You've slept through the alarm, and now you're racing out the door to be sure you feed on time. Slow down and enjoy some coffee first. A little variation in your horse's feeding schedule won't hurt and, in some cases, might even be beneficial.
Consider this: Horses fed on precise schedules are more likely to develop destructive anticipatory behaviors, such as pacing or stall kicking. Having mealtimes vary within an hour or two can prevent and minimize this behavior.
Furthermore, studies have shown that there is no physiological reason for a pleasure horse to be fed on a strict schedule. They are not likely to colic or develop laminitis if their meals come at slightly variable times: Those conditions are associated with large, starchy meals rather than feeding schedules. (Elite athletes in training, however, do need to receive grain on more rigid intervals. Their bodies utilize every calorie they consume, and feeding them on time optimizes digestion
to do so.)
If you'd like to start varying your feeding schedule, begin by offering free-choice hay throughout the day. This is easiest to do using a slow feeder that controls portions while reducing waste. Not only does unlimited hay give a horse something to occupy his time while he waits for grain meals, but it will prevent the kind of hunger that can lead to anxious behavior.
With free-choice hay available, wait an extra half-hour to feed one day. Then show up about 20 minutes earlier than usual the next. Over the course of several weeks, vary your schedule so meals arrive within a two-hour window, but never at the same time. Your horse will adapt with no behavioral or physical consequences, and you can enjoy a bit more flexibility around feeding time.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #424.