What Is Restricted Feeding?

On one level, it’s exactly what it sounds like – restricting what you feed your horse. The devil is in the details though.  Exactly what is being restricted, why, how much?

Some people use restricted feeding and slow feeding synonymously.  In that case, the horse is restricted in how fast they can eat.  This may or may not end up also reducing how much they eat.  Some horses become very adept at eating from small hole nets or slow feeders. Others simply spend more time eating. Either way they can end up eating as much as they did before.

In most cases restricted feeding refers to limiting how much the horse is given to eat. That may mean just cutting back on grain or pasture time but usually means the horse’s daily calorie intake from all sources is controlled to maintain a healthy weight.  Situations where this is necessary include overweight horses needing to trim down, insulin resistant horses that will eat too much and horses on forced stall rest for an injury.

Contrary to what you may have heard, restricting caloric intake is not the most stressful thing you can do to your horse.  It is not cruel and will not cause health problems when done properly. While some advocate extreme calorie restriction, especially when trying to get weight off a horse, this really isn’t necessary.

A grass hay with under 10% sugar (ESC) and starch combined, protein 9+% can usually be fed at a rate of 1.5% of current body weight or 2% of ideal body weight, whichever is larger, to achieve the desired weight.  Use a slow feeding set up and break this up into multiple feedings. If the horse is able to be regularly exercised they can eat even more.

It’s worth mentioning here that these guidelines also work for insulin resistant horses most of the time.  It’s not so much that they gain weight easily but rather that they eat too much. When a horse is not losing weight at the above level of feeding a calorie count using the actual digestible energy from the hay analysis usually reveals the hay has higher than average calorie density. There are some individuals that need more stringent restrictions but they are the exception rather than the rule.

Don’t worry about the gut being “empty” if the horse is not constantly eating.  It takes the stomach a bare minimum of 2 hours to empty, usually much longer.  Running out of hay for a couple hours also does not guarantee stomach pain, “stress” or ulcer formation.

As for feeding the organisms in the hind gut, food takes about 2 days to finish traversing the hind gut.  It is not true the horse’s cecum won’t empty without a constant flow of food to push the contents along.  Just like everywhere else in the intestinal tract, food is mixed and propelled along by muscular contractions which occur at set intervals.  The time food spends in the cecum depends on particle size and ranges from 2 to 48 hours (Argenzio 1974).

Whether it’s a human, a horse or the family dog or cat, weight control still boils down to calories in versus calories out.  Horses that are overweight or have sharply curtailed activity need to have their calories counted.  Horses which overeat for medical or temperament reasons also need to have calories restricted. Restricting calories to those needed to maintain a normal weight is not extreme. It’s really that simple.

Eleanor Kellon, V.M.D.

About Dr. Kellon

Graduate of University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School. Owner of Equine Nutritional Solutions, www.drkellon.com, industry and private nutritional consultations, online nutritional courses. Staff Veterinary Expert at Uckele Health and Nutrition.
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4 Responses to What Is Restricted Feeding?

  1. Janice says:

    I second what Chathie and Cathy said. I have an IR-diagnosed Fjord horse, who lives in a dry-lot with my two chubby mini donkeys. I feed the three of them grass hay in slow-feed nets (plus a ration balancer), but have had a lot of concern because they manage to finish up their hay ration (I try to stay at 1.5-2% body weight/day) and then they don’t have any more hay to eat for several hours. A lot of horse publications and slow-feed net manufacturers warn about the risk of stress and ulcers when the equines don’t have a constant flow of forage. This is one of the few articles I’ve seen to suggest that’s not correct.

  2. Carlotta Evans says:

    I really appreciate this article. It’s tough to know what “the truth” is on many subjects that have so many variables. From different horses responding differently to the same thing, to people having a different understanding of what’s being said, etc. My current five horses have different needs and habits, and over time I have developed different ways to meet their individual needs. It’s time consuming and always adjusting, but I’ve always done my best and they are all content and enjoy their days.
    Free feeding….another “they’re all different” in my barn.
    My 3yr old Welsh filly, purchased at an auction at 10 months old, has always been very much a pony: tons of energy, smart and tough but does whatever is asked of her, a very impatient eater that paws and pins her ears and constantly moves her feet while eating, and will gain weight on pasture and hay if not restricted; I now always add water to her grain after a choke episode from scarfing her food, and I use a slow feeder for her hay so it lasts longer.
    My 15 yr old 32″ mini mare, she is a very easy keeper, and always looking for something to eat! It’s a bit challenging to keep her weight under control without being concerned about her not getting all of her nutrition. She’s healthy and perky and happy so we must be doing good!
    My 18 yr old mini/pony-X gelding, recently diagnosed as Insulin Resistant. He came a year ago with founder and laminitis history, but completely sound and healthy. This spring he had a small laminitic episode (that’s when I did blood work and found out he’s IR), then had a 3-week episode…found out the neighbors were feeding him apples, ugh! Now he’s better but it’ll take time to grow out his separation; but he seems to be heading towards full recovery. I have <10% ESC+starch hay (which I use for all three little horses). He gets beet pulp and I grind his supplements myself (I'll switch to Remission soon). Nothing else. He has his LS hay available 24/7 and has no weight​ issues, seems to self regulate well. He has turnout with the mini after they've finished breakfast, a dry-lot "pasture". I "sprinkle" LS hay in areas to give them walking and grazing time to last all day, it seems less like a dry lot that way.
    My Arabs:
    The gelding is 17 yrs old, he gets max recommended Purina Equine Sr Active + minimum Purina Amplify. Since I've added Amplify he's now not overeating hay; he get 2% body weight Orchard, and leaves behind what he doesn't need. He looks and feels great!
    The mare is 19 yrs old. She's a bit of a hard keeper, important to keep her on Equine Sr Active and shredded beet pulp (I'm considering​ using Amplify in place of beet pulp this winter). Except in the summer she is totally fine on just pasture and Orchard hay at night. She eats every single scrap!
    So…My boys leave their hay behind if they don't need it; the girls would eat til they burst if you let them!

  3. Cathie says:

    Thank you so much for this post. It relieves my guilt for not free feeding my horses as many around me have suggested. They threaten my horse will get ulcers, stressed out, become food aggressive, etc. what I see for horses living a free feed life is over weight horses. Founder and IR.

  4. Cathy Barber says:

    I have been free feeding my horse for a couple of years using slow feeders and have watched his weight creep up. I see other horses that are not free fed and they look and act fine. Years ago before this became popular I fed twice a day and my horses were fine. I am looking forward to others comments on this issue.

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