Racehorses and other equine athletes that expend a lot of energy must consume up to 12 pounds of grain per day to maintain their health and fitness. But nutritionists tell us that feeding a large grain meal to a horse two or three times a day can tax its digestive system in ways nature had not intended.
In nature, equine ancestors nibbled constantly as they grazed across the plains, and the only grains they consumed were seed heads in the grass. But domesticated horses are fed at man's convenience, usually only twice per day. Large, infrequent meals have been shown to increase horses' risk of colic and gastric ulcers.
One California racing stable has decided to change the way it feeds its horses. WEM Racing, with strings at Golden Gate Fields and Santa Anita Park, has opted for automatic feeders that dispense a small amount of grain or pellets at programmed times throughout the day and night. Trainer William E. Morey installed automatic feeders at his Golden Gate Fields barn in September.
“I've seen enough research to think that feeding more often in smaller meals is definitely healthier for the horses,” said Morey. “We have four [feeders] up and running, and we're working on expanding a little at a time as we perfect the feeding program for each horse. It's been a learning process, but we're willing to put the time into getting it just right.”
Morey is working with equine nutritionist Dr. Clair Thunes of Summit Equine Nutrition in Sacramento, Calif.
“We have one very big horse, so we've been struggling to feed him as much as he needs to be fed without exposing him to colic risk with a traditional feed program,” Morey said. “We now can give him a more appropriate amount of feed for his size because we can spread it out more.”
Morey programs his automatic feeders to dispense 20 small meals per 24-hour period. Meals are scheduled around training hours and throughout the night, beginning early in the morning before the stable help arrives.
“We're trying to get some food in the horses' stomachs before they go out and train in the morning to prevent stomach ulcers,” Morey said.
Like cats responding to an electric can opener, most horses learn the whirring of the machine means it is dispensing feed, so Morey programs a break in the middle of the night to allow the horses to sleep undisturbed.
With an automatic feeder dispensing frequent, small meals, the horse doesn't waste feed, and smaller portions enable it to digest the feed more slowly, thereby deriving the maximum nutritional benefit.
How they work
Automatic feeders basically consist of a feed hopper, a programmable timer, a portion control, a funnel to dispense feed into the feed tub, and are powered via a standard A/C electrical source. Some are battery powered; each manufacturer has its own design.
The automatic feeders Morey chose are manufactured by iFeed, based in Snoqualmie, Wash. This feeder holds 23 lbs. of feed and has the capability to dispense up to 720 feedings per 24 hours. It can be mounted on the wall outside the stall, with a hole drilled through the wall for the funnel to dispense feed into the horse's tub. It also can be mounted on the metal bars that make up some stall fronts.
One timer can operate several feeders on the same feeding schedule. If a particular horse is on a feeding schedule different from others in the barn, its feeder must have its own separate timer. Each individual feeder has its own portion control.
The iFeed hopper does not lock, but the consumer can easily install a lock to prevent a loose horse from raiding the hopper, theft of feed, or tampering, said Ulla Dahl, who co-owns iFeed with her husband, Jesper. The iFeed automatic feeder was developed by Jesper's father in Denmark and has been used in Europe for 15 years. A starter kit containing the feeder and everything needed for its operation is $399.
Aside from the health benefits for horses, automatic feeders can benefit one-person stables as an alternative to hiring someone to feed in their absence who may or may not show up or follow feeding instructions.
Automatic feeders also can be used in refeeding a horse that is recuperating from surgery, injury, or illness. These horses need heightened nutrition to repair their bodies, and small, frequent meals are the best way to get them back to health.
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