We like to pride ourselves on being clever and having developed the concept of slow feeding for our modern-day horses. The reality is that we are way behind the times.
There are two main groups of animals that are designed to eat and thrive on forages like grasses and hays. The ruminants (cows, sheep and deer, for example) eat a lot of forage quickly and then go lie down and rest. The food is stored in their rumen and later regurgitated and carefully chewed and digested. Equines use a different tactic. They move about all day, grazing as they go, and utilize the extra digestive capabilities in their massive intestinal tract to squeeze out all the nutrients from the food.
So the basic, natural horse-feeding design is “slow feeding.” Both physiologically and psychologically, horses are designed to wander about all day eating. Unfortunately, most modern-day horses spend half their day or more in a stall. Food is served, at most, three to four times a day. And it’s often in the form of easily digested, quickly eaten grains and some hay that is served in small and “easy to chow down quickly” flakes.
The foods fed tend to be concentrated calories from grain and hay. Hay has more dry matter than grass. That means an equal volume of hay has more nutrients and less water/moisture than an equal volume of grass. Plus, concentrates (aka grains) are a richer diet than the wild equine is likely to find, except on rare occasions. This quickly eaten and quickly digested menu leaves horses open to a number of problems.
Body And Mind.Psychologically, horses will quickly get bored when in a stall. This can be compounded if you have a young horse with an injury who has to be stall bound for a while. In a pasture, that same horse would be grazing, checking out all the activity outdoors and running and interacting with the other horses. Shut in a stall with limited food that is quickly eaten, with nothing to watch and no one to interact with, the young horse will quickly pick up stall vices. These can range from cribbing and chewing to digging holes and banging on the walls.
Physiologically, horses kept stalled are prone to colic and ulcers. No food for hours at a time means a buildup of acid in the stomach. And the glucose spikes from concentrated grains can lead to insulin resistance and metabolic disease problems. Obesity may follow with its own associated health problems.
Enter the “new” methods devised to mimic slow feeding for the horse who has to spend a fair amount of time in a stall or a paddock without forage. There are now feeding systems and aids to help your horse spread out his eating and more closely follow a natural lifestyle.
What To Do. One easy step is with your concentrate feedings. Some methods that have shown to keep glucose spikes down include buckets with built-in obstacles on the bottom (like plastic bumps). You can also put in some firm balls like Bocce balls that a horse has to move around to get every piece of grain. Yes, an irritated horse may simply throw the bucket around and spill all his feed, but at least that will slow his eating down too. You could simply spread the grain on the ground, but we don’t recommend that as you really don’t want your horse taking in a lot of dirt or sand.
But forage consumption is where slow-feed techniques can really help an individual horse. One way to slow down forage consumption is to use a grazing muzzle out on pasture. A grazing muzzle can cut down a horse’s grass consumption by as much as 75 percent. With a muzzle, your horse gets the benefits of being outside and grazing in a pasture with other horses without the excessive grass consumption.
It’s important to make sure the muzzle fits correctly and doesn’t rub anywhere on your horse. Generally, use of a grazing muzzle goes best if you introduce it gradually. Have your horse wear it for five or 10 minutes at first in the stall. Build up to a half hour, hour and a couple of hours. We don’t recommend leaving a grazing muzzle on for 24 hours straight but some horses adapt to that nicely. Always do daily checks for any sores or rub spots, and choose a muzzle that allows the horse to drink water freely. We’ve yet to see a muzzle we like better than the Best Friend Equine Muzzle (www.bestfriendequine.com, 800-681-2495).
If grass pasture isn’t an option for your horse, determine how to slow down his hay consumption. As mentioned, hay is a dry matter food, so the nutrients are concentrated. You may want your horse to have four flakes of hay a day, but it would be nice if that was spread out over the entire day and not all consumed in one hour. Realistically, most horse owners can’t swing by two or three times during the day to hand out a flake of hay.
Luckily, manufacturers have come up with some nifty solutions to provide hay once a day that will keep your horse chewing for hours. There are slow-feeding hay nets that have small openings so your horse has to work with his lips to pull hay out. If he can use his teeth, the hay gets eaten quite quickly. Most of these nets are designed to be hung while others can be left on the ground (assuming you have a clean, dry area to put them).
It’s important, while researching the best slow feed nets, for your situation to thoroughly look at the size of the holes (if too big, your horse will eat just as fast as if his hay was on the ground or in an open rack), ways to close up and hang the net so your horse can’t get a foot caught or simply pull the flake out and also the way to hang the net so your horse won’t bang an eye or cut his head.
There are nets that can hold multiple flakes of hay and keep your horse busy chewing all day, while other nets may keep him occupied for a couple of hours. (See chart.)
Clever owners may come up with homemade versions of slow feeders. This could include barriers such as a board with holes fitted on top of a tub of hay, feeders with barriers to slow down hay consumption, or wire grids or racks on the wall that only allow a small amount of hay to be pulled through at one time can also work.
One advantage to using a slow feed net for your hay feeding is that horses tend to chew more thoroughly. They work hard to get that mouthful of hay and they make the most of it. When eating hay rapidly, they tend to chew less and miss some of the nutrients from the hay. And there’s usually less hay lost through waste on the ground or spread around the stall.
Field Trial. For the most part, the products in our field trial were of outstanding quality (we didn’t have any destroyed by our test horses). And they were definitely creative, showing manufacturers used some thought and ingenuity.
The slow feed hay nets allowed the stall-bound horse to never run out of hay, which decreased his boredom significantly (next month, we’ll talk about our experience with some horse toys).
We were interested to see that, after just a few weeks of trials, horses tended to prefer eating hay out of the slow-feed bag over the loose hay that was provided on the ground.
The major downside to all of the feeders was the manner in which they were hung.We find that eye clips have the potential to cause injuries if a horse gets caught on them, so we were not real keen on those. The tying/hanging the bag by a simple “cinch” of the top of the bag over the hay and then tying with the extra cord was awkward at best, as lifting the full hay bag up and holding it while we secured it was challenging at times.
We ended up creating a place to hang the bag in the stall and used baling twine to wrap the bag cord through and tie it with a quick release knot. However, that was often not secure enough, as we’d sometimes return in the morning to find the bag pulled down and mashed into the manure.We challenge manufacturers to try to find a batter manner to close and fasten these bags.
Bottom Line.There are few drawbacks to instituting slow-feed practices, but you may need to experiment to find the system or combination of methods that works best for an individual horse. It's worth it, though, as it will keep your horse healthier, in a more natural state, and may even save you some money in the long run.
Overall, our favorite was the bag from Nag Bags, very closely followed by Nibble Net and Purely Ponies, which earns Best Buy. Your choice of size depends upon your horse and use.
Article by Contributing Veterinary Editor Deb Eldredge DVM.