Best Practices for Slow Feeding Horses
A day rarely goes by that you don’t hear the word “natural” regarding horses. We want to nourish their feral instincts, providing space, herds, and safe feeding practices. When it comes to slow feeding horses, the goal is to mimic the needs of your horse – both mind and body.
Why is slow feeding horses best?
- Without overdoing the “natural” word, slow feeding your horse is best for mental stimulation and digestive health.
- There’s a common denominator of horse vices and training issues – boredom. When horses are fed meals, there are long spurts of time where they have literally nothing going on – hence the likelihood of wood chewing, cribbing, or any other vices.
- When you keep your horse’s mouth moving, his brain is more horse-like, and everyone is happy. It’s a good chance your fencing and barn have fewer teeth marks, too.
Slow feeding mimics grazing
- When slow feeding horses, their digestive system is allowed to chug along at a steady pace. Their bodies continually pump out digestive enzymes and acids, which require a near-constant supply of forage. The hindgut is populated by a myriad of microbes that digest sugars, starches, and fiber. It’s a well-oiled machine as long as the horse has forage to digest.
Read this for the big picture of your horse’s digestive system
- The mouth, esophagus, and stomach start to process forage and feeds at the beginning of digestion. Within the stomach, digestive acids secrete around the clock.
- The stomach’s lower section, the glandular mucosa, can handle the digestive acids. Specialized glands also secrete mucus and bicarbonates to buffer acidity and keep the lower stomach lining from eroding.
- The upper portion of the stomach, the squamous region, has no such glands. Therefore, there is no protection from acidic digestive juices. If a horse eats meals instead of grazing all day, the stomach’s acids are lonely and will start to “eat” the upper area of the stomach. This is how gastric ulcers come to be.
- Slow feeding your horse gives the stomach something to do and a job for those digestive acids. But there’s also the tail end of the digestive system to consider.
Read all you could ever want to know about ulcers.
Yes, you can find slow feeders for grains and pellets. See more below in the shopping section.
- Yes, the horse’s hindgut can also develop ulcers, among other things. But there’s another issue with the hindgut’s fermentation plans: things can get askew without slow feeding.
- Those fun-loving microbes that digest fiber, sugars, and starches are precarious buggers. Their environment must be “just so”; otherwise, some of the microbes can gorge, then get a hangover, then die off, then change the gut’s pH, then the other microbes go through the same process.
- When all of this gets disrupted, the hindgut produces gas and endotoxins. Gas can create colics, and endotoxins are famous for getting into the bloodstream and triggering laminitis.
- JUST TO CLARIFY ONE BIG POINT – this chain reaction is usually seen after a horse has gorged himself on bagged feeds or pasture. BUT – slow feeding reduces this, keeping those microbes happy and balanced.
These openings are about 2 inches – and work well with this type of timothy blend hay.
The order of feeding matters
- There is no picture-perfect way to feed horses except to maximize slow feeding. And that has to happen within budgets, schedules, facilities, and availability to pasture. Some simple feeding practices help your routine and your horse’s health.
- Feed hay first. Hay is a convenient way to slow down your horse’s digestion before bagged feeds and pasture. Also, your horse’s appetite is sated, so there’s a more negligible risk of inhaling the high sugar stuff and causing digestive upset.
Pellets and bagged feeds
- Split any supplements and bagged feeds into multiple feeding per day: the more feedings, the merrier.
- You can also use slow feeders designed for pellets and grains to slow things down. Some horse owners will sprinkle a ration on top of their hay to have a similar effect.
- While pasture is the most “natural” forage for horses, it’s not always the best. The grass may not be available year-round, and in some areas, it grows so profusely that 24/7 turnout turns horses into potatoes with laminitis. Many horses with metabolic issues will also be at higher risk of laminitis with pasture.
- Luckily, your horse can wear a slow feeder on his gorgeous face. Grazing muzzles are hay nets your horse wears, making the pasture safer and less likely to create an overweight horse.
Grazing muzzles can be used all year long if needed.
The best slow feeders for horses
- The best slow feeder is one that your horse can use. Maybe the material of one type of drum slow feeder smells funny, or the color is wrong for your horse’s eyes, or they can’t figure it out. Horses with arthritis in their necks may also need to try several types of feeders to find the most comfortable one. Or there may be some other injury that complicates feeders.
Things to consider when you are choosing a slow feeder:
- Portability. If you show often, how convenient is it to bring your drum or box slow feeder?
- Safety. Are corners and edges smooth? Can horses get stuck? Will teeth and hooves be safe?
- How much can it hold? A small hay net is great if you are at the barn 17 times a day to check on hay and water. If you need to keep your horse chewing for hours, get one to hold several flakes or a bale.
- Then think about price, durability, and ease of cleaning.
This barn uses hay nets secured into tubs as slow feeders.
Dangers of slow feeders for horses
- While slow feeders are typically the best things for horses, there are some concerns to be wary about.
Your horse’s teeth.
- Openings that are minuscule or made of hard plastic or metal may wear down the front surfaces of teeth. Observe your horse as he eats, and always check teeth when grooming. Some clever horses may decide to hook a tooth on an opening and yank it out.
Size of the openings
- Aside from teeth, the ease with which your horse can eat matters. Consider the openings paired with what type of hay you feed. Long and stemmy hay is a frustrating challenge to pull from tiny spaces.
Horseshoes, hooves, and legs
- The most natural (there’s that word again) position for your horse to eat is on the ground. But, protect the slow feeder from hooves and legs that can get stuck.
- Hay nets can be hung, which isn’t always ideal for necks. Nets, like a hay pillow, can be on the ground, which is too tempting for a hoof to get stuck. But, you could lash your hay net into a giant trough or tub. Tubs also eliminate a lot of hay waste.
How slow is too slow?
- If the slow feeder is too slow, or your horse has trouble eating because of dental or health issues, change styles. Conversely, double up on nets or try another slow feeder if nothing seems to slow your horse down.
Once again, we have proof that horse ownership is one big experiment. While we know the anatomy and science behind slow feeding horses, sometimes the individual horse and facility force us to try lots of ways to get our horses fed more naturally.
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The best muzzle in the land – order one here! Also in raspberry and black colors.
Durvet/Equine D-Pre-Vent Feeder- Black 20X12 Inch great for feeds and pellets