I was taught growing up that horses like and need routine. They should be fed and turned out at the same time every day. I adhered to that for years, religiously showing up at the barn for chores with no more than a 10 minute window of flexibility (and feeling horribly guilty if a family outing disrupted it). And it certainly appeared that it was true. The horses always gave indications that they were desperate to be fed or were found waiting impatiently at the gate if I was late.
In recent years, I have started to question this and now am feeling a lot less convinced. One argument backing this requirement is the sensitive nature of the horse's digestive system. I won't dispute that horses can suffer maladies from ulcers to colic if their routine is upset. But is it routine they crave? I recently read a highly respected trainer's website which stated that the horse is a creature of habit with an internal clock. I can go along with that, but it went on to say there are certain times to graze and certain times to rest. This is where I question.
I think we all have an internal clock ("all" meaning humans, dogs, cats, horses and livestock: the species with which I am most familiar). I think those do become finely tuned, as people who have dogs and cats who know dinner time within one minute will attest. Anyone who has traveled from the East Coast to the West Coast with a toddler and been joyously woken at 4: AM because it's breakfast time on the East Coast can support me on that one. And anyone who has then tried to tell that toddler that it's not breakfast time will understand that yes, there is a NEED for breakfast at that time.
So it seems like I'm arguing against myself but think about the following: we are the ones who have clocks that we set to feed animals. In the natural world, horses eat almost constantly; they don't have a meal time at all. Wild canines and felines eat when they catch something, which is determined as much by what is being pursued as by when the animal decides to go hunt. So I say we are the ones who set their internal clocks and I question how necessary that is.
I'm not suggesting that anyone who feeds two or three meals start feeding them to their horses at random times of the day. I am suggesting that if we respect the true nature of the horse by having something available to go through that digestive tract at all times, then they won't really care whether that arrives at 6: AM or 10: AM. We do know that grain is not the best food for horses and many of us avoid feeding it. With the invention of the slow feeder hay nets or boxes, we can make a flake of hay last much longer than if we throw it on the ground and in my experience, the horses are much less desperate when I show up with the next meal. They don't behave differently if I show up an hour early or an hour late from any random time I choose to do my chores. That's a 2 hour window rather than a 15 minute one. More than that and I think the tummies have been empty long enough that they are impatient.
The reasons we have times to feed is for human need. We need to get a shower and get to work or the employees show up at a certain time and need to get the feeding and mucking done so that the riding and training can begin. When we are consistent for our human needs, then yes, the internal clocks of the animals, who are under our complete control as to when and what they eat, get set as well.
In my corner of the world, many people, including myself, turn horses out at night during the summer which is when the heat and bugs are least bothersome. During the winter, we turn them out during the day when it's warmer and they are snug in their barns at night when it's bitterly cold outside. Every Spring and Fall, there is The Switch. When does one change the turnout schedule? Labor Day? Talk about a random date! First frost? Also random and not necessarily indicative of what the next several weeks' weather will be.
If left to their own devices, this schedule would be much more gradual. I do believe horses in this climate like to be locked in away from the wind at night in winter and I also believe they like being in their stalls where it's cooler and less buggy during the summer days. However, I like to let them choose as much as possible. If I have someone arriving for a lesson, I make sure the horses are in and have had their breakfasts before then. But on days like today, when my schedule doesn't require their cooperation, I watch to see what they choose. On hot, muggy days, they come up to the barn earlier, tails switching and feet stomping in the run-in until I let them in. On cooler, breezy, late summer days, they come up for a drink, but then go back out to graze some more. The "grain" they get is simply a forage supplement but they do get this each morning. Yet the opportunity to move and graze, come and go, seems more compelling than getting in their stalls for this artificial meal. If they truly had an internal clock which either their bodies or their minds needed, then wouldn't they be waiting for this routine at the same time each day?
Many times we are simply cueing our animals to expect to be fed or turned out. Because of chubbiness, I bring the two smaller ponies into a dirt paddock at dark, rather than leaving them out on grass all night with the others. Everyone gets turned out together at about 4: PM. When I go out as it begins to get dark (which happens just a tiny bit earlier each night), those two ponies come up to the barn. This isn't 100% consistent but any time it happens, it does surprise me. They are coming off grass, to be put on dirt with a flake of last year's 1st cut hay. I think the reinforcement is different for each. Kizzy gets her grazing muzzle taken off and she must find eating hay without a muzzle preferable to fighting for grass with one. She's usually the first one to appear. Rumer likes Kizzy and likes to be with her, so when she sees Kizzy come up, or sees me move her to the other paddock, she comes running as well. So in that instance, I think we have a cue (my arrival at the barn and Kizzy's arrival at the barn) which predicts a behavior (their arrival at the barn) and then reinforcers (hay/no muzzle and companionship).
Likewise, I think that given freedom to choose when to eat and when to rest, environmental cues are a lot more causative than "routine". Therefore, I make a point to be inconsistent so that my horses don't fret if something changes. I make sure there is sufficient forage for digestive health, that they have free access to water and shelter, and then I do chores when it's convenient for me, or when it's convenient for them.
As always, I'd love to hear what others think about this.