses on the trail is something we all think about, but typically only in terms of what to bring or where we intend to graze and water them. Equally important, however, is when and how we feed them. The following information has been provided by Dr. Ruth James, who has provided us with some facts to bear in mind on our longer trail rides and camping trips. Learn how to feed horses on the trail below.

Feeding When Camping with Horses
If you are feeding grain without a feeder, put it on top of a flake of hay to help keep the horse from having to eat it of the ground. When camping with horses, nosebags [feedbags] are ideal grain feeders. Some horsemen recommend using them to help get shy horses to come to you, begin with the horse in a corral and put a nosebag on him with some grain in it. Wait for him to eat it, and then approach him to remove it. The theory is that in learning to come to you to get the nosebag off, the horse associates you with feed and learns to come under all circumstances.

If you are camping with horses and find yourself without a nosebag, you can feed grain off the top of a saddle blanket, holding the horse by the lead rope until he has finished the meal. Be sure that you put the grain on the TOP of the blanket, leaving the horse side down. Otherwise, grains may catch in the fibers and irritate the animal’s back when the blanket is used the next day. The blanket must be brushed clean of sticks, twigs and grain the next morning before use. Flat rocks also make good grain feeders. The point is, keep the grain off the ground.

Working after Meals
Do not work the animal hard immediately after a meal. His stomach and intestines are filled with food and water, requiring more space than before feeding. This extra space is gained by slightly filling out the abdomen, and by the stomach bulging forward against the diaphragm. This reduces the size of the thoracic cavity, and may prevent the lungs from expanding as fully as they normally would. This may cause labored breathing and considerable discomfort.

Working the animal hard shortly after feeding may also interfere with digestion. Blood which would have normally gone to the digestive tract is shunted to the muscles, slowing the intestinal motions and reducing the amount of digestive secretions which are produced. This can result in colic or impaction, and will also result in loss of nutrients.

Feeding the Tired Horse
Do not feed a horse right after he has been worked, especially if he is tired. His muscles have been working hard, and much of the body’s blood is in them. This leaves less blood to produce digestive enzymes. In addition, hard exercise causes an actual shutdown of part of the blood flow to the digestive tract, making it much less efficient and more prone to colic, founder and other upsets.

Give the exhausted horse small amounts of water (eight to ten sips) every five minutes or so, until the animal is thoroughly cooled out and no longer thirsty. Then, give him a small quantity of hay and let him eat it. An hour or so later, feed the rest of his hay. After he has finished that hay (and only then), feed his grain ration.

This delay gives the animal time to relax and rest a bit before he has to cope with digesting feed as rich as grain. It gets his saliva flowing so that by the time the grain is fed, it will be well mixed with it. This helps avoid impactions caused by eating large amounts of grain and NOT mixing them well with saliva. It also puts the grain on top of a good feeding of hay, thus diluting it so that it does not arrive in the intestines all in one concentrated mass as it would if the animal ate it before eating the hay. All of these things help to avoid digestive problems.

If a horse has been off feed for more than a day, whether due to lack of communication between those who are feeding him or because of illness, put him back on full feed gradually. As usual in problem cases, give good quality hay first, and worry about grain later, after the animals’ digestive tract is working normally.

If the animal has also been short of water, by all means do not allow him to drink all that he wants. Allow eight to ten swallows, and then give the same amount every five to ten minutes. When the animal’s thirst is quenched and he is no longer desperate, you can allow him water, free choice.

Excerpted from "How to Be Your Own Veterinarian (Sometimes)" by Dr. Ruth James, 2005