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Hay or grain first?

From: Amanda

Hi Jessica,

I have a question about feeding:

I've always thought (from waaaay back in Pony Club days) that horses should be fed hay before grain, but now I've heard from some people that they've always thought the reverse, or even that it doesn't matter.

I believe that the rationale has to do with digestion times for each type of feed, and that hay is slower to eat, so they're less likely to wolf their grain if they have something in their stomachs already.  But now I'm confused!

People who do the reverse from me (i.e. grain then hay) say they've had no more colic or digestive problems in their horses than you'd expect in any group.

What do you think?  (or, more to the point, what's really best, since I'm sure you know! :).

Thanks so much for all the help you've given us, I recommend your site to everyone.

Amanda


Hi Amanda! You're right, horses should get their hay first, but I'd say that at the majority of barns, this isn't the way things happen at feeding-time. Some people feed grain first to get the horses to stop kicking their stalls in anticipation of breakfast; some people feed hay and grain at the same time and worry about it, some people feed hay first and feel very virtuous. But a lot depends on two factors: (1) the horse's general feed and exercise program, and (2) what "first" means.

Hay provides bulk, and keeps the digestive system active, as it should be. Horses can't bolt their hay, although some horses are brilliant at eating it rapidly. ;-) Horses CAN bolt their grain, and some do. If the grain is plain oats, horses are less likely to bolt it, and will suffer fewer consequences if they do, because oats are so high in fiber. If the "grain" is some sort of low-fiber mixture with a high molasses content, the horses are quite likely to eat all of it, quickly, before eating any of their hay.

In the interest of promoting good digestion, in the interest of optimum horse health, and yes, according to good management rules (cavalry, Pony Club, etc.) it would be best to water all the horses, then give them their hay, then come back and offer them grain an hour or so later. But these days, very few barns are staffed in a way that will allow this. It's still possible to find them, but you may have to look for a long time.

At many private barns and many boarding facilities, the owner gets up early and feeds all the horses as quickly as possible before s/he goes to work. So, in practice, what usually happens is this: the feed cart rolls down the barn aisle, and the person driving or pushing the cart flings a flake or two of hay into each stall. Sometimes the grain is on the cart too, and the same feeder or someone else drops a scoop of oats or sweet feed into each manger.

This is what I mean by saying that much depends on what "first" means. From a digestive standpoint, it makes good sense to give the horses grain an hour after they've had their hay. THAT's "hay first". Giving the horses their hay just before they get their grain is NOT "hay first" in any meaningful way -- it's like giving a child a TV dinner and putting plate down so that the meat section directly in front of him. Almost any child will react by turning the plate and eating the dessert first. ;-)

Sometimes the feeder tries to observe the "hay first" rule by throwing the hay into the stalls on the way down the aisle and then putting the grain into the mangers on the way back up the aisle five or ten minutes later. This may have a small effect -- or none at all. If horses are given good hay and plain oats, they'll often start eating their hay whilst waiting for the oats to arrive -- but at barns where the hay is less appealing and/or where the "grain" is a molasses-sweetened mix, the horses will often stand whinnying and ignoring their hay, waiting for the sweet feed to arrive so that they can eat it first. When hay and grain are fed in this way, there's really very little point in "following the rule" by offering the hay at 6:00 a.m. and the grain at 6:10. When horses know that the arrival of their hay means that the grain will be in their manger in ten minutes' time, and when they spend those ten minutes tap-dancing on top of the hay whilst screaming for their grain, they aren't actually deriving any digestive benefit from being offered their hay first. ;-)

The best way to avoid digestive upsets is to keep the horses grazing or eating hay during as much of the day and night as possible, and be sure that they have free access to water and salt at all times. Maximum turnout time is also useful -- even very mild walking exercise will help the horses' digestion by keeping their circulation active. It's no coincidence that there is a much lower incidence of colic in pastured horses than in stalled horses!

If horses are active and have constant or nearly-constant access to grazing and/or hay, digestive upsets will be minimized. If their hay is, as it should be, their main feed, and their grain is, as it should be, a small supplement to their hay, the chance for digestive upsets will be minimized. The horses at most risk are those that spend most of their lives in stalls, being fed human-style, with two or three large meals at long intervals. Horses simply aren't physically equipped to deal with this kind of management and feeding program; it's amazing that they don't colic more often under these circumstances.

So, what's "best" for horses in stalls: water, then hay, then -- an hour later -- whatever grain they actually NEED. What's truly best for horses, though, is being kept where they can walk around and eat small amounts of hay or grass ALL the time. Under those circumstances, you can safely give small amounts of grain at any time (other than, obviously, the period just before or after the horse is worked!). If the horses are kept in confinement and offered large quantities of food only a few times a day, it becomes much more important to give them hay first and get their digestive systems "into gear" before offering grain. It's also a good idea to feed only good grain, and only grain that the horse actually needs to supplement the hay. There's a strong conviction amongst many horse-owners and quite a few barn-owners that horses "need" grain, not because the horse is working or because the hay doesn't provide sufficient nutrition, but because "horses need grain". Save money and do what's right for your horse's digestion -- work with your vet to design a feeding program that's right for your horses, according to their needs, the work they're doing, and the quality of the hay they eat. You won't go too far wrong if you always remember that horses need HAY, and that grain is a SUPPLEMENT. ;-)

Jessica

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