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Five Miniature horses and donkeys eating from slow feed hay bags on the ground in large paddock.

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Feeding Miniature Horses & Donkeys: Why Slow Fed Forage is Best

Miniature horses and donkeys - also known as minis - are some of the cutest creatures you will ever see.  But don't let that special stature fool you - whether your mini is for showing,  therapy, or a pasture ornament and best friend - they are essentially a scaled-down version of their full-sized counterparts.

And when it comes to nutritional needs and feeding protocols - that means a slow fed, forage-based diet is key. Read on to learn more about why a slow feed strategy is best for your mini and to find answers to common miniature horse diet questions.
Mini Horses Eating from slow feed hay pillows with a horse
Photo Courtesy of customer Tammy O.

What to Feed a Miniature Horse?

Given that your mini is fundamentally a horse or donkey,  the foundation of your feeding program should be forage (hay or pasture).

Why? Because equines are grazing herbivores with a digestive system designed for constant uptake. Yes: Constant uptake.

How do you allow access to forage or pasture 24/7 without the risk of your mini overdoing it? By implementing a slow-feeding program. Slow feeding requires your mini to eat smaller amounts over a longer period of time. This concept simulates natural free-choice foraging - and promotes mental and physical well being.
Cover of Natural Horse Magazine V20 Issue 3.
This article was Featured in Natural Horse Magazine, V 20  Issue 3

Slow feeding can be accomplished by using slow feeders for hay (bonus points for having multiple feeding stations to encourage mini movement - more on that below) and a grazing muzzle when on pasture.
Miniature horses eating from ground hay pillow slow feed hay bags
Mini Hay Pillows® - great for home and on the go.

Do Minis Need Grain or Complete Feeds?

In short, no.  Minis often struggle with weight management and obesity because they are predisposed to Insulin Resistance. 

Although there are a variety of formulated complete feeds designed specifically for miniature horses and donkeys intended to replace forage; they are far more calorie dense per pound than hay and rob your equine of chew time and appropriate volume of indigestible fiber. Research  in equine nutrition confirms a forage-only or mostly-forage diet is healthiest for all horses regardless of size. (See references below.)

Equines - whether mini or full-size - were not designed to thrive on a high-calorie, nutrient-deficient diet comprised of meals or concentrates. By providing appropriate free-choice forage, you will have a healthier, more content herd. 

Learn how to test your hay to ensure low sugar and starch levels for metabolically challenged minis.

Tip: To ensure vitamin and mineral requirements are being met, feed a concentrated supplement mixed into a small amount of soaked hay pellets to avoid the excess calories of a complete feed.

Do Hay Pellets Qualify as Forage?

Not really. Even though it is pelleted hay, the fast breakdown doesn't allow for “chew time,” which is one of the many benefits of a hay or pasture diet. Chewing produces saliva, which buffers gastric acid and aids in digestion.

In addition, the quality of hay is not visible after the pelleting process occurs. Some visible contributing factors in determining hay quality are:
  • Color
  • Stage of maturity at harvest
  • Texture
  • Presence of foreign material
  • Mold
It is impossible to ascertain these attributes prior to purchasing pellets. Of course, there are exceptions for individuals not able to masticate proficiently due to dental challenges.

Learn more about the pros & cons of grass hay verses pellets, cubes and chopped hay.

Mini Horse & Donkey Dental Health Tip 

Miniature breeds are especially susceptible to genetic dental deformities. Although they have been downsized from a full-size horse - they posses the same number of teeth - which may not fit properly in the reduced head size.
Miniature donkeys eating from slow feed hay pillows
​Perform routine dental exams at all ages for:
  • Retained caps
  • Lost and/or broken teeth
  • Abnormal or uneven bite planes
  • Infected teeth and/or gums
  • Periodontal disease
  • Hooks - which are sharp protrusions of teeth that can penetrate the opposing gum
Any condition causing pain can discourage the required chew time necessary for proper digestion and may induce colic and/or choke.

Optimal mastication (grinding) requires significant unobstructed motion of the jaw. Eating from ground level in a natural grazing position allows the mandible (jaw bone) to come down and forward in the atlantoaxial and temporomandibular joints. This enables the mandible to move up and down, side to side, forward and back without any restriction - facilitating natural wear of teeth along with optimum mastication and reduction of particle size. 

Why Movement is Important for Overall Health

Let's face it - most minis don't get a lot of exercise. Mobility stimulates gut motility and increases the metabolic rate thereby decreasing the risk of colic and increasing the uptake of glucose. 

Ways to encourage movement:
  • Provide multiple slow feed stations
  • Allow multiple individuals to eat and live together full time
  • Create a Paddock Paradise / track system
  • Provide enrichment toys
  • Plan routine exercise

What if My Mini Has a "Hay Belly"?

According to Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D.:
"A hay belly does not equate to an overweight horse when the rest of his body is normal, actual fat does not accumulate extensively on the horse’s lower abdomen (belly).
Overweight individuals do accumulate worrisome fat in specific areas such as the neck, withers, back, ribs, shoulders, and tail head. Excessive fat in these areas can indicate the calories fed exceed the actual needs of the individual, lack of nutrients necessary for optimum thyroid and hormone function and/or the sugar and starch levels in your feeding program need to be assessed and/or reduced. 

Horse owners who deliberately limit hay consumption and replace it with cereal grain, hay pellets or complete feeds to avoid a hay belly are doing their horses a disservice and increase the risk of digestive and metabolic disorders. Forage (hay or pasture) should be the foundation of all horse’s diet."

Additional causes of a distended abdomen can be attributed to ulcers and/or parasites. Excessive gas can give the appearance of a hay belly from large amounts of indigestible fiber lacking optimum mastication either from bolting hay or dental challenges. 

Slow feeding encourages more chew time reducing the size of particles and increasing saliva production better preparing fiber for the digestive tract.
"My three mini-donkey Jennets LOVE their mini Hay Pillows. I love the savings from reduced hay loss, easier to clean stall floors, reduced aggression since each has their own pillow and their attention is focused on it not each other and my goal is that it will be successful in their losing weight without my being hated for it ;)"
 ~ Fred

How to Deal with Special Dietary Needs & Metabolic Issues

Always consider nutrition when dealing with any health or mental issue. Feeding a balanced diet including sufficient vitamins and minerals (supplemented in a concentrated form) in proper ratios including  free-choice forage (low in non-structural carbohydrates for overweight individuals) and routine exercise is healthiest for your herd.

For information on insulin resistance, overall nutrition, and balancing a diet to your specific forage, visit these websites:
  • Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D. at
  • Eleanor M. Kellon, VMD at Dr. Kellon offers classes online to learn how to interpret a hay or pasture analysis and formulate a custom vitamin/mineral mix balanced to that specific forage. 

Helpful How To Resources For Slow Feeding


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Monique Warren, Hay Pillow Founder with the Hay Pillow Slow Feeder product line - standard ground hay pillow, mini hay pillow, hanging hay pillow & horse trailer manger hay pillow

About the Author

Monique Warren invented the Hay Pillow® slow feeder and is the owner of Hay Pillow Inc. ​Warren has been an equine guardian for over forty years and slow-feed advocate for over 10 years. She contributes equine nutrition, digestive and hoof health articles to publications such as Equine Wellness, The Journal, The Naturally Healthy Horse, Natural Horse Magazine, Nicker News, The Horse's Hoof and Miniature Horse World Magazine. Equine nutrition and horses feet are her passions. She resides in Southern California.

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