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Slow Feeders for Horses

By Denise Conroy (January 2012)

I can't tell you how I stumbled upon a discussion regarding slow feeders online, but I will tell you that I haven't been this excited about something since learning about barefoot trimming! As a result, I felt compelled to write an article to help get the word out among curly horse owners if they are new to the idea or unaware of it.

Let me start by explaining that probably like many of you, I've fed square bales to my horses in the past few years since cutting down our herd to just three (3) geldings. It allowed me to keep their weight in check and there was less waste than round bales. The problem was in order to make sure they had as close to a "grazing" lifestyle as possible, I had to feed 4-5 times a day. Starting at 6:00 a.m. and last feeding at 10 p.m. Granted I work from home, so that wasn't a big deal but it certainly posed a problem if I had to run errands or if I had to be gone for the day. Not to mention I always stressed about them going for 8 hours at night without any food. I kept telling myself that some horse owners only feed every 12 hours and that my horses were fine. But it still plagued me.

I have one gelding, Reese that is very food oriented and even feeding 30 lbs of hay each per day, he would still let me know that he was very hungry. I could tell he would get stressed at times. I could never feed more than a "meals worth" at each feeding because Reese wouldn't leave the hay pile til it was completely gone. Leaving nothing left for the other horses who got their fill and stepped away from the hay til they were hungry again.

I considered round bales but for many reasons I opted against it. First of all, my horses get obese! There is tons of waste and our oldest gelding Zig tends to bury his head in the bale and he has been prone to coughing. I knew extended use of round bales could contribute to heaves and other issues. I was determined to prevent any issue of this kind and so round bales were out of the question.

So for about the past 5 years, I dealt with the 4-5 feedings of square bales and considered it as a lifetime feeding routine. That is until I stumbled upon information about Slow Feeders for Horses!

What are Slow Feeders?

Slow feeders are typically a hay net (some use grids however I personally don't recommend them) designed with small holes, no larger than 1 3/4 inch square to encourage the horse to eat smaller amounts over a longer period of time. This concept simulates natural foraging. They help our horses emulate the free-choice, yet limited grazing pattern of horses in the wild. Research shows that the horse actually benefits more nutritionally from the hay by chewing smaller amounts slowly. This also eliminates boredom - taking the horses 5 hours to eat what normally took them 30-45 min.

The MOST IMPORTANT part of slow feeders is that you never want the hay to run out. Horses in domestic conditions have learned to eat fast because the hay will soon be gone. This invites stress, gobbling their food unnaturally and anxiousness in your equine.

In a short time of using slow feeders, horses are reported to be calmer they realize their hay will never run out, they are less bored and they are benefiting nutritionally by eating slowly. Also because they are more satisfied, they are not overeating and their weight stabilizes. It is also reported that obese horses naturally lose weight and skinny ones put on weight. I have found this to be true with my horses. More on that below.

My Experience with Slow Feeders

If you are like me and recently heard about this concept of slow feeders for horses, you are overwhelmed by the information online, products available and how to get started. Trust me, I understand! This article is being written in January of 2012 and I have only been using slow feeders for 3 months now. But I am hoping this article will offer info to get you going and also get you as fired up about this concept as I am so you can spread the word! I have invited those that have been using slow feeders much longer than me to also share their experiences as well. Click here to view.

Ok, you've decided to give slow feeders a try? So where did I start? Well, I started by going over this page on the options available for slow feeders. (Paddock Paradise Slow Feeders) Some were manufactured and some were homemade. I didn't feel confident at first to make my own, although the ideas were amazing and I was quite impressed. After doing some research, I ordered 3 small feeder nets from Cinch Chix. Each were priced at $40 each, free shipping. Although I loved the quality of the product, I found the idea of bringing the bags into the barn every morning and carrying back out to the corral time consuming. I decided to return them using the 30 day money back guarantee. The gals at Cinch Chix were amazing and gave me a full refund. I had used them long enough to gain confidence that this style of feeding was worth pursuing. (more about early introduction here) I just needed to find a way to facilitate it. I brainstormed and decided to make my own so that I could set the nets up so I could bring the hay out and fill the nets verses haul the nets in the barn to be filled. I purchased the barrier netting from Arizona Sports Equipment, 10 ft. X 15 ft. for $56.90 including shipping. I tried to find instructions online as to how to weave the netting together, but ended up figuring it out on my own. I purchased nylon cord from the hardware although buying lacing cord from Arizona Sports Equipment is cheaper. (found out later) I layed out the netting, which is tricky because it's very soft. I cut sections that were 10 ft in height X 4 ft in width. I folded that piece in half so I had a 5 ft in height and 4 ft in width. I had a "purse" type net, leaving the top open and weaving the cord up each side to sew it up. This was actually HUGE., and I ended up cutting it down to more like 4X4. Which held about 3/4 of a square bale. I then hooked the top to my horse fencing using double end snaps, about 4 of them. When I needed to refill, I opened the top like bag and just unsnapped a couple of the snap hooks and stuff in the hay from the top. Resnapping when done. This worked like a charm! I made 4 of them with my $57.00 netting! I refilled 2 times a day to be sure they never ran out and my life just got 50% easier! And my horses were happier - they could eat all day and all night long and I had no worries of them getting heaves, eating too fast or too much or wasting.

HOWEVER, after our fall rain and about a month, the barrier netting was clearly not lasting. I found I was repairing it as often as every few days. My biggest clue was that one hay net would seem to get more attention than the others....low and behold, I found the hole or holes! =] Now with my plan in place, horses used to their new feeding regimen I had to decide where to go from here. Cinch Chix had a new feeder out that was called the Free up Feeder which would give me a quality product AND it would mount in the corral like my homemade nets BUT they were $60 each. Well worth it I am sure, but I decided to stick with my homemade recipe and upgrade to the Hockey Goal Netting. Again, purchased from Arizona Sports Equipment. I had read online that it is thicker and more durable. More expensive too, but worth trying. I bought 12 feet X 72" with lacing cord for $121.92. And I figured I could make 3 feeder nets from it that would be 4 X 3 feet, holding 1/2-3/4 bale.

Click images to enlarge

HOW TO MAKE MY OWN NET VIDEO

 

My husband, Tom seeing what I was up to, suggested that we buy a round bale net from Cinch Chix and feed round bales through the winter to save both of us work., him getting the hay in and me feeding 2 x a day. So we did. The cost of the round bale feeder that Cinch Chix sells is $177. including shipping. We purchased 2 round bales and brought them home via our pick up. We don't have a tractor so this meant driving the truck in the corral and dropping one off., and later rolling the second one in when needed. Our first attempted at netting this beast of a bale was tricky but Cinch Chix has a video on their website which shows how easy it can be. We waited to start feeding round bales until the ground was frozen and covered with snow because we tend to have sand and mud here and we didn't want the horses ingesting sand or wasting hay in the mud. We have been feeding the round bales now for about 4-5 weeks and we are loving it! Each bale which is about 650 lbs lasts as long as EIGHT days! That means that each horse is eating approx. 27 lbs each and they are 1200 lb horses+. So that to me shows that they do naturally regulate themselves to eating a normal ration that I would feed them in the past, OR LESS! And they are happier and so much more content. I almost feel like I am cheating, my life has become SOOOO easy! With the benefit of happy, content horses who are not getting obese and without waste! I mean, how much grander could it get?? Do you see why I am so excited?? =]

 

 

Introducing the Slow Feeder Nets to my Curly Horses

Ok so this was the hardest part for me! There was some anxiety in introducing the nets to my horses. This is normal! I saw all the videos online of the horses eating from the nets, but I thought, "Will MY horses get it?" "Will they get anxious having to work for their food??" "What if they colic from the stress?" But rest assured they DO get it and they learn to love it. It is suggested that to start, you feed your horses their normal daily ration loose, not in the net. And put extra in the net, that way they are content and the hay in the net is a bonus. That is pretty much what I did. Do that for a few days. When you start to see them eating more and more off the net., then you can back off on the loose hay. You also MUST make sure the horses NEVER run out of hay. This is key to the program and to the advantages of feeding with slow feeder nets. They might gobble down their food to start because they are so programmed to think that the hay WILL run out, but within 2-4 weeks, they will slow way down. I worried alot when my horses were going through bale after bale of hay in the beginning...and I made the mistake of letting it run out one morning after about 2 weeks. (Just when they started to get the concept of the constant hay being there) So we took a few steps back for about a week. But now, after 3 months, as I said earlier, they are all completely adjusted and eating normal rations that I would feed them if I were feeding square bales 4 X a day. Pretty darn cool!

I think each horse is different in how they acclimate to the nets depending on their personalities. Of all my horses, Reese our playful, curious and most food oriented 11 year old curly. He adjusted the quickest and found this new "fun toy" interesting....and better yet, it produced food! Zig who is 20 and is our oldest curly and much more sober minded, doesn't like games and surprises so he wasn't so sure at first, but adapted quicker than I thought. It seemed to suit his eating habits very well because he is a picker, slow eater and never super anxious at feeding time. We noticed at age 20 he is becoming a bit of a hard keeper and so far the slow feeder is doing exactly what was predicted and helping him keep his weight on and he is thriving. Bear, who is 17 and has a very ho-hum but serious attitude, took the longest to adjust, but even then it was only a few days. He seemed to wonder why on earth he had to work for his food! And what did all of this mean? =]

Thank heaven for good friends that have been using slow feeders with their curlies for years, because they consoled me and let me know that to just give it time and Bear would adjust. And he did!

Conclusion

In conclusion, I would just like to say there are more and more resources online every day and new products too, so do your research and decide based on your curly horses what is products are best for them and for you.

I can't say enough about how this program has changed my life and the life of my horses. Reese in particular is so happy and so content. Even our time riding together is better, he is satisfied, focused and ready to work.

My husband loves the 'no waste!' We sometimes have hay that is a bit more stemming being a 1st cutting and if it wasn't for the hay nets, they would spread it all around, pick out what they want and leave the rest to be trampled on etc. Now they have no choice but to eat what is there and there is never a spec of hay laying around.

FINAL CAUTION: Be sure to read the webpage on "avoiding mistakes" before beginning. It has great info. Also read the comments below from other curly horse owners as they have additional experiences to share. I've already voiced my concern with the round bale straps or any straps that come with any hay net, but I would like to add that if you are feeding nets that are like pillows and roll on the ground, be sure you are feeding either in the winter with a snow base that is clean and not sandy, muddy etc., or in a clean pasture because they hay can easily get soiled with sand, manure and urine. I prefer to feed round bales here in the winter months only and go back to smaller nets that are secured to the fence for the other months. Also per advice on all nets, make sure the nets are high enough so the horse can not paw at them and don't use if your horse has shoes, cracks in hooves, wears blankets or anything like that to prevent tangling issues.

Comments and Tips from other Curly Horse Owners

By Adria of Green Mountain Curlies, Inc.
I have used two different nets from Nibble Nets.  This: http://www.thinaircanvas.com/ nibble net/pages/standard-red- smallsquares-compareframe.htm is the one that we got last year, 1 for each horse times 2 (two feedings so we had the bags pack prior to needing them).  We constructed platforms so we could hook the bags down at all four points.  If you go here: http://www.imagequine.com/ clients/gmc11/   you'll see a couple of photos that Carien took of Beau & Babe eating from one.  What we found was that the horses caused a lot of destruction doing it that way.  The solid part of the bags is covered with a plastic type substance and the hoofs caused lots of cracking in that due to our extreme cold.  That is only cosmetic, though.  The other problem was that, over the whole season, four bags were ripped.  Two through the canvas itself, so they are irreparable, and two separated the netting from the canvas.  One Nibble Net repaired, the other one is downstairs as she no longer repairs them herself.  I'm hopeful the local sewing place can fix it for me.  This year we decided we would hang them, and (crossing fingers) so far no destruction.  They can, though, and do quite often somehow unhook them and play with them on the ground.  I have yet to figure out how they do it.  I suspect they secretly have opposable thumbs on those hooves of theirs!

The second type of net I've used is this: http://www.thinaircanvas.com/ nibble net/pages/nibble-go- round-frame.htm with the 1-1/4 inch openings.  We've only used them for Walker and Silken and only since November.  The only complaint, so far, and this is minor, is if the rope you tie it up with gets wet and freezes it is very difficult to get undone.  We use half-hitch ties, so it is much easier, but....I'm sure you can imagine the occasional difficulties.  I have to say that I like these bags much better in many ways.  Primarily because they have no canvas on them and they definitely make the horses take longer to get the hay out of them. 

 

 

by Michelle Ives of Chestnut Hill Curlies
Horses are grazers, on that we all agree. The Mustangs roam the plains on sparse, dry native grasses, taking a step, a small nibble, another step, another small nibble. They cover miles each day nibbling away at what most humans consider to be low-quality feed. Mustangs manage very well in this manner, which is why they are a successful feral animal in North America. Mustangs are really no different from our domesticated horses. They are descended from the same horses that we are using in our favorite breeds today. Sure, they may have more "hybrid vigor" than our pampered show ponies, but their anatomy and physiology is the same. Put those horses into a relatively small property (most of us do not own an entire State for our horses to roam on), and feed them selectively bred high-sugar grass hay, and its no wonder we have horses who are insulin resistant, founder prone, white line disease, and other auto-immune diseases. They are eating FAR more sugars than their physiology was ever designed to handle. We know that horses need to have forage in front of them all day and night. Most of us know that a horse without forage is more prone to ulcers, not to mention stereotypical behaviors like cribbing (which, incidentally, is a symptom of equine gastric ulcers), but also weaving, pawing, wood-chewing, and just causing general mayhem out of boredom or hunger. We also know that a horse with hay in front of them is a horse that is toasty warm in winter, but a horse that runs out of hay during the coldest weather, is a horse that will be found shivering in the morning.

So what do we do? Either risk fat horses with laminitis, or feed them less and our horses are in pain from gastric ulcers. It seems as if we have to choose the lesser of the evils. But some innovative horse owners have created some great Slow Feeding products, designed to slow down how fast horses consume their hay.

Have you ever planned your entire day around having to deliver hay 5 times a day to your horses in cold weather, trudging outside in blizzard conditions or sub-zero temperatures at midnight to throw that last pile of hay before bed? Slow Hay Feeders have solved that problem. These products are designed to slow down how fast a horse consumes their hay. Rather than taking big mouthfuls of hay and devouring a 12 hour ration in a couple of hours, they can only nibble at a few strands at a time, mimicking how they would be picking at dry grasses on the prairie. Not only do they slow down the amount of time that it takes to consume a few flakes of hay, a side-effect of their use is to reduce waste considerably. The horses no longer use their pile of hay as a bed or bathroom, it doesn't get blown away in the wind, or trampled into the mud. Personally, I have also noticed my horses needing less dental work since using the hay feeders. The horses use their incisors to bite at the hay from the bag like they would grazing, rather than picking up big mouthfuls with their lips only if the hay is left on the ground.

Types of Feeders

There are as many types of feeders as there are types of horseowners! I have seen some very innovative designs on the 'net. Many owners have created their own systems, using anything from wooden boxes of many different designs, to barrels cut in half, with mesh grids on top usually made of some kind of wire grid system that settles down on top of he hay as it is eaten. These are a great, inexpensive way to slow down your horses feeding. My concern would be the horses teeth wearing from the constant biting at the metal grate to get at the hay bits sticking out. Some of these, also, require the horse to put its entire head into a box or barrel as it gets low, which is a risk of respiratory problems, and others are designed with the grid on the side and the hay inserted at an angle so it slides forward as its eaten to the front of the box. The photos I have seen of horse seating this way, show the horses head and neck twisted at an unnatural angle to get at the hay.

I have seen people use the old-fashioned "cheapie" hay nets, sometimes doubling the nets to make the holes smaller. These nets usually don't last long, the horses often break and tear at the netting easily, and they also can be an entanglement hazard as the net drops down and becomes loose. Some other innovative folks have built big systems of soccer nets or badmitton nets strung between trees and filled with hay.

The nets that I prefer are called Nibble Nets. They are made with a thick, vinyl backing used to make patio furniture, boat covers, hot air balloons, etc. The vinyl stays soft and supple even in sub-zero temperatures. The front of the bag is made of a heavy nylon strapping, sewn in a grid leaving square openings of 2", 1.5" or 1.25", depending on how nimble your horses lips are! The bags are not inexpensive, but I have had my bags in use for almost 4 years now, used 24/7/365, and only have they just started to have a small bit of stitching start to come out. These bags have been outside in over 100 degree temps down to -10F, in snow, rain, and ice, hurricanes, mud, many feet of snow, etc., and I have never had a problem with them, other than finding them under the snow! My Curlies have routinely picked them up, flipped them, dragged them and trampled them, and they are still going strong. These bags have paid for themselves many times over just in hay saved, not to mention my time.

I no longer have to feed my horses 5 times a day in the winter. I fill bags in the morning, and I fill bags in the evening, and my horses are always satisfied by the next feeding. It always bothered me to see my horses frantically digging for their next meal, milling about and chasing each other around for that first bite of hay. That no longer happens! Sometimes they don't even bother to head out to the fresh hay, because they just aren't hungry. And I'm feeding less hay than I was before using the nets. I built feeders out of sturdy pallets that I cut in half, screwed a piece of plywood to the top, and installed 4 eye bolts. I snap all 4 corners of the Nibble Net down onto the pallet, and I can easily move their feeding station around, inside in bad weather, outside in good weather. And they eat with their heads down, which is better for their teeth, necks, and respiratory system.

They do learn to pull hay out of the nets pretty fast. Some faster than others, and I always take time to teach them how to eat from the nets at first, leaving some hay out so they don't go hungry while they figure it out. But they have all figured it out with no problems. My cleanup is easier, the time I spend feeding them is minimized, and most importantly, their stresses around feeding no longer exist!

To see pictures, click here

 

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