Slow feeding gives horses free-access forage 24 hours per day. Even without access to pasture, horse owners can take steps to create slow feeding systems for horses kept in dry lots and stalls.
Benefits to Slow Feeding
In their natural environments, horses graze almost constantly, with a few breaks for rest and activity. Their digestive systems need steady, consistent forage intake to prevent insulin spikes and gastric acid buildup. Many modern horse owners feed their horses two or three meals daily rather than providing consistent forage access. This system puts horses into "survival mode" where their bodies increase cortisol levels, which causes them to store fat. In addition, some horses develop vices from lack of forage. These may include cribbing, wind sucking, wood chewing, weaving, wall kicking and stall walking. Others develop ulcers, and in extreme cases, laminitis.
Owners who want to slow feed their horses must purchase proper equipment. Several types of feeders effectively increase the time that horses take to consume their hay and grain.
Hay is the foundation of horse's diet, and hay nets are essential for slow feeding. A study performed by the University of Minnesota found that hay nets with small or medium openings increased the time horses took to finish their meal. In the study, small openings were one inch across and medium openings were 1.75 inches across. Hay nets with large openings six inches across had little effect on consumption time versus horses fed hay without a net.
Hay nets are easy for owners to use. Put the desired amount of hay in the hay net and place it for the horse to consume. Sizes range from small nets that hold only a few flakes of hay to large nets that cover entire round bales.
According to an article written by Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D., owners must properly place hay nets to avoid injuries. The best practice is to place hay nets in tires or hard-sided feeders to prevent horses from pawing at the nets and becoming tangled. This allows horses to eat in a natural position with their heads lowered. Securely mount the hay net within the feeder so that the horse cannot get his head between the net and the feeder. A horse may trap his head behind a net if the net is hung in a stall or the horse may become frustrated if the net swings while he eats. If the hay net is on the ground without hard-sided feeders, shod horses may paw at the nets and get the webbing caught between their shoes and their hooves, causing panic or injury.
Where to Buy
Owners have several options for hay nets. They may divide the horse's meal into several small hay nets and place the nets at different locations around the pens or stalls, which will encourage your horse to move. When only one horse occupies a pen or stall, an owner may place the entire meal in one large hay net with small or medium openings. In a group herd situation, consider covering an entire round bale with a hay net so that horses have constant access to free-choice hay. This mimics the eating patterns of pasture horses.
- Hay Chix - Hay Chix sells a variety of slow feeder hay nets. A small bale net that fits one square bale costs around $45.00, and a round bale net costs around $180.00.
- Ultimate Slow Feeder Hay Net - State Line Tack sells the Ultimate Slow Feeder Hay Net for under $9. This net has one-inch by one-inch sized openings and is available in a variety of colors. Each net holds five to six flakes of hay.
Hard-Sided Hay Feeders
According to Dr. Getty, rubber or hard plastic slow feeders are a safe option for horses in stalls or pens.
Larger feeders can accommodate two or three horses at a time, however, consider placing multiple feeders so that more submissive horses have access to hay. For horses with heaves, the hay dust accumulates at the bottom of the feeder, reducing cough.
Wood feeders or those with metal grates are unsafe for horses. Wood feeders have sharp edges that can cause lacerations or punctures. Metal grates damage teeth, and in extreme cases, horses may get their teeth stuck. Horses that paw may get their hooves stuck in the metal grates, and this is especially dangerous for shod horses.
Where to Buy
- Porta-Grazer - Porta-Grazer sells several hard-sided hay feeders manufactured in the United States. For safety, the company also sells grazer pans in a variety of sizes to prevent horses from getting hooves caught while consuming enough hay. The Free-Standing Corner Grazer holds 75 percent of a standard-sized, two-string square bale or 60 percent of a three-string square bale. The company notes that the weight of the hay held in the feeder depends on the type of hay and the moisture level in the bales. This feeder costs about $320 and includes buyer's choice of grazer pan. The smaller Mini Porta-Grazer costs around $240 and holds one-third of a two-string bale or one-fifth of a three-string bale.
Slow Grain Feeders
Horses who eat their grain quickly are at risk for esophageal blockage, also called choke. With choke, a horse can breathe but is unable to swallow food or water, which increases its risk of severe dehydration.
Specialized grain feeders increase the time horses take to consume grain. This encourages horses to chew food thoroughly, which reduces the risk of choke. In addition, they are easy to use. Place the desired amount of grain in the feeders and then place the feeders on the ground for the horses.
Some feeders disperse the grain on the ground, so horses consume sand and dirt while eating. This increases their risk of sand colic.
Where to Buy
- Pre-Vent Grain Feeder - Texas A&M University developed the Pre-Vent Grain feeder. This container has several cups on the bottom, and horses must work to get the grain out of each cup. The manufacturer reports that this system increases grain consumption time by 21 to 60 minutes. It also reduces spillage, which prevents horses from eating grain off the ground, reducing sand colic or parasites. The feeder allows horses to consume their grain with their heads low, in a natural eating position. A small Pre-Vent Grain Feeder costs around $40, and a large one costs around $60.
- Shires Ball Feeder - SmartPak sells the Shires Ball Feeder. Owners put grain in the ball, and horses move it around to get the grain out. This ball costs just around $20 and is available in a variety of colors.
Rather than purchasing a specialized grain feeder, horse owners can add several bocci balls to their horses' buckets or feeders. This method requires the horses to move the balls around to reach their grain, which increases consumption time.
Rather than purchasing hay nets or specialized grain feeders, horse owners may use grazing muzzles instead.
Grazing muzzles cover the horses' muzzles so that they can only eat small portions with each mouthful. Muzzles either attach directly to the noseband of the halter, or they have straps that go over the horses' heads to hold the muzzle in place. Horses can eat both hay and grain. This is an inexpensive way to introduce horses to slow feeding.
Some horses are more prone to spilling grain with a grazing muzzle. They then eat their spilled grain off the ground, which can lead to sand colic. Verify that grazing muzzles have breakaway straps in case muzzles get entangled on an object in the stalls or pens. Without breakaway straps, horses can be seriously injured. Consider attaching muzzles to breakaway halters for additional safety.
Where to Buy
- Tough-1 Easy Breathe Grazing Muzzle - Chewy.com sells the Tough-1 Easy Breathe Grazing Muzzle in five sizes, ranging from Miniature to Large Horse. This muzzle has large holes in the front, allowing horses to breathe easier, and only allows them to consume hay and grain through one small opening at the bottom. The cost is under $25.
- Best Friend Grazing Muzzle - Best Friend Grazing Muzzle attaches directly to horses' halters. Dover Saddlery sells this muzzle in four sizes for under $45.
In their natural environment, horses move almost constantly while grazing. To mimic this, place several slow feeders around the perimeter of the horses' pens, creating a track that horses must follow to consume their entire meal. Setting the hay nets or hard-sided feeders away from the water tank encourages more movement. In stalls, place one hay net on each side so that horses can rotate from one to the other. Owners may place specialized grain feeders any place that horses can access. Placing these away from hay nets and water tanks encourages movement.
Feeding hay before grain encourages horses to eat slower and reduces choke from eating grain too quickly. Although some horse owners argue that feeding hay before grain encourages horses to ignore their hay and wait for their grain, a study by Purina found that horses fed hay 20 minutes before their grain consumed their grain slower than those fed grain first. Purina also found that horses ate textured feeds, such as Omolene 200, faster than pelleted feed, such as Strategy.
- Use several small hay nets to encourage movement rather than placing entire meals in one hay net. The more horses move, the slower they eat.
- If more than one horse lives in a pen, use at least one more hay net than the number of horses. Horses develop a "pecking order" in herd situations, and more dominant horses may run submissive horses away from the feed. The extra hay net ensures that all horses have access to feed.
- Switch from textured feed to pelleted feed to slow grain consumption.
- Add water to grain until it reaches a soup-like consistency. This forces horses to take smaller bites and chew their grain.
- Feed hay first, then grain at least 20 minutes later.
- Place several large tractor tires around the perimeter of the pens, and place hay nets in the tractor tires to prevent horses from getting tangled. Horses who paw are unlikely to injure themselves on the tire rubber.
Best for Horses
Slow feeding closely mimics horses' eating patterns in their natural environments. By making a few changes and purchasing inexpensive supplies, horse owners can easily create effective slow feeding systems for their horses.