Slow Feeding The Aggressive Eater

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.

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Horizontal Feeders

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.

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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.

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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.

Vertical Feeders

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.

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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.

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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.

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You will notice that mine is slanted, not straight up and down, to keep my horse’s head in a more natural position.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.