Updated: Nov 15, 2022
Keeping our horses as naturally intended is the ideal, but in reality this isn't always practical or possible.
However, there’s lots we can do to help the horse mimic his natural environment and that promote good posture including the position he is fed. In the first of a two-part blog we look at the pros and cons of feeding from the floor and how they impact on the horse’s musculoskeletal health.
Watch Your Horse Graze
How a horse grazes reveals a lot about their musculoskeletal comfort and asymmetry. Take some time just watching and observing your horse grazing.
Here are a few things to look out for before deciding which feeding position is best for them.
The most comfortable, symmetrical horses graze and move around constantly, often not lifting their heads up as they move. They graze evenly to the left and right - spending approximately 50% of the time with their left leg forward and 50% with their right forward.
Uncomfortable horses find a grazing position that’s comfortable, eat for a while, then lift their head up to move to the next spot.
Asymmetrical horses will split their forelimbs wide to graze and prefer one foreleg being forward most of the time. This asymmetry is usually reflected in the way they move, bend, and protract their forelimbs. This can cause mechanical lameness and asymmetrical hoof conformation.
The Nuchal Ligament
To understand the benefits of different feeding positions it’s important to understand the mechanics of the neck and back ligaments and their role in supporting back posture. The nuchal ligament is one of the most important structures in the horse’s body. It has two parts.
The funicular (a chord like part) consists of two chords of strong fibrous material that runs from the occipital bone to the withers.
The lamellar (sheet like part) descends from the funicular cord to the tops of the cervical vertebrae below.
This ligament continues as the supraspinous ligament linking the top of each spinous process from the withers to the end of the sacrum. The interspinous ligament fills in the spaces between the spinous processes stabilising the spine and the ventral longitudinal ligament runs beneath the spine linking all the vertebral bodies.
These 4 ligaments ‘wrap’ the vertebral bodies in a cocoon of strong ligamental material which strengthens, stabilises and protects the spine.
This energy saving device reduces the amount of muscular effort required to support, raise and lower the head, hold it in position and maintain correct alignment of the cervical vertebrae.
When a horse is dozing his head is suspended by the nuchal ligament. Its high proportion of yellow fibres makes it more elastic than other ligaments allowing it to stretch when the horse is ridden in an outline.
The nuchal ligament restrains and stabilises the movement of the spinous processes at the highest point of the withers. This acts as a fulcrum which together with the supraspinous ligament supports the positioning of the back. The nuchal and supraspinous ligament has an important role to play in maintaining spinal posture.
When the head is down, the nuchal ligament is taught. This pulls on the supraspinous ligament, which attaches to the spinous processes of the thoracic vertebrae at the withers, prising them slightly apart, causing the back to rise and the ribcage to lift
When the head is raised, the nuchal ligament slackens and the neck hollows. The resulting lack of tension in the supraspinous ligament causes the unsupported back to hollow. Horses that habitually go in a hollow outline are more prone to back problems
To learn more about this check out the recorded webinars:-
And read more about it in Posture and Performance:
Feeding From the Floor
Horses in the wild will spend 16-18 hours grazing every day. Feeding hay and concentrates from floor level replicates this.
Ensures the best alignment of the thoracic vertebrae, in terms of a flexed vs extended position.
The nuchal and supraspinous ligaments are in positive traction - supporting the weight of the back and abdomen with minimum muscular effort and reducing back muscle tension and shortening.
Helps maintain the correct alignment through the cervical vertebrae.
Opens and straightens the pharynx, trachea and oesophagus maximising function.
Stimulates the muscles and structures involved in supporting the back and carrying the weight of the rider.
Beneficial for respiration – mucus, assisted by gravity, removes dust from the air passages through the nostrils.
Better for digestion and production of saliva.
Enables more efficient use of the chewing mechanism.
Helps to correctly align the teeth so wear is more even.
When the head is in a lowered position, this relaxed posture stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system – rest and digest.
It's difficult to control how quickly a horse eats his hay ration, important for horses that are on a diet.
A haynet tied too low can be dangerous as there’s a risk the horse may get their foot caught in it.
For horses that box walk or make a mess of their bed mixing hay into their bedding is wasteful and costly.
Fortunately, there’s now many different feeding options from hay cubes to spring-based feeders which enable hay to be fed from ground level whilst slowing intake and keeping hay tidy.
The Teeth and TMJ
As well as allowing opening and closing and side to side movement, the TMJ allows the lower jaw to move relative to the upper jaw in a rostral – caudal direction. Feeding from a high position causes the lower jaw to slide back altering the alignment of the teeth, chewing patterns and increase the risk of ramps and hooks developing. Grazing allows the lower jaw to move downwards promoting correct alignment and therefore a more even wear of the teeth.
To learn more about the anatomy, function of the TMJ and exercises to promote health, check out our Head Anatomy recorded webinar: www.horsesinsideout.com/webinar-head
And Gillian's book Illustrated Head Anatomy.
In the second part of this blog we'll look at other feeding positions and how they can affect the horses's health and well-being.