We fully support the concept of slow feeding because it best mimics natural grazing, which the modern horse’s physiology is set up to use but today’s horse management systems often can’t match.
Like you, we’ve seen all types of homemade hay feeding devices for horses. It seems the more accepted the concept of slow feeding becomes, the more numerous are the do-it-yourself (DIY) products.
Those DIY products are interesting, and we applaud the effort and ingenuity it takes to produce a good hay feeder. Like most of our readers, we maintain pretty tight horse budgets, so DIY can be attractive. But not everyone is capable of making a horse-proof feeder. If you go to YouTube and search for “horse feeder,” you’ll find a host of contraptions out there. Or search on Google for slow feeding and click the images tab.
Most of the homemade feeders we’ve come across involve a barrel, trash can or wooden feed trough of some type with a net or board covering the top. The board has holes drilled in it, so that the horse simply has to push down on the board to get the hay to poke out of it so they can grab it. However, we are not keen about our horses constantly chewing at a board to get their hay, as we worry about splinters. And the netting can be difficult to keep tight and avoid stretching as horses pull on it.
As an example, last January, on Facebook, we saw a plastic barrel turned upside down with a hay net secured the bottom of it. The horse pulled the hay out of the net, reaching under the barrel to get it. The entire apparatus was secured to a fence. The attributes were that the hay would stay dry and it would hold a full bale. However, a hay net hung that low to the ground is going to become worn more quickly and pick up mud. Plus, it’s in a spot just asking for a horse to get something caught on it.
When we did our field trial of slow-feeding products last year, we found a number of hay nets that were durable, offered a variety of hole sizes to suit many different horses, and were relatively easy to fill. Still, though, they involve hanging a device with strings and clips or other hardware around our horse. We did find bags that we were told you could fill and simply leave on the ground, but – worry warts that we are – we couldn't get fully secure using that system either.
With all this in mind, we were delighted when The Natural Feeder asked us to try their product. With this system, you can feed a bale of hay at a time, but it limits how much hay the horse can grab at once – like a good slow feeder. It rests on the ground, so we didn’t have to wrestle with hooks and hanging devices. And our horses didn’t have to chase a “moving target” to get hay, which can sometimes happen with a hay net, depending upon how it’s secured. (Of course, a really bored horse might do better with a hay bag that he has to “chase,” as it will take up more of his time.)
We found The Natural Feeder simple to load, although it did take a little effort. Basically, you have to flip the feeder over to fill it. Next, you ensure that the top grate with the feeder openings is in place. You then insert a bale of hay (more or less, depending upon your horses) on top of the grate, slide in the solid bottom piece in and turn the feeder right side up. And, because you load from the bottom, the “oldest” hay is consumed first.
It’s not as time consuming for the horse as the usual slow-feeding hay bags, but it still limits hay consumption and waste. There are variable grates (3”, 2.5”, 2”) to put on top of the feeder to adjust to what your horse needs. It's made for use outside or in a run-in shed. It's a little too big for most stalls.
The feeder is very lightweight, about 55 lbs., so turning it over constantly is not a big deal for most horse people. It’s only a little larger than a good-sized traditional bale of hay. For the average horse, its height is a little more than knee-high.
The three horses in our test barn loved the feeder, never hesitating to grab some hay form it – even when the grass was green and lush. As the website will tell you, three horses is the limit for one feeder, and we agree. We’d actually suggest one feeder for every two horses (bear in mind that a recommendation like this is assuming the horses are close to the average weight of 1,100 lbs.; draft horses may need one each, while four miniature horses might share one feeder).
As instructed, we began our trial with the largest grate and we pulled hay up through the grates. We also purposely began with our most-appealing hay to ensure interest in the product.
We gradually moved down to the smallest grate without trouble. After that, though, we determined that our horses were fine with the middle grate and our usual hay. However, this is what really surprised us: The waste associated with this feeder was minimal. Our trial horses didn’t pull out tons of hay and just scatter it all over the place. They were content to stand there and eat with their heads over this manger-like device. Note we said “our” horses . . . experiences may vary here.
The Natural Feeder is made in the USA of recycled plastic. It appears extremely durable to us, as we had no problems with it over the course of our trial (almost a year).
The downsides we found? Well, a horse can push it around if he chooses to do so, and we all know horses who love “toys” of any type. Even with a bale of hay in it, it’s not that heavy. And you probably don’t want to use it in a stall due to its size and height (think about yet another place to remove manure). Finally, some folks may find flipping the feeder over and back daunting.
If your horse spends most of his time in a small area, like a stall, you’re probably better off with one of the hay net-style slow feeders. You can read about our favorites here. However, if you need a slow-feed product for a larger area, we were very happy with the Natural Feeder.
Its design “naturally” places the horse in position to eat with his head lowered. And we believe the solid plastic will likely reduce the chances of an injury. (That said, when it comes to equine injuries . . . if there’s a will there’s a way.)
The Natural Feeder is durable, easy to use and well designed. Our test horses were immediately attracted to it, possibly because it resembles a water trough.
Prices start at $379 with discounts for purchasing multiple Feeders at once. www.thenaturalfeeder.com
Article by Lee Foley, Contributing Farrier Editor