Horses digestive systems are designed to be eating small amounts of food for 16-20 hours a day. In modern horse-keeping however, it has become common to feed on a schedule that restricts their food intake to 2 to 3 meals per day with long periods of fasting in between. Stepping away from feeding your horse on a “starvation schedule” and providing trickle fed forage throughout the day/night can have a myriad of positive effects. These effects range from benefitting their overall mood, alleviation of ulcers, regulating systems prone to colic, respite from food anxiety and a decrease in resource aggression. I have noticed a significant decrease in overall anxiety in horses transitioned to slow feed schedules, as well as an increase in work ethic and willingness (although, of course, that is my own anecdotal observations).
While the results can be tremendous, the shift is so simple, almost anyone can try it! Here is a quick guide to get you started on your transition to slow feeding your horse:
#1: In Preparation.
Answering a few questions will help you know what you need: will you be hanging the net? If so, a nylon string style net like this would be my recommendation. Will you be placing the net on the ground? Nylon string nets work well for that as well, though if you are feeding on sandy ground or are concerned about sand intake, the Hay Pillow product line helps reduce contact with the ground while maintaining a healthy grazing head position. Does your horse have shoes? You must take precautions to make sure the shoes cannot get caught on the netting. Either hanging the net above shoulder height, or (in order to maintain a healthy grazing head position) feeding out of a manger or specialized slow feeder such as this is imperative to prevent this. Please note that if you choose to feed using a specialized slow feeder box, be sure to avoid ones with metal grates, as these can cause significant damage to the horses teeth over time.
#2: The Training Phase.
Starting your horse with a hay net can be frustrating for your horse at first, if they aren’t slowly introduced to the concept. A horse that is used to having long periods of fasting between meals will habitually eat more rapidly because of the perception they have around their limited resources. It is so important to ease into slow feeders by gradually reducing the size of the hay net holes over time to allow them to become accustomed to having their forage limited, as well as learn how to get the hay out of the nets. I like to start with nylon string hay nets that have 2 to 3 inch holes and feed out of those for 1-2 weeks before transitioning to a smaller net. Here is a link to one that I like for the training phase: 2 Inch Netting Hay Net. If your horse tends to get frustrated easily, I would highly recommend starting with a net with 3 inch holes, before transitioning to a 2 inch net, and then on to the final slow feeder nets/boxes.
#3: The Final Net
Once your horse is comfortable and stress free being fed exclusively in a net such as the 2 inch net mentioned above, you can begin feeding using the smaller mesh size net such as this string net (my personal choice when feeding flakes or when I have to travel and cannot bring round bales). The Hay Pillow product line has a variety of sizes as well, or if you want to get creative, find knotless nylon fishing net in bulk and create your own custom nets. Ideally your final net will have 1 inch holes, although if you feed exclusively alfalfa, I would recommend staying at 1 1/2 inch holes.
You may want to ease into the transition to the final net by feeding just 1 meal a day in the final slow feeder net, while continuing to feed the other meals in the larger net. This is an optional step if your horse appears to be comfortable with the final net already.
#4: Tips and Tricks
Holes in hay nets can be remedied using zip ties or hay bale string, don’t throw away a good net just because it has a hole or two!
While it isn’t something that is accessible for everyone, having multiple nets for each horse can save time and energy by filling hay nets for the day all at once.
If you can feed a lower sugar hay, you can feed more of it, allowing your horse to eat a healthier amount of roughage and fiber as compared to the highly nutritious feeds that can quickly cause unwanted weight gain when fed in higher amounts. Consider replacing a portion, or mixing together, that nutrient/sugar dense hay with something low sugar/high fiber to help stretch out eating time.
If you feed heavily compacted flakes such as alfalfa or tightly baled grass, I recommend pulling the flakes apart as you fill the nets if possible. This prevents frustration at not being able to get at the food tightly compressed within the bag.
Getting a hay net started by pulling a few tufts of the hay out of various holes can help the horse, although once the horse is experienced at eating out of a slow feeder net, you rarely need to assist them in this way – they become quite the experts at getting the hay out efficiently!
Food for thought: Horses can thrive on roughage of relatively low nutritional value – especially as much of the hay available has vastly imbalanced mineral levels, and fat is generally a safer source of energy than the sugary carbohydrates prevalent in nutritionally dense forage feeds. The required minerals and fats can be easily and more carefully regulated in the diet through supplements, allowing for the opportunity to feed a more balanced and healthy diet.
I hope this quick guide to starting slow feeding has been helpful. If you have further nutritional questions or feeding strategy questions, please contact me for consultations at firstname.lastname@example.org