Heads Up for Health
The heads-down position is the most natural for horses when eating and drinking. Problems may develop if feed and water are higher than ground level. Old-time horsemen felt that a horse should eat with his head down (rather than from a manger, feed bunk, or a hanging hay net), to exercise his neck muscles as he would when grazing. That may be true, but there are serious things that can go wrong if the horse must eat with his head up.
There are several risks when a horse is confined with his head up or is tied so he cannot lower it while eating, as when being hauled in a trailer with feed manger. On occasion, trailered horses may choke on pellets or alfalfa leaves, which can wad in the throat, creating a blockage in the esophagus. If the horse is unable to get his head down to cough out the blockage, saliva may build up and overflow into the windpipe. Hay particles in the windpipe, if they get down into the lungs, may also cause aspiration pneumonia. Due to foreign particles in the lungs, there is constant irritation and a source of infection that cannot be cleared up with antibiotics.
Most horses never experience something this dire, but many are subjected to the risk of respiratory ailments when kept in a heads-up position for eating. There is always more risk of getting foreign particles into the windpipe. Irritation to respiratory passages can open the way for infections, or create allergic responses such as heaves.
Under natural conditions, horses spend about 60 to 80 percent of their time with their heads down, grazing. When fed hay at ground level, the horse spends a lot of time with his head down--though it takes less eating time for hay than grazing at pasture. The heads-down position is healthiest for the respiratory tract, which relies on gravity and downward drainage to help clear out any foreign particles and respiratory secretions--draining them out through the lowered nose.
Respiratory irritations from foreign particles produce extra fluid secretions to help flush them out. These must drain out the nose or be coughed out--which the horse does with his head down to facilitate expulsion. The lining of the windpipe contains hair-like cilia that constantly move in one direction, to push foreign particles like dust and bacteria toward the nose and throat, and this works best in conjunction with gravity, with the head down.
An Australian study in 1992 showed that horses forced to keep their heads up are more at risk for respiratory infections, including bacterial lung infections. The Australian researchers found that in 21 out of 24 mares who spent 24 to 48 hours with their heads tied up, there were more white blood cells (neutrophils, which respond to infections) and more bacteria in the lungs, than in horses who did not have their heads tied up. Eight of the heads-tied-up mares developed mild coughs after the 48-hour period, and three others were obviously ill with respiratory infections. After the mares were allowed freedom of head and neck so they could lower their heads for drainage and cough more effectively, all recovered.
Whenever possible, horses should be allowed enough freedom of the head to eat in a low position. Horses shipped or hauled, or living in straight stalls with feed and water at or above shoulder level, are more at risk for lung problems. A horse in a straight stall should be tied long enough so he can lower his head, and fed from a low manger or feed box where he must reach down. If horses are stabled, all feed and water should be at least as low as knee height or lower. Even if a horse paws or puts his feet in his water tub or feed box, this is healthier than having his feed and water too high.
Heather Smith Thomas has raised and trained horses for 50 years and has been writing about them nearly that long, selling more than 9,000 stories and articles and publishing 20 books. She and her husband raise beef cattle and horses on their ranch near Salmon, Idaho.