The concept of slow feeding is gaining popularity for good reason. The term ”slow feeding” refers to methods to slow down the rate at which the horse can eat his hay. If you think about it, hay is a somewhat concentrated food. It’s grass with the water removed, so each mouthful is a more concentrated source of calories. In fact, hay contains seven to eight times more calories than live grass. Grass is 70 to 80% water, while hay is usually around 10%.
Some horses will limit their hay intake to their need, but most don’t. This leads to overweight horses and necessitates hay restriction. Hay restriction leaves the horse with too much time on his hands and vices like wood chewing commonly follow.
In addition to reducing boredom, allowing the horse to eat more continuously has metabolic and other health benefits. Providing food in a few meals rather than spread out evenly can result in higher insulin responses to feeding. Owners of horses with metabolic syndrome know how important this is to their horse’s well being and health. Slow feeding also encourages normal intestinal function and keeps something in the stomach at all times as a buffer against acid.
Make Your Own
We learned that some owners have come up with homemade versions that get the job done for a fraction of the cost. Something as simple as a galvanized ground feeder can be fitted with a piece of wood with circular holes in it to place over top of the hay. Even with 3” diameter holes, eating time is slowed considerably. The one in our picture was made with a ??” thick piece of fiberboard. The wood weighs between four and five pounds and the horses made no attempt to pick it up. U bolts can be added to the bottom of the feeder to adapt it to hold the hay bag of your choice, secured to the bolts with snaps.
Any wooden crate can be used as a hay feeder, and several people have made their own using half inch to 1 inch thick wood, reinforcing the corners on the outside with cut sections of 2x4s. For a grid, any type of suitably sized mesh or chain link can be secured to a wooden frame.
Easier yet is to use gridwall. Gridwall is a flat metal grid composed of usually 3” squares, used in stores on walls to mount shelves or displays. They come in a variety of lengths and widths, can be cut to the desired size and fasteners are available to hold sections together, if needed. Heavy racks from old barbeque grills can also work. Anything that’s safe.
You can convert your regular hay bags to slow-feeding bags by filling a bag then putting one or two more bags on top, overlapping the squares to make them smaller.
One Horse Journal reader hand made her own ”hay pillow” by weaving together strips of heavy weight 2” binding, trimming it with heavy 4” binding and using ties of binding to close the top opening. This ended up costing about the same as a Busy Horse hay bag but you have the flexibility of picking the size of the openings.
If you’re not inclined to make your own feeder, manufacturers are beginning to respond to the demand for slow-feeding products. We have included only systems under $500, and you can even save more with some ingenious do-it-yourself ideas.
All these products claim to slow down eating, but the experience of owners is that any system that allows the horses to get hold of hay with their teeth doesn’t slow eating. To be most effective, the system must force the horse to tease out the hay using only his lips. If the surface is pliable, as in hay bags, you may have to get below 2” size openings to really slow them down. With more rigid surfaces, 3” holes or smaller will stretch out their eating time.
The good old-fashioned small mesh hay bag wins hands down for price and the why-didn’t-we-think-of-this-sooner award. It works and holds generous amounts of hay. If you have safety concerns about nets, see safety sidebar on page 10.
Of the commercial feeders, The Grazer is our choice. The aluminum won’t rust like steel feeders eventually will, it’s lightweight and more readily portable. The 2.5” space between bars will slow feeding effectively. Only drawback we noted is that a smart horse might figure out that he too can lift that grate and get his nose in under it for easier eating.
Article by Eleanor Kellon, VMD, our veterinary editor. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Vet School and has extensive experience with high-performance horses.With her husband, she breeds, races and trains Standardbred harness horses in Pennsylvania.