Forage Enrichment & Slow Feeding Systems for Horses

Published in the Horses and People Magazine & Hoofbeats Magazine

Promoting natural feeding behaviour in horses

 By Mariette van den Berg BAppSc.(Hons), MSc. (Equine Nutrition)

 Domesticated horses are maintained in conditions very different from those that roam freely. Domesticated horses are generally kept on restricted pastures areas (paddocks) all year round and/or are confined to stables for short or longer periods depending on the location, climate, and stud/stable management.(1) Horses in their natural environment actively search for food and water and try to evade predators. They eat various grasses and plant foliage on a continuous basis, whereas domesticated horses frequently have restricted access to forage(2).

Free-roaming and pastured horses generally spend average 13 hrs hours per day grazing and browsing foliage.(1) Restricting this foraging behaviour in horses can have a negative impact on the digestive health and welfare of confined horses.(3) In addition, since nowadays many horses are used for sports, a grass/plant-only diet is usually not adequate to cover energy demands.

Many commercial manufactured pelleted feeds are added to equine diets to supply the horse with energy, protein, and micronutrients; however, these are based on cereal grains containing abundant starch. Starch plays a minor role in the natural diet of the horse because they are grazing/browsing herbivores and receive most carbohydrates in the form of non-starch polysaccharides (NSP) and fructans.(2) Grain supplements can therefore cause starch overload and can affect the physiology of the horse due to the lack of amylase to hydrolyse all of the ingested starch. If starch is not well digested in the small intestine of the horse, a proportion of the ingested starch reaches the hindgut and rapidly ferments.(4)

The microbial degradation rate of starch is much faster than that of NSP. A change in the ratio of starch to fibre in the diet has a rapid impact on volatile fatty acid (VFA) yields. With increasing starch in the diet (e.g. grains), more propionate and lactate are produced within a short time compared to that of NSPs, which leads to reduced digesta pH. Several studies associate excess feeding of grain concentrates with a number of digestive and metabolic disorders, including acidosis, laminitis, gastric ulcers, developmental orthopaedic disease, and some forms of exertional rhabdomyolysis.(1,2,4)

Confinement, restricted foraging behaviour, and consumption of large amounts of starch-containing feeds may also contribute to the development of stereotypic behaviour in horses.(3) Stereotypic behaviour is defined as a repetitive, invariant behaviour pattern with no obvious goal or function.

Stereotypic behaviour is not seen in animals in the wild, is understood to be abnormal, and is therefore a negative factor in the management of animals in captivity. Horses can demonstrate behaviours such as weaving, box/paddock walking, crib-biting, wind-sucking, and aggression. Digestive disorders and stereotypical behaviour are very common in the domestic horse population all over the world and, in a majority of cases, can be traced back to the way in which we manage and feed our horses.(1-3)

Horses actively search for food and water; they are designed to eat large quantities of fibre on a continuous basis. It is therefore important not only to understand this behaviour but also to take action to promote natural feeding behaviour and select forage sources to increase the fibre content of your horse’s diet to safeguard its (digestive) health. In the following section, we explain the concept of forage enrichment and slow feeding and describe a number of techniques and (feeding) strategies. We also discuss stable and property design to foster the natural feeding behaviour of horses.

Environmental enrichment

Environmental enrichment is an ‘animal husbandry’ principle that seeks to enhance the quality of captive animal care by identifying and providing the environmental stimuli necessary for optimal psychological and physiological wellbeing. It focuses on improving or enhancing the environment for animals in captivity to maintain their physical and psychological health, increasing range or number of species-specific behaviours, increasing positive utilisation of the captive environment, preventing or reducing the frequency of abnormal behaviour (such as stereotypical behaviour), and increasing the ability to cope with captive challenges. The concept has been extensively researched for captive animals in zoos, animals used for research, and animals used for companionship.(5-7)

When you own horses and you keep them in paddocks that are fenced off or in stables, you are taking care of animals in captivity. You are the caretaker of these animals and need to understand their natural behaviours and be aware of any behaviours that are abnormal. It is the responsibility of the caretaker to create an environment that is stimulating enough for the animals to maintain optimal psychological and physiological wellbeing. Any novel stimulus that evokes an animal’s interest can be considered enriching, including natural and artificial objects, scents, foods, and different methods of preparing foods. Most enrichment stimuli can be divided into six groups:

  • Sensory: this category stimulates the senses: visual, olfactory, auditory, tactile, and taste.
  • Feeding: this is a method to make feeding time fun and challenging. Different methods of food presentation encourage animals to think about and work for their food as they would in the wild.
  • Manipulative toys: these are items that can be manipulated in some way via feet, head/nose, mouth, etc. simply for investigation and exploratory play.
  • Environmental: this category is to enhance the habitat with opportunities that change or add complexity to the environment.
  • Social: the opportunity to interact with other animals.
  • Training: training animals with positive reinforcement.

All of these stimuli can help to enhance the environment or behaviour of animals that are kept in captivity. Horse owners are often aware of the social, training, and manipulative toy stimuli, but less familiar with feeding, sensory, and environmental enrichment.

Feeding enrichment & slow feeding

Nature doesn’t need enrichment! Our domesticated horses have lost their natural occupations of search for food/water, avoiding predators, and defending territories. In return, they are protected and lead lives of leisure. As caretakers, we may at times observe boredom and perhaps some frustration in our horses. We respond with remedial strategies, ranging from simple toys to sophisticated gadgets. These are valuable tools, but they rarely solve the basic problem. In addition, most of our actions are guided by human behavioural bias: we know what is best for our horses. This anthropomorphism may prevent us from recognising the basic problems and, then, the important choices we can make to lower their stress.

In the following sections, we present some applied systems and give examples of strategies and designs to enrich stables, paddocks, and other property features to increase exploration and foraging behaviours in your horse.

Stable enrichment

Horses that are stabled, even in the most luxurious ones, are at high risk of developing stereotypical behaviour such as weaving, box/paddock walking, crib-biting, wind-sucking, and aggression.(3,8) In most conventional stable environments, the horse is unable to move around a lot and, after couple of circles, has explored all there is to explore (a couple of walls and an empty feeding bin). Stables that have access to a small or larger paddock give the horse more space to explore. But, even in these environments, animals can become bored. Some of the following strategies could be implemented to increase exploration and foraging behaviours in stable environments:

  • Put hard feeds into a ball or other object with a small opening so that the horse has to roll the object to get the food. It is best to feed horses on mats and to try to avoid sandy grounds.(9) The small portions of hard feed increase the feeding time. You can even introduce a number of variations to increase the difficulty, such as ball and square objects. On other days, you can feed the horse from the bin. By changing the pattern of how the food is presented, the horse needs to actively think about how he will approach his food.
  • Conserved forages can be placed in feeding stations with small openings or a grid to increase the difficulty of reaching the food and slow down the eating process. This can also be done with hay nets that have smaller openings (‘slow-feeder hay nets’).
  • Providing a number of hay nets with different types of hay or forages can stimulate foraging behaviour in a stable environment. Studies by Goodwin et al. (2002)(1) and Thorne et al. (2005)(10) show that horses spend more time foraging when they have access to multiple forages than horses offered only one type of forage.
  • In addition, you can hide small pieces of produce (carrots, apples, raisins) throughout the stable or in the hay nets. Feeding new foods, such as watermelon or tree/shrub browse, may also keep horses occupied. This is usually a trial-and error experiment: horses can be very selective eaters.

Like other species with limited stomach volume, horses consume several small amounts of feed frequently throughout the day, rather than one large quantity per day. We recommend feeding three to four times or more during the day; this constitutes enrichment in itself.

  • Spread feeding over the course of the day.
  • Try to change feeding times randomly, so that horses are induced to go to look for food instead of waiting for the usual feeding time.

Extending the feeding time and slowing down the feeding rate, so-called ‘slow feeding, encourages horses to search for their feeds and spend more time chewing. Fibrous foods stimulate chewing and saliva production that can buffer acids in the stomach.8 This important aspect reduces the probability of the horse developing gastric/gut ulcers. Furthermore, it reduces the risks of boredom and stereotypical behaviour.

Property design and paddock enrichment

Many horse owners who own a property already have an exciting property layout. But you may be in the position of owning a property with no establishments and a blank canvas with which to work. Either way, you can set up a system in which you enrich the paddocks, encourage slow feeding, and increase horses’ natural feeding behaviour. Your plan can range from simple adjustments through to more invasive changes, redesigning the paddocks to create a more challenging environment for your horses. This, of course, depends to some degree on your budget and resources.

Like stables, paddocks can, at times, fail to be challenging enough for horses, depending on the layout of the paddocks, the condition of the paddocks, and access to trees, shrubs, water areas, and sand areas, for example. One problem that we regularly see on horse properties is that most of the paddocks are over-grazed, heavily compacted, and eroded. These paddocks generally do not support enough biomass for horses to meet their daily fibre intake requirement. You must then provide a continuous supply of conserved forages (and additional concentrates) once or twice daily. In this system, horses are not stimulated to search for more forage, and usually eat only at certain times, which causes them to grow bored during the times when they’re not being fed. Bored horses can develop stereotypic behaviour. It is therefore important to have a proper paddock and pasture management plan to keep your pastures/paddocks and, in turn, your horses healthy.

Forage enrichment and slow-feeding systems help to reduce boredom and promote natural exploration and feeding behaviour.(1,7,10) Some of the strategies mentioned for the stable environment can also be applied to a paddock setting. In particular, conserved forage feeding stations with small openings or a grid have shown to be very effective in increasing feeding time. You can offer a number of hay types or other conserved forages in the feeding stations to stimulate exploration behaviour. For the paddock environment, you can also implement the following strategies;

  • To increase exploration and foraging behaviour, connect various areas/paddocks by (mobile) laneways and a central-point system. This system can be applied to both small and large properties and, depending on your layout, may only take some small adjustments.
  • Plant forage trees and shrubs outside the paddocks. Gather together bunches of branches of adult trees and shrubs, about 5–10 centimetres (2–4 inches) in diameter and place them upright inside PVC tubes or bamboo stalks that are firmly planted in the ground in several locations throughout the paddock. Horses are able to strip the leaves without dislodging them. Change them daily and use a variety of browse species.
  • Try difficult or new foods (like whole watermelons).
  • Scatter forages throughout the paddock or hang hay nets with different types of forages (could even be in the stable if there is access to stables from the paddocks). Add several feed stations to increase flexibility and decrease competition. This system can be incorporated into the paddock design that has mobile laneways to encourage exploration behaviour.
  • Hang food from trees, branches, or fences. Be careful to hang food on material that cannot harm the horse (e.g. no iron hooks or thin nylon rope). It is better to try to attach it by spearing it onto a branch or wooden stick
  • Hide small pieces of produce (carrots, apples) throughout the paddock under leaves and branches, or dig them in under a small layer of earth.
  • Use logs as steps so that the horses can put their front feet up to obtain foods at different heights. This encourages their natural behaviour of reaching for foods.

Lane-way systems & paddock labyrinth

Many people are already familiar with (permanent) laneways that give access to pasture/paddocks and other areas of a property. For properties, laneways are very important because they help with moving groups of horses (and other stock) to other paddocks and are also a safe way to move equipment around a property. Laneways are generally kept as grass strips, but you can build laneways with sand or other surface materials that are safe for horses (see pictures).


In terms of enrichment and slow feeding, we try to use these laneways and even build mobile varieties from electric tape to give the horse more areas to explore and search for food. Some laneways can be opened and others closed, so that various paddocks are connected. The laneway system must operate in tandem with the pasture management plan: some paddocks may need rest and recovery to prevent over-grazing, as we have already explained. As in the paddock environment, a number of feeding stations, hay nets, or browse stations can be placed at various points in the laneways to encourage exploration and foraging behaviour.


 If you have sand laneways, or are planning to develop sand laneways, then it is advisable to place mats at the points where you plan to position the feeding stations/hay nets to avoid excessive intake of sand.

In this system, horses are also stimulated to walk more, because they visit different areas to search for food and water. The laneways can be connected to other parts, such as sand areas, (indoor) arenas, or a central point. This is especially handy when properties experience wet weather or grazing pressure and want to keep horses off the grass to avoid compaction and erosion. Of course, every property differs, so every property benefits from individual assessment when considering (mobile) laneway systems and paddock labyrinth for horses. Adjustments do not have to be expensive. You can develop your own feeding and browse stations and use electric mobile fencing to create some laneways. Ultimately, it takes dedication to manage stations and laneways — and ingenuity to make sure that your horse is occupied and happy while they’re stabled or on pasture.

Further reading:

  1. Ellis, A.D. 2010. Biological basis of behaviour in relation to nutrition and feed intake in horses.
    Editors: Ellis, A.D., Longland, A.C., Coenen, M. and Miraglia, N. In: The impact of the health and welfare of horses. Publisher: Wageningen Academic Publishers, Wageningen, The Netherlands
    Volume: 128, Pages: 53-74
  2. Harris, P.A. 1999. How Understanding the Digestive Process Can Help Minimise Digestive Disturbance Due to Diet and Feeding Practices, In: Harris, P.A., Gomarsall, G.M., Davidson H.P.B., Green, R.E. (Eds.), proceedings of the BEVA Specialist Days on Behaviour and Nutrition. Newmarket, Equine Veterinary Journal 45-49.
  3. McGreevy, P.D., Cripps, P.J., French, N.P., Green, L.E. and Nicol, C.J. 1995. Management Factors Associated with Stereotypic and Redirected Behaviour in the Thoroughbred Horse. Equine Veterinary Journal 27: 86-91.
  4. Pollitt, C.C. 2008. Equine Laminitis: Current Concepts. Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) publication no: 08/062, Australia.
  5. Appleby, M.C. and Hughes, B.O. (Eds.). (1997). Animal Welfare. CABI Publishing. Wallingford, UK.
  6. Appleby, M.C. (1999). What Should We Do About Animal Welfare? Blackwell Science, Oxford, UK.
  7. Young, R.J. (2003). Environmental Enrichment for Captive Animals. Blackwell Science, Oxford, UK.
  8. Frape, D. 2010. Equine Nutrition & Feeding. 4th edition. Wiley-Blackwell, UK.
  9. Winskill, L.C, Waren, N.K. and Young, R.J. 1996. The Effect of a Foraging Device (a modified‚ ‘Edinburgh Foodball’) on the Behaviour of the Stabled Horse. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 48: 25-35.
  10. Thorne, J.N., Goodwin, D., Kennedy, M.J., Davidson, H.P.B. and Harris, P. 2005. Foraging Enrichment for Individually Housed Horses: Practicality and Effects on Behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 94: 149-164.

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