Study: Off-Schedule Feeding Compromises Horse Welfare
If you’re late for feeding time, chances are you’ll get a not-so-subtle reminder from impatient horses. And with good reason! Slovene researchers say irregular feeding times create stress that can compromise equine welfare.

While this might come as no surprise to some horse people, many handlers still fuss or yell at horses for behaviors such as kicking their stall doors. This shows that not everyone understands how off-schedule feeding negatively affects horses, said Manja Zupan, PhD, of the Biotechnical Faculty in the Department of Animal Science at the University of Ljubljana, in Slovenia.

“Many horse people are annoyed or unsatisfied when they see their horse’s abnormal behavior, especially when performed around feeding time, and some even wonder what may trigger an animal to act that way,” Zupan said. “So in my belief people still do not know much about the general biological and ethological needs of animals in captivity.”

Zupan and her fellow researchers followed the behavioral stress indicators of eight horses in an experiment testing their reactions to regular and irregular morning feeding patterns (sometimes an hour too early, sometimes an hour too late). The horses received oats, barley, and hay (regular time 6 a.m.), then got turned out for the rest of the day. They confirmed that the horses experienced significant stress when their food was late, leading most of them to “act out” through behaviors such as whinnying, pawing, and kicking the stall door.

Not Naughty, Cheeky, or Funny

This anticipatory behavior—what some might call “acting impatient”—is a sign of frustration and poor welfare, Zupan explained.

While it’s a typical scene in stables when horses have to wait for their feed, handlers often react to the situation inappropriately, said Zupan. Some might get irritated or angry, while others might find their horses’ impatience amusing.

“Such a reaction from a horse is anything but funny,” she said. “It is stressful for a horse, although there are individual differences between horses on how flexible they are to adapt to a change.

“I do not think anybody wants to look at a frustrated horse who is being annoyed as a result of being unable to change or achieve something,” she continued. “Animals and humans like to control and predict their environment, which powerfully influences their daily performance and health.”

A Reliable Internal Clock

Zupan’s study confirmed not only that horses experience significant stress when their food is an hour late but also that horses are aware of the time of day, she said. “It is known that animals do have their endogenous clock and that they can predict the daily activities based on conditioned stimulus or stimuli like the sound of certain kinds of equipment or the voice of a caretaker, etc.,” she explained.

“Also, the animals’ physiology and behavior get adjusted to their everyday life in order for them to be as ready as possible for the upcoming activity. This means that they become well-adapted to the environment, which increases their fitness and survival.”

Early Feeding in Stalled Horses

When the study horses were fed early, they weren’t quite “ready” for the meal, said Zupan. Stalled horses on set mealtimes—as opposed to horses allowed to trickle feed—adjust their daily patterns around activities such as working and feeding. So when the horses received food an hour early, they spent less of their time eating and ended up consuming less before turnout than they usually would. “They weren’t really awake yet,” she explained.

While this isn’t an ideal situation, it’s certainly better than having the horse wait too long, Zupan said.

Adjusting Your Schedule to Your Horse’s

It’s not always easy to stick to an exact feeding schedule when you’re managing horses with timed feeding, said Zupan. Even so, it’s important to note that time changes do affect horses.

“I think people are generally motivated to stick to a time routine with their daily activities,” she said. “However, often this is not possible, and they should consider that changing their schedule or routine may have a great consequence for horse welfare, and so they should therefore try to search for solutions—for example, to find another person to do their job, or a replacement worker.”

If these options aren’t possible, it’s still better to feed earlier than later, Zupan added. The key is to try to give that early feeding “as close as possible to the everyday schedule,” she said.

“Definitely it would be better to provide animals with the feed before you leave home and go for other activities than wait till you get back if you’re going to be late,” said Zupan. “Although hay consumption may be lower than usual, you can prevent a horse from being frustrated or aggressive. The last can cause a drop in cognitive abilities and horses may not perform well or worse as usual.”