Should you use slow feeders for horses? Finding the best way to feed a horse is, and always will be, a heated topic in the industry. There are countless philosophies, and products to go with them, that claim to be the healthiest way to feed your horse.
The most common ideology tends to be offering food in the most ‘natural’ way possible, and a common method of offering horses food are slow feeders. This article will dive into some of the science and facts on slow feeders for horses.
To make the most informed feeding decisions for your horse, you’ll need to have a basic understanding of the equine digestive system. Very rarely is it a case of “put hay in, get energy out”.
Horses actually have an extremely fragile and unique digestive tract, so stick with me while I take a bit of time to go over the basics…
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Horses Secrete Bile 24/7
This is probably the most important thing to keep in mind when creating a feeding plan for your horse.
Horses don’t have a gallbladder, which results in the secretion of stomach acids (bile) continually. This is the reason why gastric ulcers are SO common in the domestic horse. In nature, horses graze all day, meaning they never have an empty stomach, which protects the stomach lining from all that acid.
In captivity, our horses are meal-fed, so they wind up with empty stomachs quite a bit. When horses have a completely empty stomach, the lining is then exposed to all of the acid, and that results in ulcers and other irritations.
Horses are Hind-Gut Fermenters
This means that the horse breaks down plant-matter via a fermentation process, in the back part of their digestive tract.
Unlike most other common livestock species, horses are not ruminants.
The horse is a non‐ruminant herbivore. These animals do not have a multi‐compartmented stomach as cattle do, but are able to consume and digest forage. The cecum and colon, parts of the large intestine, serve the somewhat same purpose for the horse that the rumen does for the cow.–UMass Extension; crops, livestock, equine
Horses do not have a multi-chambered stomach, and are thus much more sensitive when it comes to the quality of their feeds. This is why you will run across hay labeled as “horse quality”, and why you can’t feed horses the same grains and materials you feed your other livestock.
Because of this hind-gut fermentation, horses can’t break down a lot of the plant matter that cattle could, and mold is very often a fatal problem.
Horses Do Not Have Retrograde Peristalsis
This is a really fancy way of saying that horses are incapable of vomiting or burping. As you can imagine, this makes them extremely susceptible to any type of gastro-intestinal upset. Any deviation in a horse’s normal feeding routine can cause one of these upsets, and can become a serious and life-threatening issue very quickly.
In the horse world, you’ll often hear the dreaded word ‘colic’ thrown around to describe any kind of digestive issue a horse is facing. The fear of colic is often why we as horse owners obsess over developing the best feeding routine possible for our horses.
Colic is a general term that refers to abdominal pain in the horse. Signs of pain may range from mild (looking at the flank, lifting the upper lip, no interest in eating, kicking the hind legs up towards the abdomen) to severe (repeatedly laying down and getting up, violently rolling up onto their backs or throwing themselves down on the ground).
Horses exhibiting signs of colic should be examined by a veterinarian immediately. Most horses with colic can be treated medically but some may require surgical intervention. Delay in treatment can decrease the prognosis for survival.–American College of Veterinary Surgeons
Ok, so, these are the basics I want you to understand intimately when developing a feeding routine for your horse. Hopefully, you’ve already started to come to a bit of a conclusion that slow feeders for horses might sound like a good option for your horse. I would agree, but there is a lot more to consider!
Free Choice Hay vs. Slow Feeders for Horses
As a horse owner, I’m sure you’ve run across the term ‘free choice hay’ as a feeding method. It’s just the act of keeping a constant pile of hay in front of your horse, so they can ‘graze’ throughout the day.
I love free choice hay, I think it is actually one of the best ways you can feed a horse as it’s as close to natural as they can get (aside from pasture grazing). However, there are definitely some drawbacks and concerns to keep in mind with free-choice feeding. The two biggest concerns you’ll wind up with are: hay waste, and overfeeding.
Horses are some of the messiest creatures on the face of the planet, trust me, I’ve made a living of looking after them. They have no regard for keeping their eating space clean. They’ll poop in it, pee in it, sleep in it, mix it all into the mud, and then look up at you seemingly outraged that they don’t have nice fresh hay to eat.
Because we’ve done such a fine job of teaching our horses to live schedules like us, and of removing many of their survival skills due to domestication, many horses that are offered free-choice hay will wind up being overfed. They’ll just keep scarfing down whatever gets thrown in front of them.
Many domestic horses also have very light workloads, they don’t get much exercise, which means that the amount of hay they eat from free-choice feeding is often too much.
Now, you may be thinking: “Well, it sure sounds like the right kind of container to put hay in could solve all these issues,” and you sure are correct! Welcome to the glory of slow feeders for horses.
You can make sure that they get the specific amount of hay they need (no more and no less), and that it will take them plenty of time to eat through it all! You also won’t have to keep mucking out wasted money in the form of soiled/uneaten hay. I’ve listed a few of my favorite brands/types of slow feeders below, but I also want to mention a couple of important safety notes.
1. Be SO careful about how you attach your slow feeders, or place them in your horse’s environment. Be on the lookout for things that could cause tangled legs, injuries, etc… I’ve seen horse’s get their shoes caught in hay nets, legs stuck in bags that haven’t been carefully hung, and even eye injuries from hooks in the wall to hang feeders.
2. Don’t ever attach a slow feeder (like a hay bag) too high in your horse’s area. Horses are meant to graze from the ground, so their head needs to stay below their shoulder while eating.
- Hay Bag
- “The Hay Pillow” products
- “High Country Plastics” slow feeding tubs
- A DIY garbage can feeder!