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Hello Jody and Leslie,
Thank you for writing and I understand the frustration you are experiencing. It is difficult to watch a horse over eat and can be frightening. Let me first tell you that I have never had any negative consequences (other than temporary weight gain) with free-choice feeding when it is done properly.
So let's look at this in more detail...
First, one week is very little time for many horses. I can tell you that most horses start to self-regulate within a couple of weeks, but it truly depends on the individual. What you're waiting for is for the horse to walk away from the hay -- that tells you that he got the message. And then he can start to eat only what his body needs.
But, there's more to it. What we're trying to create is an environment that simulates the horse in his natural state. Where is walks around looking for forage and moves a lot while doing so. If the horse has been in a setting of reduced feeding, with long periods of an empty stomach, the metabolic rate will decrease significantly, leading to rapid weight gain once forage is provided free choice.
So the answer is not to stop doing it. The answer is to continue offering hay free choice, while encouraging movement and slow feeding. Slow feeders are fine, as long as they do not induce frustration so take your time in getting the horse accustomed to them. If they are frustrating, the hormonal response that frustration creates, will lead to body fat storage. Once accustomed to them, you can place them in a variety of places, encouraging movement to get to them.
Hay analysis is also important and you mentioned, Jody, that your have tested at a low %NSC. Also check the digestible energy -- this is the number of Mcal (calories) and should not exceed .89 Mcal/lb (1.95 Mcal/kg or 8.19 MJ/kg).
The remainder of the diet, if you add anything, should be minimal and be low in calories and sugar/starch. No cereal grains, no sugar, no sugary treats (such as apples or carrots).
And exercise -- probably the most important factor of all. Exercise not only burns calories, but also increases muscle mass. Muscle mass is more metabolically active than fat, so your horse burns more calories just by standing still. And exercise also reduces insulin resistance.
Supplements such as psyllium husks and magnesium/chromium are also important in lowering circulating insulin levels.
So, bottom line...
Where are you from? Bayfield, CO
Thank you for your response Dr. Getty.
The only thing that I can identify from your recommendations that we are not in compliance with is that the DE on the hay is 1.15Mcal/lb. If there is absolutely no chance to replace the hay with anything less calorically dense, what can we do? We have enough of this hay to last until first cutting in July and my husband has just lost his job so I can not afford to replace it.
More details: The hay nets don't seem to bother the horses. They have become used to them over time and don't get agitated when getting hay out. I put out about 8 bags for 4 horses and I spread them all over their dry lot paddock which is about the size of two standard size arenas. I also feed a very small amount of soaked, rinsed beet pulp with minerals to balance the hay analysis. I custom mix the minerals but they get plenty of magnesium, vitamin E and fresh ground flax. They do not get any grain or other concentrates. I believe the kids slip a few Forage First horse cookies but that only amounts to about 2 a week. All the horses get out for moderate exercise about twice a week.
I re-weighed the horses and the most surprising thing was that in-spite of the enormous intake (still at just under 4% of their body weight today) the ONLY horse that has gained any weight is the severely IR gelding who has only gained 18#. All the other horses have stayed at exactly their baseline weight.
So I guess the bottom line is that I obviously have a DE issue. I am just not sure how to proceed in that knowledge.
Where are you from? Colorado
How did you locate this forum? Bought the book
That is excellent news about their weight! And only 18 lbs of weight gain for one of your horses is not of major significance. So in spite of the higher calorie hay, and the increased consumption, they are keeping tabs on their weight. This is what I mean -- when they self-regulate and the stress component is gone, they no longer hold on to body fat. When stressed by an empty stomach, the cortisol that is released actually prevents them from burning body fat.
And an added bonus -- eating actually stimulates the metabolic rate, making them burn their calories faster than before!
So, from what you told me, I am not terribly concerned about the higher digestible energy level. There is not much you can do about it, unless you can "dilute" it with another lower calorie hay.
If at all possible, when the hay becomes available in July, see if you can test it ahead of time. That way, you won't end up buying a large batch that may not be appropriate for your horses.
You are doing an excellent job. I am very proud of your patience and perseverance -- it does pay off.
Best to you,
Author of Feed Your Horse Like A Horse
Where are you from? Bayfield, CO