Reasons for performing study
Many domestic horses and ponies are sedentary and obese due to confinement to small paddocks and stables and a diet of infrequent, high-energy rations. Severe health consequences can be associated with this altered lifestyle.
The aims of this study were to investigate the ability of horses to learn to use a dynamic feeder system and determine the movement and behavioural responses of horses to the novel system.
A dynamic feed station was developed to encourage horses to exercise in order to access ad libitum hay. Five pairs of horses (n = 10) were studied using a randomised crossover design with each pair studied in a control paddock containing a standard hay feeder and an experimental paddock containing the novel hay feeder. Horse movement was monitored by a global positioning system (GPS) and horses observed and their ability to learn to use the system and the behavioural responses to its use assessed.
With initial human intervention all horses used the novel feeder within 1 h. Some aggressive behaviour was observed between horses not well matched in dominance behaviour. The median distance walked by the horses was less (P = 0.002) during a 4 h period (117 [57–185] m) in the control paddock than in the experimental paddock (630 [509–719] m).
The use of an automated feeding system promotes increased activity levels in horses housed in small paddocks, compared with a stationary feeder.
The novel feeder system may have application in the husbandry of horses and ponies kept in small paddocks by encouraging a natural pattern of exercise without human intervention and an ad libitum diet of hay. This may improve the health and welfare of horses.