CK Performance Horses & Performance Horse Nutrition


How Horses Budget Their Time

Posted by ckperformancehorses on March 17, 2009 at 9:16 PM

The time budget is the amount of time an animal spends doing the things it has to do throughout the day. Feral/wild animals including equines have been studied in order to discover what the ‘time-budget’ is for that particular species.


Not surprisingly animals that are predators and animals that are prey differ in the amount of time that they spend carrying out daily maintenance activities. The time budget of most predators involves short periods of high activity (to catch and eat prey) and long periods of inactivity i.e. sleeping, to digest the high calorie prey they have eaten. A prime example is your pet dog, notice how many hours he sleeps when you are not actually interacting with him.

Herbivores are different to carnivores because they have to be alert most of the time (watching and listening for predators) and they have to eat for a much larger part of the day. Compared to a meat eater their food is low in calories and takes a long time to chew and digest. Horses have one of the longest grazing periods of grass eating herbivores such as cows and sheep because they do not ruminate (regurgitate and re chew their food). Instead a horse ferments food in the hind gut while grazing. This means that a horse is mainly on its feet, ready to flee and is not weighed down by large quantities of undigested forage.

Studies have shown that the daily time budget of feral/wild horses comprises:

Grazing – between 12-20 hours a day

Sleeping - between 2-6 hours a day

Loafing – between 2-6 hours a day


Time Spent Grazing


In the natural state the total time spent grazing is usually spread out throughout the day and night with bouts of sleeping and loafing being interspersed. The length of time spent grazing depends on the quality of the grass available. On better quality grass the horse will spend less time grazing and more time sleeping and loafing. When the grass is poor such as in a drought, the horse will increase the grazing time up to as much as twenty hours (if any feed is available). In this case loafing is not a priority and the horse would pretty much just eat and sleep. This ability to increase its grazing/browsing time is a factor that makes horses such a successful animal in tough climates.


Time Spent Sleeping


Adult horses usually sleep for approximately four hours per day. Roughly two hours are spent sleeping lying down and two hours are spent sleeping standing up. Due to the large thorax of the horse it actually uses less energy to sleep standing than lying down. Lying down rests the legs but the lungs have to work hard when the horse is stretched out on its side. This is why a horse often makes a groaning noise when prone, as breathing is quite an effort in this position. As mentioned in the previous section, sleep is in bouts, interspersed with grazing and loafing. For example the horse might sleep lying down for 15 minutes and then graze some more and so on.


Time Spent Loafing


Loafing is a term that is used to group all the other things that horses do with their day. It includes such activities as mutual grooming, playing and simply standing around together. Younger horses spend more time than older horses playing. Older horses spend more time standing around than younger horses (in this respect horses are not unlike humans!)


An understanding of the time budget of the horse is important for the welfare of the horse. By looking at the natural time budget we can see that a horse should spend at least 12 hours a day just chewing its food. Modern day horse management has resulted in many horses being confined and fed meals that are high in energy but low in fiber. This results in long periods of time where the horse has nothing to do as these types of feed are eaten much more quickly (due to being more energy dense). This can cause problems, either behavioral, physiological or both. Therefore a confined horse should be fed a diet that is as close to natural as possible. High fiber forage such as grass hay takes a long time to eat and digest and therefore occupies the horse for much longer and keeps the gut functioning as it should, reducing the incidence of problems such as colic and gastric ulcers.


Another factor to bear in mind is that natural living horses live in herds. As well as grazing together they ‘loaf’ and sleep as a group. The horse is never alone by choice. Again modern management systems do not always take this fact into consideration and the result, coupled with a diet that is too low in fiber is often stereotypic behavior such as cribbing and weaving.

Knowledge of time budgets can also help with grazing management. Because we know that horses intersperse grazing bouts with sleeping and loafing bouts we can manipulate this behavior so that the horse grazes when in the paddock and loafs/sleeps when in a yard or stable. Therefore if grass is limited allow horses to graze as a herd in bouts of three to four hours at a time, two or three times per day. The rest of the time the horses spend in yards or stables with access to hay thus conserving the pasture by reducing grazing and hoof pressure.

Categories: Equine Nutrition

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