As an equine physiotherapist, a horse’s static and dynamic posture is something I assess and seek to optimise. Not only is this important during training, but what the horse does for the other 23 hours of the day are crucial to the influence on posture. A significant element to a horse’s posture is how they eat. Feeding from the ground is the most natural eating position for the horse, and I don’t think anyone would disagree. Apart from spending a small amount of time browsing higher-up shrubs, bushes and trees, wild horses would spend many hours grazing with their heads down.
Eating at ground level can be replicated in the stabled horse by putting forage in a corner – so long as you don’t mind some trampled in your bedding! To keep our horses healthy, we know they need to eat slowly and for long durations. Highly concentrated feed and short eating times can lead to internal problems such as equine gastric ulcers and externally visible behavioural issues such as box walking and cribbing. So large quantities of hay, available throughout the 24-hour period and fed at ground level, would be seen as optimal.
However, the usual quality and nutritional density of modern forage is much higher than the rough, low nutrient-dense roughage on the wild plains. Unfortunately, to keep our horses at a healthy weight, it is unlikely they can constantly be eating easily accessible food. The issue is that eating from a big pile of hay is no challenge, so it gets eaten quickly without movement between blades of grass! So, if we want them to keep eating for longer, more hay needs to be given. More hay means more calories… which can lead to weight gain. Weight gain for a large majority of our modern horse population is not ideal as it can lead to significant issues with health.
We have to be pragmatic about how to increase feeding duration and slow intake of this nutritionally rich feed. As an aside, you can also change the forage energy value – but that is a question for a nutritionist, not a physio!
How do we slow down eating? We need to use haynets or feeders of some description. Some people are extremely anti this idea, but what do you do if you have an overweight horse that needs to eat less over long durations? This is where assessing the cost-benefit equation is necessary, we have to decide if the risk of being overweight is more or less than the proposed risk of musculoskeletal issue from using haynets. I would argue the risks from being overweight both metabolically and physically are very high, and the risk of musculoskeletal injury are very poorly evidenced in research. Therefore, let’s use a net, but which is best?
Research evidence shows that haynets increase feeding time, which is great. However, there are some concerns regarding frustration, especially with multi-layered nets and swinging hay bags. There are reports of subsequent behavioural issues, and then the ongoing question about whether there are short of long-term effects on the horse’s back.
It is interesting to examine the anatomy of the neck and appreciate that the evolutionary adapted structure allows large mobility. The horse in the wild would indeed spend a lot of time with their head down, but not 100% of the time. If the horses is eating with its head up, how can we best manage this position? The thoracolumbar spine, where we sit, has less movement, but optimal posture is with this area lifted and held in a neutral or slightly flexed position. A high head and hollowing of this area (extension) can result in crowding of the spinous process, which is not desired.
Research looking into postures of horses feeding from high or lower positions shows that the back position is similar to ground-feeding with low nets; however, there are valid regarding safety as low nets are a potential hazard for getting feet caught in them. Remember, small holes are safest if you are going to position your haynet low.
A recent study looking at posture using Trickle Nets showed that feeding duration was increased. In addition, in consideration of my first point in posture, the authors of this study reported that the use of the muscles along the top of the neck and back, was similar to grazing. This is really interesting and definitely needs further investigation. The take home message from this study fits very well with my thoughts on using nets, in that the Trickle Net can be used on the floor where possible, and/or encouraging owners to tie the net in different places around the stable should avoid or vary asymmetric muscle activity in an effort to reduce any longterm effects.
In conclusion, I recommend that you take a pragmatic approach to using a net, as their use is often completely justified and necessary; set up a variety of feed positions for your horse, with a large percentage of the time being in a lowered head and neck shape; be careful regarding safety of the net of course, and use the best options that we can avoid frustration and slow feeding whilst limiting the potential negative effects on their posture.
Personally, I have an overweight horse due to a long duration on box rest and rehabilitation. I have started using a Trickle Net to help manage his feed intake whilst trying to maintain an ideal posture during feeding from a net. This will be a case study (n=1 in research terms), but so far, during observation of him eating, it is working as expected.
I am looking forward to reporting back on his weight loss journey, and good luck to all of you, in managing your horse’s waistline!
Post was kindly written by Dr Gillian Tabor, ACPAT Equine Physio Therapist