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    ‘Hay high’ & other ways of mimicking the feeding habits of horses in the wild!



    Check out this horse. How hard is he working to nibble on those leaves? Without a doubt the horse is more challenged than if his owner had placed all the leaves in a feed tub on the ground in front of him. Thank you to Horse Fix friend – Rebecca from Wandarrah Estate, who provided this great photo showing one of her herd pruning the trees in her idyllic large pasture, grazing situation. Though it might not be practical to offer trees for nibbling leaves, the Sharon May-Davis ‘hay high’ technique is going to offer domesticated steeds another natural exercise option, something not dissimilar to what horses in the wild have to do. Horse owners would be well advised to consider how they feed their horses to create a natural exercise routine for them at feed times. The perpetuated myth that horses are best fed just on the ground, will be challenged by the following information. But be mindful that this encouragement of high grazing should not be exclusive either. Offering feed at ground level is also important, but the suggestion is that it can be complemented by higher feeding opportunities.

    Since Ang from Horse Fix attended Sharon May-Davis’ workshops and listened to the common sense this internationally regarded equine scientist and lecturer offered on the subject, she has been encouraging her clients to consider the optimal grazing situation for their horses. Ang’s subsequent advice has been focused on what is the ideal way of exercising a horse when it’s not being ridden? If a horse has to work hard for its feed it will improve its musculoskeletal outcomes by default. Think about how horses live in the wild. They would travel long distances to source their food and they would frequently prune trees and challenge themselves physically to get the best of the pick.

    Equine Vet and Equine Muscle Release Therapist (EMRT) practitioner Raquel Butler is a Sharon May-Davis protegee and she wrote on her blog about the topic:

    “Sharon has been a great advocate and initiator of recommending horses eat their hay high. While in Holland I had the opportunity to visit a non domesticated herd of Koniks, which  are a primitive horse originating in Poland. They are not ridden or handled and are kept on open reserves in Holland. These horses grazed with alternating front legs forward and also browsed from bushes. The majority of (domesticated) horses I see graze, (do so) predominantly with one forelimb forward due to crookedness and have not opportunity to (tree) browse in their paddocks. This browsing behaviour promotes straightness and strengthens postural muscles. This if very important for every horse person to become aware of, to promote soundness in their horses. Placing the hay high is training the postural cybernetic muscles which are deep muscles giving the vertebrae support and proprioceptive information. They are extremely important in the lower neck due to the lack of nuchal ligament lamella support which have been found under dissection and published by Sharon May-Davis in scientific literature…”

    Quoting from Cristina Wilkins’ article on ‘The mystery of the missing lamellae’ which was in the April 2015 Issue of ‘Horses and People’, Sharon May-Davis explains further:

    At the 2015 Bowker Lectures, “Sharon May-Davis presented three case studies where the hay-high technique, which mimics the natural browsing posture, was used in conjunction with other therapies and treatments to rehabilitate injured horses. While eating hay high the horses were more willing to stand posturally square and activate core muscles to elevate the base of the neck and the front of the ribcage in a similar way that describes a horse in self carriage. One hay net per day was tied at approximately eye to poll height, depending on the horse’s ability and flexibility. As the horse reaches up, he will sometimes rotate the head one way and the other to pull the hay out. It is important to note that, in this posture and, contrary to popular belief, the back does not ‘dip’, but is stretched up and forward utilizing core muscles. Some hay will fall on the ground and the horse will alternate between eating high and eating low, further increasing the beneficial gymnastic effect. Anecdotally, owners have reported that hay high helps to improve hoof development, preventing or limiting the formation of club feet during rehabilitation from severe injuries, as well as improving straightness and self-carriage in performance horses.” [1]

    Raquel further explains in her blog:

    Hay high has also been found to improve the abdominal, sub lumbar muscles (psoas) and poll, and can help with many problems including a fractured pedal bone, fractured scapula, crooked legs and in the general straightness, strength and self carriage of your horse. The bottom of the hay net should be between the horse’s eyes and ears in a normal standing posture, gradually raised over a week. A slow feeding hay net can be used to add difficulty once the horse is comfortable. Aiming for about 20-40 minutes daily of feeding from the hay net is optimal. There is no problems with the teeth as for the other 23 hours of the day they can graze normally, generally they will also pull the hay out of the hay net and lower their head to eat.

    Jodie Halton Equine Therapist posted on http://www.facebook.com/JHEquineMassage on 25th January 2015, a great illustrative image of her horse enjoying two hay nets. A (normal speed) hay net hanging at wither height from a tree and a slow feeder hay net tied to the base of the tree. As per Rebecca’s photo above, Jodie’s horse was standing square. Jodie explained the excellent illustration:

    This is my horse Pablo having some therapy whilst enjoying his favourite past-time – eating! This is one of the easiest yet very effective method to help your horse.

    Horses, by design, are asymmetric, which creates forces on their bodies which can become pathological over time if not managed. If kept in a field and not ridden, the horse copes fine (usually). Add a rider and we must help the horse become more symmetrical through our riding, training and any way we can.

    Using this simple technique, we can help the horse. By having the feed at wither height, the horse is allowed to stand square whilst feeding. This helps the horse use his cybernetic muscles, the muscles which play a part in proprioceptive awareness. Using these muscles strengthens the top line and neck muscles. When a horse is being trained gymnastically, he uses his gymnastic muscles for propulsion and his cybernetic muscles for finesse. When he tires, the movement becomes stilted as there is power but no finesse. Of course, my favourite fascia, also plays a part in refined, biomechanically correct movement as well.

    Also by feeding in this posture, we help another asymmetry: the club foot, the underrun heels or high heel/low heel. Pablo needs to strengthen his top line. He has a long back and must develop strength so we can work from behind and not be so much on the forehand. By having the hay bag at this level, it counteracts the grazing stance which puts so much pressure on the limbs from the wither to the hoof and promotes unwanted torque and asymmetry. Pablo’s left foot tends to being under-run. Whilst he doesn’t have a high heel or club on the right side, the underrun heel is still most undesirable biomechanically.

    I put a biscuit of hay or two and allow him to feed like this for approximately 30 minutes. After that, he goes to the slow-feeder at ground level as all equine dentists would prefer to allow the teeth to chew in the head down position, letting the teeth chew in correct alignment and maximize saliva production which neutralises acids, helping with stomach buffering and ulcer control. Pablo is prone to weight gain, being a prime candidate for Equine Metabolic Syndrome, so for his own sake is fed like this; the rest of the time spending time in a narrow strip to maximise walking and minimize eating.

    Attend a dissection with Sharon May-Davis and you will learn many more nuggets of information.[2]

    Jodie posted again on 20th November 2016, illustrated by two images showing her horse Pablo standing on a raised platform:

    https://www.facebook.com/JHEquineMassage/photos/pcb.1269088419778196/1269084996445205/?type=3&theater and a second image showing how the horse’s back and pelvis was looking straighter as a result:


    She writes:

    I’ve finally put in place over the last few months a feeding station as per the recommendation from the renowned Sharon May-Davis. In earlier learning sessions with Sharon, she has suggested high hay at wither height to promote good posture whilst eating, giving the horses body a break from their usual habit of one leg forward one leg back to graze. This unfortunate habit of horses leads to high heel- low heel syndrome, where the horses front feet become mismatched. The ridden horse will develop body problems over time.

    Sharon suggests the horse eats hay at wither height, and even higher on occasion (not all the time). Her experiments with this then led to her trying feeding on a float ramp. This, however, needs the float to be hitched for safety each day for feeding, which can become tedious and lead to non-compliance. A further improvement involves the use of a platform, so that the horse has his front hooves higher than his back hooves. An even further improvement is encouraging a stretch through the back and withers by placing the food lower and forward. I will go into why shortly, but you can perhaps modify your stable by putting a platform on one side of the horse safe solid half door and feed on the other. Failing that, a sturdy horse safe gate can be used as the partition. It may take a bit of lateral thinking, but any of these scenarios will aid your ridden horse, and here’s why:

    We ride the horse by placing our weight just behind the withers. This location is not so strong, though supported by ribs there is surprisingly little muscle mass under the saddle. Any help the horse gets will aid his comfort here. A properly fitting saddle, preparation for riding via good lunging, in-hand, pole work without a rider, free jumping, handwalking, liberty work, or similar.

    Kissing spine is a painful condition where the spinous processes under the saddle area come in contact with each other. This may cause fits of bucking, suddenly shooting forward, napping or rearing. As a therapist I think every effort should be made to help prevent kissing spine.

    So what can we do? Building the cybernetic, or postural muscles of the spine, ie the smaller muscles like the multifidi, is an excellent idea. They stabilise the spine and give it strength, and when strong allow the long muscles of the back to strengthen and supple as well. When weak they tire quickly and cannot hold the spine up, so the horse hollows and braces the back. We can use this simple feeding regime daily to strengthen these muscles in tandem with the horses exercise program. The horse stretches and opens the spine up. This is the key – opening the spinous processes, stretching the spine under the saddle area to relieve crowding which may result when the horse travels in a hollow frame – the horse simply can’t hold its back up any more.

    Why not use the daily feeding time to help with this? Every little bit helps. I’ve had people say oh but I strengthen the back in the ridden work, which is wonderful, but what if you don’t know how? Or what if your horse is untrained or ridden in poor posture prior? Or what if he’s just being backed or coming into work after a rest?

    I started Pablo on just one pallet height. He has now graduated to two pallet height, which is adequate. The pallet is covered with plywood and rubber, with added bracing underneath. The trough is angled so that he has to reach down and out. The hay net is above the trough and is very effective in itself to strengthen his back. Pieces drop out which are then collected in his feed bowl in the trough. He can rest at any time, which he did in the beginning, but he now can eat his whole meal like this. Allow your horse to get off the platform if he needs to at any time for a rest, then ask him to get up again.

    Pablo’s back is slightly too long. He has had much rehab over the years but always manages to injure himself or become sore. He is coming back into work and I have to say this is the most comfortable in his body that he has ever felt since incorporating this feeding system along with his usual carefully monitored gradual increase in work. It’s a simple thing to do which may help your horses overall comfort.[3]


    Paddock Paradise is a great way to set up your horse’s everyday environment, to replicate as natural a grazing system as possible. It’s well worth investing in this book http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0965800784?ie=UTF8&tag=wwwallnatural-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0965800784 to find out how you can apply a grazing best practice to your horse’s existence. Find out more here https://www.facebook.com/OfficialPaddockParadisePage Furthermore you might like to consider planting trees/shrubs that will appeal to your horse’s pruning desires http://permaculturenews.org/2010/06/04/grazing-and-browsing-forage-trees-and-shrubs-for-horses/

    If you can’t set up Paddock Paradise for your place, perhaps consider participating in something Ang encourages her Horse Fix clients to do. She frequently suggests owners walk their horse out in hand (and leather gloves!)…. which is compatible with the Paddock Paradise ideas of getting a horse to move more to source its feed and water. Ang is a great believer in the human being an athlete, just as much as the horse being one. Thus walking and jogging if you can, with your horse is a great way of getting fit and getting a few more kilometres of incidental exercise into your horses legs without weight on its back. Read up on more of Ang’s fitness for riders guidelines here – https://www.facebook.com/notes/horse-fix/what-about-the-horse-what-the-rider-can-do-for-their-steed/868385326584809

    There has been some debate about the concept of hay high in recent times – driven by this post https://www.facebook.com/HorsesInsideOut/photos/a.151541921527093.30661.138433429504609/1292115904136350/?type=3&theater – which is a reminder as to why hay high shouldn’t be an exclusive concept.

    Quoting from Horses Inside Out:

    We’re on a mission… Let’s get rid of high hay nets, high hay racks and high feed bowls for the good of the horse. Feeding horses off the floor is so good for their back posture, musculature, as well as respiratory and digestive health!” Furthermore they posted:  “There are some special cases which would benefit from feeding from a higher position for example those with a dramatically asymmetrical grazing stance and asymmetrical front feet, and those with medical issues. However I believe constantly feeding from a very high hay nets is not good for horses because it’s not how the horse has evolved to graze. It affects the alignment of the teeth and TMJ, alters the respiratory cleansing capacity and puts the back in a poor postural position and not only that but it strengthens the muscles in creating back extension (hollowing). Think of a horse pulling hay up and out of a high hay net – this is the opposite posture to what we want to create when ridden!!

    This was followed up by an in-comment response from Sharon May-Davis:

    In response to the discussion on placing hay nets high, I will try and keep my response short and sweet as I am in Holland and very time poor. Horses are foraging opportunistic feeders with Hypsodontal teeth. The primitive horse will graze and browse according to what is available, as will domesticated horse. The dissection of both has been eye opening to say the least, including one feral donkey that was born and bred in the harsh outback of Australia’s Northern Territory.

    This work has not been an overnight invention, but a long thought out process that accidently began in the 70’s when I was a competitive rider and then it came to my attention in 2003 with more clarity. By 2010 onwards, it became apparent that we were under the impression that equine anatomic text was correct, when in fact it was not. So in short.

    Comparative anatomy: the Konik’s (regarded as a primitive horse) teeth were in amazingly good condition as was the donkey, this also applied to their feet (4 x Konik horses were dissected aged 16 months to rising 8yrs, the donkey was 15). This cannot be said for the predominantly grazing domesticated horse with hooks and ramps not seen in the Konik or donkey (the dissected Koniks were observed and videoed prior to dissection in browsing and grazing positions as were many of the domesticated horses). Think now how the mechanism of the muscles of mastication work, with one in particular – the lateral Pterygoid.

    One of its functions is to bring the mandible rostral, which is not required in the grazing position, but is so in the browsing position. In domesticated predominantly grazing horse (DPGH), the Masseter is larger than the lateral Pterygoid, however in the Konik, the Masseter seemed thinner, but was virtually equal in size to the lateral Pterygoid, which appeared larger in the Konik than DPGH. These 2 muscles were working in a synergistic relationship to be so comparatively equal and this is something I do not see in DPGH. I am quoting from my 100’s of whole horse dissections plus having discussed this in depth with an equine fossil expert.

    With regard to hay net feeding positions, I recommend that variable heights be offered to horses on a daily basis in order to mimic the primitive horse and so to utilise their teeth to which they were designed. The time spent in this position is not recommended beyond 20 minutes/day, however it can be lowered or relocated or multiple choices offered. Just remember, they are browsers and grazers – at University I was taught that they were grazers only, but I was also taught that the diagrams in anatomy text were correct and this we now know is not the case.

    There have been clinical trials with amazing results, based on veterinary, dental, therapists and barefoot trimmers working together and these findings have been published in conference / seminar events. Suffice to say, we have used variable feeding positions with great results in rehabbing horses with feet and physical issues from kissing spine to over at the knee,but always with diagnostic input. As for performance horses, well I think the dressage scores and judges’ comments speak for themselves. Have fun folks and when uncertain, think outside the box.


    This video https://www.facebook.com/animalspine/videos/1462736707124464/?hc_ref=PAGES_TIMELINE went viral in late March 2017 and was posted with the following statement:

    In my experience of treating horses there is a common pattern thatmuscle tension in the poll and neck are present in majority of horses that arefed with a hay net. I put this video together to help explain simply how thiscan effect your horse. My advice always is to feed from the floor or a suitablecontainer which encourages the horse to eat naturally. Not only from amusculoskeletal point of view but holistically from digestion to behavioural instinct.

    Sharon May-Davis responded on her Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/SharonMayDavis:

    With the statements put forth by ANIMAL SPINE – I don’t agree because we know that horses browse andgraze naturally in the wild. In fact, the view of 100% grazing sets them up fora dominant forelimb, just as the video shows. When a horse is offered browsingpositions they stand square, just as the video shows. The fact that the hay netmoves mimics the way a horse browses in the wild. Also they use their spine,abdomen and neck muscles to access the hay in its variable moveable position, which is healthy for mobility. Look how his back is mobilised when the hay is higher. Browsing is natural for horses because they are opportunistic foragers with hippsodontal teeth that are designed for grit, silicas and tough cellulose. In Universities here in Australia, they are now teaching in Equine Nutrition that when horses feed, they graze 80% of the time and browse 20% when the environment provides an opportunity. It’s a great video and similar to the ones we are studying for back and neck movement in variable feeding positions. Thanks.

    Here follows a compilation of comments made by Sharon, when remarking about the feeding browsing/grazing of the domesticated and wild horse.

    This is a US study on feral horses https://pubs.usgs.gov/tm/02a09/pdf/TM2A9.pdf Quoting from that study: “Feeding behaviour occupies roughly half of the daily time budget of feral horses (fig. 1) and usually entails grazing. Grazing occurs as a horse bites off and ingests grasses and forbs close to the ground (fig. 2). The feeding category also includes browsing on woody plants and trees, eating snow, drinking, mineral licking, coprophagy (eating faeces) and pawing at food resources. The latter is critical in defining feeding as a mutually exclusive category in that a horse may be pawing at soil, plants or snow, but if the action is directly related to acquiring and ingesting a food resource, then it should be considered as feeding behaviour. Also, horses move as they graze; therefore, as long as the horse is feeding while it is moving, it should be considered feeding rather than locomotion.

    Note the feeding category also includes ‘browsing’ on woody plants and trees. Just to clarify – browsing is anything above the horse’s knee/carpus.

    Also just think of the mental stimulation involved in browsing habits, this mimics wild/feral/primitive horse’s ability to source their feed with more than a single point of feeding. Note in the US study they walk whilst grazing – this is what we (Raquel Butler and myself) noted in primitives. In a domestic situation, we place their feed in one location and again fail to mimic the wild model. I understand stabling restricts this type of mobility, but a suitable haynet can at least mimic browsing and as the evidence/data pile up on how teeth, feet and posture are being improved, we may change our thinking processes. However, in the meantime just consider where horses began in the wild environment and how domestication has not removed that innate sense of feeding in 5000 or so years.

    Watching the wild model and then dissecting it has taught me about what we have lost at so many levels in the domestic horse – the symmetry is divine and as for suppleness – aaaaarrrhhhh!! Just makes my eyes water to think of how wrong we have got it because of old literature.

    I was taught the at horses were grazing animals at CSU and now CSU lectures state only 80% grazing.

    Sharon May-Davis protegee Dr Raquel Butler posted this response in the comments of the video:

    In my work with Sharon May Davis we have had a lot of discussions of the pros and cons of feeding hay high. I have also had the privilege of watching Konik horses in a natural environment where they graze with a non dominant leg and are often browsing at different heights. On dissection the jaw muscles of these horses were phenomenal including the pterygoids which are often lacking in domestic horses, which I put down to the loss of browsing. If given the opportunity horses will seek to browse themselves.Universities in Australia are now teaching horse should graze 80% of the time and browse 20%. When fed high they generally square up in front and often behind, the back is mobilised and the natural rostral caudal motion of the jaw is utilised as well as the medial lateral grinding motion when chewing. It is like anything, it doesn’t suit all horses, if the horse has tension from eating out of hay high then the hay net is at the wrong height for that particular horse or it is too hard for the horse and there are issues that need to be addressed. Any exercise for the horse should promote comfort and balance. It has to be assessed on a horse by horse basis and monitored. When we talk hay high we talk 1 hay net a day. The rest of the time they are grazing. I personally have seen great results with hay high in my own horses and clients horses. I have a horse with pectoral tears, he would buckle at the knee due to the effect of his stay apparatus, since the hay has been up high he stands more square with no buckling at the knee. It is not about us, it is about what is best for the individual horse and to know this you need to look at the entire picture – how are they standing, facial expression, how comfortable is it getting the hay out of the net for them, what are there body issues? But it is a natural phenomenon!! And if you are concerned about the teeth – the Koniks had amazing teeth – never seen a dentist in their life. Other horses that have had the hay up high, (the) dentist have commentated how good the teeth were. Hoof trimmers have commented on an improvement in the feet. The other comment to make is that all domestic horses graze with a dominant leg and have natural!asymmetry which is seen in this great video demonstrating the comparison between feeding hay high and eating on the ground. The aim for us to be able to ride them and keep them as biomechanically sound as possible is to have them as straight and balanced as possible and eating hay high promotes this, if it is done correctly and mindfully. It is also important to note the lack of nuchal ligament support in the base of the neck and the benefit of hay high to training the cybernetic muscles in this area. Dr Raquel Buter BVSc, Animal Biomechanical Professionals Australia, IntegratedVeterinary Therapeutics


    [1] http://www.horsesandpeople.com.au/sites/default/files/articles/April%20Issue_The%20Mystery%20of%20the%20Missing%20Lamellae.pdf


    [2] https://www.facebook.com/JHEquineMassage/photos/a.680976831922694.1073741828.464152196938493/874623542558021/?type=3&theater


    [3] https://www.facebook.com/JHEquineMassage/posts/1269088419778196


    You can find out more about Sharon May-Davis at http://www.facebook.com/SharonMayDavis and can purchase her video on the palpable equine muscles via: http://www.vimeo.com/ondemand/37025


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