To increase the level of nutrients absorbed by your horse during feed time, it’s better to feed smaller amounts frequently, compared to fewer, big feeds.
Being a grazing animal, the digestive system of equines is set up to receive a constant trickle of small amounts of high-fibre, low starch feed, which is what naturally occurs as your horse nibbles his way across the land. Horses turned out in a paddock to graze have food continuously moving through the gut, with nutrients being slowly absorbed over time. With a relatively small stomach compared to their body size, horses thrive on this feeding set-up. (Slow-feeder hay nets are a great way to replicate this when pasture is scarce.)
In contrast, when a horse is fed a large meal of concentrated ‘hard feed’, the stomach doesn’t have the capacity to ‘hold’ the meal for enough time to adequately digest all the would-be available nutrients. The body still keeps the digestive tract ticking along as it normally would and much of the good stuff is moved through and left in piles of manure on the ground.
So how to combat this? Simply take the amount you would normally feed your horse, divide it into smaller portions and feed as several smaller meals distributed throughout the day. This is particularly noteworthy if you are trying to put weight on a horse; better results are far more likely to be achieved when feeding like this.
In a study*, researchers feed four groups of horses either two, four, six or eight times a day, evenly spread out over that 24-hour period. All the horses were fed the same amount and types of feed, with 30% concentrates and 70% hay. The results? The level of nutrient absorption increased in a steady linear fashion in direct relation to the number of feeds per day – so the horses who got the highest number of feeds also had the best nutrient absorption rate.
Food for thought the next time you’re out making-up feeds.
*Direkvandi, E., Y. Rouzbehan, and H. Fazaeli. 2021. The positive impact of increasing feeding frequency on feed intake, nutrient digestibility, and blood metabolites of Turkmen horses. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 98:103390.