As I talked about last week, boredom for horses can cause health issues such as weight gain, ulcers, stall vices (chewing, pawing, weaving), bickering or fighting between horses, and even colic. Last week I talked a bit about horse toys. This week I’m going to cover another option to help deal with boredom: slow feeders.
Slow feeders are a novel approach to feeding horses. In my travels while doing Horses for Clean Water work I’ve seen a variety of approaches and talked with a number of people who’ve implemented some type of slow feeder system and are pleased with the results. Basically, slow feeders are a means to offer restricted yet free-choice forage for the horse. There are a number of ways to approach this, and I’ll cover a few here.
The easiest way is to feed smaller, more frequent meals mimicking a horse’s natural behavior. Even going to three to five meals a day would be an improvement for a creature designed by nature to eat many small, frequent meals over the course of a day. Another simple option would be to leave out additional, lower-quality hay (high-fiber, low-non-structural carbohydrate) for your horse to browse on during the day, giving them more “chew time.” A short-coming to this approach is that horses often waste hay when they have a surplus of it.
To beat the wasted hay/bored horse conundrum, different kinds of slow feeders can be made or purchased to break up the monotony during the day and simulate a more natural feeding environment. Automatic feeders with slots for up to six (or more) feedings are a pricier, but reliable way to do this. This kind of system gives the horse multiple small feedings over the course of a day, more like their feral relatives on the plains.
Another type of slow feeder comes in the hay net variety. This is basically a large hay net with rather small holes. Horses expend more effort to pull hay out from between the net’s holes, thus spending more time eating. Different types of nets go by different names are on the market, and some are sold specifically as ways to slow your horse’s hay intake. I’ve also seen double-bagged hay nets and even old hockey nets made into slow feeders.
Large canvas hay bags with small holes are also available as slow feeders. These probably don’t restrict the horse’s intake as much as other options, but they might be a good solution for some.
Different types of slow feeder bins are additional options—or you might be able to create something useful yourself. One example is a large wooden box with a grate to hold down the hay. Horses have to pick carefully at the hay to get it out, only removing one small mouthful at a time. This means less waste and more time spent eating.
Academic research shows us that smaller, more frequent meals are healthier for our horses, resulting in increased chewing time, smaller particle size, and increased salivation-- resulting in fewer overall health issues. If you have concerns about your horses being bored, or if you have some of the health issues mentioned earlier, you might want to look into some type of slow feeders.