Many thanks to trailrider20 for putting this article together while real life has me away from the blog. While I’ve had no need of slow feeding a horse before, there’s no doubt that there are individuals that gorge themselves and otherwise overeat, and those with medical conditions that need a very controlled diet. Since horses are grazers, these latter two pose additional health dilemmas with their need for tightly controlled feeding. It is in these types of cases that slow feeders can potentially help. As trailrider20 points out some pitfalls, I’d also like to add that there’s a risk of increasing stress via frustration if a hungry horse can’t get enough feed via a slow feeder, defeating the purpose. Like with so many other things in life, balance is key.
If you are not familiar with slow feeders check out Paddock Paradise and Swedish Hoof School.
If you are happy with what you’re doing, don’t mess with slow feeders. They are a hassle to use; the hay must be checked, the feeder must be kept clean. But if you are wasting any hay, even the pricier feeders will pay for themselves.
Switch over to using it the same way you’d switch to a new feed.
Except for the small mesh hay net (SMHN), it’s usually a good idea to make a homemade feeder to see what works before spending the big bucks on a manufactured one.
Slow feeding does sound great, but what if you have an aggressive eater, easy keeper, or just an older horse on a lot of senior feed that doesn’t need as much hay? Slow feeding 24/7 will work with most horses, but what do you do if it doesn’t?
There are 3 ways to go, bag or net, horizontal, and vertical.
Most people start with a SMHN. They are cheap, easy to clean, and given a few weeks will work for most horses. To work best they should swing free. Securing them in a tub is another popular way to use them. There are now a dizzying array of nets and bags available. I’ve never tried any of the bags, they looked too hard to keep clean, and the nets did not work for my horse. If it was swinging free, he was constantly batting it around at the same time he was chewing and swallowing. Since we are trying to get the horse to eat in as natural a way as possible, this is not it. Putting it inside a tub did not stop him from doing this; also he started grinding down his teeth.
These feeders keep your horse’s head down in a more natural position and there is nothing to bat around. There are a lot of manufactured ones, but it’s easy to make one. I’ve seen vinyl lattice (my horse crunched that in 1 second and I had to grab him to make sure nothing was going down his gizzard), chain link (lip could get caught), wood with holes cut in (splinters?), and all kinds of other kooky things.
However these feeders have a big problem. They are a hassle to keep clean. Your aggressive eater is not going to “gently take a few strands and slowly and thoughtfully chew them” like the manufacturers of these things claim. He’ll be using his teeth and lips – my horse used his tongue – and because I have flies they would descend like something out of a horror movie.
How often you need to clean it will depend on whether it’s inside or out, the amount of moisture in the air, but the hay can get moldy fast. Think long and carefully before using a horizontal. Keep in mind that the feeder should be easy for someone else to clean, too.
When a company came out with a barrel thingy with a plastic top full of holes I thought this might be a good idea. The barrel was small enough to just pick up and take out of the corral to clean, and my horse might not grind his teeth down on the plastic. I took a muck bucket and cut some holes in it (yes, my holes are a lot bigger but that was the best I could do). I took a second muck bucket, put hay in it, and put mine on top, thusly.
My horse put his head down in there and in a few minutes had so much steam going, besides inhaling hay particles, that this did not work. If your horse picks his head out of the barrel every so often, this thing could work. I tried turning it around and this did work.
But I could not figure out how to get more than a small amount of hay in there and keep his head low to the ground, besides securing it so he didn’t roll it all over the corral. I gave up on that promising design.
But don’t worry that I did all that work for nothing. I put the one with holes in it on my muck bucket cart, and use it every day as my hay is often dusty or dirty. In fact, most of the things I tried that did not work, I eventually found another use for.
These feeders have a chute that the hay slides down against a grate and the horse eats from the side of the mouth. I have used a vertical for many years with some minor damage to the teeth.
However, these feeders have a problem. It might take a week, it might take a month, but the hay will get stuck in the chute, seemingly defying gravity as it hangs there refusing to move down to the grate. I solved this by making it a spring load. Here is my home made spring load, guaranteed 100% to work.
Even if one of the springs breaks, in this case I’m using bungee cords for the springs; the other one will push the hay to the grate.
You will notice that mine is slanted, not straight up and down, to keep my horse’s head in a more natural position.
However, there was a level of frustration, a certain amount of pressure to head and neck that just never went away, and I eventually gave up on slow feeders and switched to this automatic feeder.
And it wasn’t until I did so, feeding every few hours around the clock, that slow feeding actually started to work with this horse. Do I feel bad about using the slow feeders all those years when it so obviously wasn’t working? Of course, but I thought I was doing what was best for the horse.
Automatics are very expensive, but they are easy to use and keep clean.
Do It Yourself Automatic Feeders
On the internet you will find some homemade automatics. Even if you make a one shelf drop (yes, you can buy one but at that price l would get an electrician to make the drop and build the cabinet myself) keep in mind that you can program it to drop whenever you want. If you are currently feeding two times a day your horse will be fed four times, three feedings a day becomes six times and so on.
Keep safety in mind. My horse does not paw; if he did I would have to figure something else out. To keep the tub from being tossed all over the corral I use a rope, but keep the rope taped up under the lip so the horse can’t get at it.
If you check out Paddock Paradise, you will read the story of the donkey that died in a manufactured feeder. Make sure if you are hanging a bag or net, your horse cannot get his head tangled in it. Run your hand over your feeder to make sure there is nothing sharp that a lip could get caught on or in. Check your horse’s lips, teeth and tongue regularly. Your horse will probably lose a few whiskers. If you are having a problem, take a book or something and sit there for an hour to really see what your horse is doing, don’t just assume that it’s working if you only see what your horse is doing in the first five minutes of trying out a new feeder.
Our large co-op self-board barn uses home-made automatic timed feeders that drop from the loft. It’s occurring to me I said something about these feeders in response to some tangent on a previous post, and some people were bit nervous that they’d lead to not keeping a good enough eye on your horse? Anyhow, I’ve found it works really well to give four set feeds a day. I expect the Paint Mare would kill any hay net or anything that came between her and her food. Photobucket isn’t working for me today, so I will try to send some jpgs to Mercedes.
Yea, it was the discussion of the robot groom that triggered the idea for this article.
I would love to have my own place one of these days where I could keep my horses in a Paddock Paradise. Snow is the sort of horse that will inhale his hay and if on a roundbale will balloon to epic sizes. Since I haven’t been able to find any paddock board in the area where they don’t feed roundbales he’s been living in a stall, turnout in dry lots. I’ve been using a Nibblenet in his stall for at least a year and he does really well with that. In pulling hay out he usually rattles the bag enough for the finer bits to fall to the floor, so while not optimal grazing position at least he isn’t eating with his head up all the time. It’s not my favorite boarding situation, but i’m thankful that the Nibblenet makes it work just a little better for us.
Nibblenet has been around for a while, a lot of people do well with them. As long as the horse is not constantly batting it around as he chews and swallows, it’s working.
I never thought there’d ever be a referral to the Swedish Hoof School on Mercedes blog!
Mind you I never expected a diatribe on slow feeders either.
Not a diatribe. Just my experience. Future generations of horse lovers are going to be more like me and paint mare. Pasture for horses will dwindle. Hay will become more expensive.
Don’t tell me that you honestly think that a slow feeder is the solution for global farming and land development strategy, and changing weather patterns.
Hint: They’re not!
Having so many fat horses in the equine market is indeed a relatively new phenomena.
It’s directly commensurate with the fact that ever since the number of horse owners out stripped the number of horsemen/women, the knowledge level, let alone the skills level has been in a constant and often precipitous, decline.
It goes along with the trend for people to want the luxury lifestyle choice of a horse but not realising you have to actually know how and what and when to feed and exercise it.
It’s in direct correlation with the trend to obesity in the human population.
Slow feeders are not the solution to that either. Rather it requires an holistic approach and a different management strategy in it’s entirety.
IF you want a quick fix and something that stops your horse filling it’s face and getting fat then there’s been stuff available to the market for 300 or so years .
Just put me down as one of those crusty old horsemen who can’t abide pontificating about shopping. Especially when it’s really not what’s needed.
I swear I’m not trying to blow anything up 😉
Hoofhearted, what would you be your advice to creating a holistic strategy for equine weight management?
There is a boarder (mare) at my barn who is overweight and a chronic founder case, and on a pasture paradise system. My barn owner’s horses are all in good weight, and seem well-managed through-out the year; a little fat and fuzzy in winter, shiny and muscular in summer. The boarder’s feed is completely controlled by her owner, and I’m pretty sure she’s not being stuffed with treats by well-meaning visitors. Considering this mare gets slow feed hay, I’d say she needs more exercise, but from what I’ve seen the mare is too sore to be ridden.
I’m not going to tell someone else how to manage their horse, but I am curious what advice you would give regarding the overweight mare. What considerations or approaches would you take in this situation?
I haven’t the faintest idea what a “pasture paradise system” is????
In relation to your question though, first and foremost it’s critically important that horses are managed so they don’t get fat in the first place.
Obesity in horses is something I have a real “thing” about. I HATE it! Mercedes knows very well how much I loathe it.
It really isn’t that difficult to keep a horse in good condition and likewise to reduce weight.
Slimming down is a matter of “eat less, do more”. Because this particular horse is a chronic founder case then it can’t “do more”. That means there needs to be rigidity and strict management of reduction of feed. If the horse is overweight, then it’s getting too much to eat. It’s not rocket science!
If any of the horses on the premises are “a little fat” then they’re not well managed. Clearly they’re either eating too much for the work they do or they’re not doing sufficient work considering the feed their owners are stuffing down them.
My management starts with grass selection for paddocks. My horses are kept in herds so they do plenty of moving about.
Like a lot of stuff to do with horses, what was just “well known common sense” isn’t so common anymore. Horses are owned by folks who don’t know how to manage their environment, turnout, feed and pasture land. They think if its green, it’s grass and all grass is the same. Not so!
I’ve said frequently that I do not have my horses on the same sort of pasture land as I have cows and sheep. That’s not to say that I don’t complimentary graze because I do. I often use the cattle and sheep as part of grass crop rotation and to graze off fields for certain things.
But that’s often not the case and a hell of a lot of folks have horses in paddocks that are great for producing huge beef cattle or else that are stressed and full of weeds or turned out when there’s new growth or at times of the day and the year when there’s REALLY high sugar levels. So then we have a swing the other way and the “All grass is bad. All nitrogen or commercial fertilisers are bad. All sugar is bad” All of which of course is total bollocks!
Believe me I’m picky, picky, picky about horses not being fat, not getting laminitis, not getting undernourished, not having to suffer chronic colic and a whole host of other stuff because they’re digestive systems are wayyyyy over engineered! I swear they were designed by a committee.
So I follow gold old fashioned principles and that starts with checking the soil and where and when it’s deficient, then using appropriate nutrients.
Likewise you should select the grass seed mix according to what type of horses and ponies you have and what they do and specifically that means “how much work and how much energy they will need”. I have pony paddocks that are Rossa and Barcel, Creeping red fescue, Yorkshire fog, sheeps fescue, Cocksfoot, highland browntop, timothy and small amounts of sheeps parsley, yarrow and burnett. I also have horse paddocks that have Perennial Rye with Italian Rye grass which is relatively fast growing and good early growth and provides a good footing and that’s for horses in hard work.
I do advance / retreat strip grazing. There’s no point restricting grass in front of your horse by strip grazing if there’s a bloody great swathe of new growth behind it!
Mine don’t have hay at all from about April to October. They’re in paddocks that are properly and effectively managed for horses and ponies. There’s no need to keep them on dry lots or piddling little places with no grazing whatsoever. But you can’t just think you can just bung them in a green field and call it grazing.
Mine are in during the day and turned out at night. That way they avoid critical times when the sun is high or it’s frosty on spring mornings and when sugar is high in the grass. Also it’s cooler at night and so they’ll burn off more calories as they convert feed to heat to maintain body temperature.
Understand that not all hay is good either. A heck of a lot of owners are feeding hay to their horses that has much higher nutritional value and sugar content than even the lushest of my grass pasture land. I predict that will be the next “new fad”…. “all hay will be bad and require soaking”.
The general rule is to get educated on what is in the food you’re giving your horse. Have it tested. Make sure you feed according to nutritional requirements and to the activity the horse is doing…. NOT to “what you can easily do”.
And then after all that you have to remember it’s not just all about feed. Nowadays a lot of folks just don’t have time for a horse (dog or child!) …. they compensate for not spending quality time and doing things with it by filling it’s face with feed instead.
I’ve been on forums where people are talking about their horse being in “hard work” and it’s not even doing an hour ever day.
I’d be inclined to start by putting a photo of a horse that had it’s pedal bones protruding through the soles of its feet and lost it’s hoof capsule on the door of where it’s kept and with a great big notice telling people that IF they feed anything to this horse that they’re contributing to it’s severe pain and ultimately to it’s early demise.
Because it’s fat AND chronic foundered, it needs low nutritional value soaked hay and NOTHING else at all. And it needs absolutely no more than 1% of it’s ideal body weight per day. (note, not it’s actual body weight… it’s IDEAL body weight)
Things that can help to generally reduce weight off fat horses… note though not if it’s chronic founder and in severe pain… it shouldn’t be walking about and it shouldn’t be on grass at all. :
1) strip grazing – but remember it must be advance/retreat system. Don’t do what an owner I went to see does. 5 acres behind the horse of nice young (sugary) shoots growing!
2) Off all grass and feed low grade soaked hay only and control the amount given. Little and often is the order of the day.
3) Feed barley straw as a filler so the horse doesn’t want so much other stuff
4) Use a grazing muzzle if you’ve no choice but to turn him where there’s grass.
5) Don’t use straw beds – remember straw is food!
6) Bring the horse in during the day (no feed) and turn out at night when it’s cooler
7) Instead of having hay in one place, spread it out everywhere so he has to forage graze and walk to find it
8) Make sure you soak his hay and so reduce it’s sugar content.
9) Start getting him out and walk him up hills and gradually increase the duration and frequency.
10) Get a weight tape and use it only once a week and keep track of what he’s doing. If he’s not shedding weight then he needs less to eat or more to do.
11) Know how much the horse should eat per day for the energy it expends and appreciate that a horse should be eating hay at about 1 and 1.5% of the horse’s ideal body weight.
Remember it’s all quite simple…. weight loss is just a matter of eating less and/or doing more. Ensure you keep tight control and discipline on that and the weight will come off.
I didn’t look at/read either website linked in the article. The article is the opinion of trailrider20, not necessarily mine. Feel free to provide a contrary opinion as how it relates to that site. As of tomorrow I will be without Internet service for a number of days. Try not to blow up the blog.
that sounded an awful lot like a challenge, which i’m sure hoofhearted won’t refuse. 🙂
have had lots of experience with several types, and had some that worked very well. a pain in the arse to fill/clean, but better than a hungry bored horse, or an obese/foundered horse in my opinion, so i do think they are useful. i guess i’ve been either fairly creative, or very lucky.
Suffice it to say that the Swedish Hoof School is well known for publishing stuff about hooves that are just factually incorrect and darn right mad, bad and dangerous.
They for sure don’t know about anatomy or equine biomechanics.
I dare you to go watch their video “Final Proof”. It will make you want to slap them upsides the back of the head!
And as you know I’ve always been of the view that it’s not that difficult to trickle feed your horse and go shopping for a slow feeder and go figure which works best for what you fancy.
I promise not to blow up the blog and so I won’t say what I really think and I also promise not to write a diatribe on headcollars and whether leather or webbing or brown or pink or a little diamante might be best and in consideration to world economy, inflation and the commodities market. 😉
I meant only the part of Sweedish Hoof School that pertained to slow feeders.
To continue: Both sites I used have lots of information on slow feeders, have been around for a while and are often mentioned on other forums.
What I’d like to know is WHY individuals are using slow feed to begin with. Personally, I tried the nets at shows since the standard nets get emptied (typically all over the ground) in short order. My gelding especially was PO’d about pulling a few 8″ strands per bite and flung it all over the place. What’s working best is a net with one smallish hole on the side which seems to allow him to pull at the center of the flake rather than the ends so the hay ‘folds’ on the way out. Not having issues with obesity, cushings or any other dietary issues, I really don’t see the point in these frustrating things. I think the best solution to hay feeding is to feed small amounts as often as possible. And if there’s only time for 2 feedings a day, give them plenty. I’d rather feed a bunch of late cut grass hay to keep them out of trouble than a couple flakes of alfalfa that leaves 20 hours of idle time.
That’s what I do (lots of hay twice per day). My mare is a laid-back type who eats slowly enough that even with hay only twice a day she is rarely without hay in front of her. But of course horses are not all the same and I can see why some people want slow-feeding solutions. I’d be interested in the auto-drop system for small amounts more often mentioned above, but I struggle a bit with how that works… wouldn’t that mean the hay was dropping indoors only? Seems to preclude being fed outside. I guess it could work if you had stalls that open onto paddocks but it still seems like it would encourage the horses to be inside, eating or waiting for the next drop, and I like them outside.
I have stalls that open to the outside and I find that 2 horses typically want to hang out in 1 stall making a MESS of it so I’ve resorted to keeping doors closed. (have 3 paddocks/5 stalls/double stall run-in) It sounded good on paper at the time! Mine are out as much as weather or bugs allow and eat 20-30# of hay a day each. The mini could use less hay but his owner is teaching him to drive so hopes are we can burn some of it off! I don’t want to rely on a contraption to feed hay, I have to touch and throw by weight and don’t want to climb into the loft every day either.
“stress via frustration”, “these frustrating things”, Mercedes and blondemare hit the nail on the head concerning my horse. This is an old horse I’ve had for a long time, and I started trying to restrict his feed long before I ever heard the term slow feeder because I was concerned about how he scarfed up his hay. Let me add that he never lost or gained any weight during my attempts, this article is just an overview of everything I tried. I got the automatic because I figured it would be most useful for when I was out of town. Using it at night, dividing up his evening feed (by this time I was retired and already feeding him several times during the day) was just kind of a bonus. The photo of the front of the automatic with all the hay strewn around is what I see now when I get up in the morning. I was stunned to see him finally chewing, nay, NIBBLING hay, and have a bit of hay left over from each feeding. The key to getting this particular horse to slow feed was to feed him small amounts every few hours around the clock and not restricting him at all.
Chestnut mare, manufactured feeders can be inside or out, you just need to have then on the outside of your corral. Home made ones, I would guess, would have to be in some kind of weather proof box.
I can only speak from my experience, but when you acquire a horse that has not been cared for properly and comes with health, pain, or behavioural issues, you are limited in what you can do, vs what would be ideal regarding a management program.
for mine, free choice feeding did not work (led to obesity) neither did several smaller feeds a day (led to grumpy, miserable mare). each horse is individual, our current mare who is an air fern is content to go for a few hours without food in front of her, but would eat a slow feeder before learning to “nibble”, so several small meals work well.
to rule slow feeders out as only for the lazy or ignorant owners is to me, a bit harsh. i appreciate the write up, although i’ve tried lots of systems, it’s always nice to see other ideas and thoughts in case it’s needed in the future. so thanks to trailrider20. 🙂
I do not mean to criticize anyone, during my working years, 3 times a day was all I could do. I do think that slow feeders are great if they work for your horse.
Are these horses that are getting bored and frustrated turned out in a paddock or are they contained in something … like a pen or a stable?
slow feeders(hay net) work great for me for my prone-to-get-ulcers TB. he’s also out in a pasture 24/7 with another horse, but once the grass stops growing, he needs supplementing with a hay net. really helps to have something in his stomache all the time.
Wow hoo4hearted what a detailed and interesting addition to the article! Call it slow feeding or trickle feeding, even though we are coming from such different ways, you with your pasture and cows and seeds, me with one horse in my backyard, we are aiming for the same thing, namely, the best way to feed our horses.
My chubby gelding gets half a flake of hay in a tub to snarf down quickly when he first comes in hungry and the rest is in a Small Hole Hay Net. I have clients who fill their net and toss it on the ground of the overgrazed pasture so that the horse can kind of chase it around as they graze. Clearly this will only work in certain circumstances.
A grazing muzzle can be a real godsend.
Never letting the horse get fat in the first place is the key. There are clearly too many horses for qualified owners 😦 We, as horse persons, must educate, educate, educate.
Someone once told the story of the crabby foundered mare who wouldn’t move. The solution was to put her in a large paddock with a gelding she hated. Small piles of hay were spread about. Even tho she could only shuffle backward, she moved all day chasing that poor hated gelding off the tiny piles of hay. Got her moving, though!
Understand that not all hay is good either. A heck of a lot of owners are feeding hay to their horses that has much higher nutritional value and sugar content than even the lushest of my grass pasture land. I predict that will be the next “new fad”…. “all hay will be bad and require soaking”
I’m quoting you on this Hoofhearted because I think it’s true, and if it needs to be a “fad” let it be. At least then people will start testing their hay. Unfortunately where I am in Canada sugar content in our hay is a real issue. I’m constantly on the search for hay that has safe levels of sugar. Lots of hay is not even safe to feed soaked. Then you find hay that tests good one year and the next year it’s not. I have asked all the right questions, picked the most diligent farmer’s hay to test, just to have it end up being the highest ever. I swear my hobby is actually collecting hay samples. Here none of the farmers test their hay either, very rarely.
Yes, I did not go into the issue of hay because most people on this site will already know that slow feeding straight alfalfa is probably not a good idea. Most of the slow feeding sites will say that the system works best with grass hay. However, you do hit on a very important point, the quality of hay we have available. You are not alone in the frustration of not being able to test hay properly.
I have been feeding in nets for about 8 years. I have had a great experience with mine. First let me say that I did not buy one that is currently on the market. I designed something cleaner, more efficient and one that I knew what material was being used. I have one 23yr IR horse, one 27 yr cushings horse (muscle wasting skinny type), one 12yr TB excellent health and one 10yr QH. My problem was trying to stick to a somewhat regular schedule with them. They all had different needs. All in all the result was no more colic for the QH (he coliced every October like clock work), the stick thin cushings TB gained weight, the other TB calmed down and the IR horse stayed the same weight but, did not gulp down his soaked grass in 45 minutes. I fill feeders once a day and that was better for my schedule.
Owning horses is a huge time and life style commitment. Slow feeding was good for everyone all the way around
I want to ask…is your slow feeder below wither height or above?