The Correct Way to Use Slow-Feeders

By Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D.


Forage is the foundation of every equine’s diet and needs to flow steadily through the digestive tract. Gaps without forage can lead to ulcers, colic, behavioral issues, stall vices, gorging, choke, cribbing, and even laminitis. Truly, the only way to avoid these problems is to allow your horse steady access to forage, free-choice, all day and all night.


The purpose of a slow-feeding system is to simulate grazing. Horses in a natural setting eat small amounts of forage as they wander in search of the next tasty morsel. They eat virtually all day and night, taking time to socialize and rest every so often for a few minutes at a time. When they know that they always have access to forage, they become calm and relaxed, rest more often, and walk away from their hay, knowing that it will still be there when they return. In other words, they “self-regulate” and eat only what they need to maintain a healthy body condition.


Slow feeders allow the horse access to hay and the ability to “graze” for most of the day, yet only consume a healthy amount of hay.


Forage restriction is incredibly stressful. Why should this matter?  Because stress causes the release of the hormone cortisol, which in turn leads to elevated insulin. When insulin is high, it tells the body to store fat. Your goal? Get rid of the stress. Feed an appropriate forage (low in sugar and starch) free-choice and allow the horse to tell you how much he needs. There are some horses, however, who gain weight very quickly when given forage free-choice. The reason has to do with the sluggish metabolic rate they’ve developed over time. When forage is parceled out only a few times a day, the horse responds by going into “survival mode,” where his metabolic rate significantly slows down in an attempt to conserve body fat. A cycle of ever-increasing obesity is created that can be reversed only through exercise and removing the hormonal fat-storing response that forage restriction creates.


 Slow-feeders, when used properly, are an excellent way to reduce stress. As their name suggests, they slow down the rate of consumption by providing hay through small openings. When slow feeders are kept full, they allow the horse to graze whenever he wants, thereby encouraging the horse to eat less and still have free access to forage.


 The best approach is feeding off the ground


Chewing with the head low is more in line with the horse’s natural physiology, creating even pressure on the teeth and allowing the jaw bone to move freely in all directions. Furthermore, the muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments and bone structure are not stressed when horses can grab hay in a straight downward motion. Eating with their heads down also protects their eyes and respiratory tract against mold spores and dust and provides for better nasal drainage.


Gradually allow your horse to become accustomed to this method of feeding by placing some hay in the feeder as well as loose on the ground next to it.  After a few days, most horses will get the hang of the slow-feeder. Some take longer, so don’t force the issue; let your horse get used to it at his own pace.


Supervise your horse during this period, watching for signs of frustration. Frustration is a form of stress and needs to be avoided.


I recommend 1.5 to 1.75  inches for a full-sized horse; anything smaller may cause undo frustration; fatigue can also set in, causing the horse to stop eating.


If the horse is shod, the net must be secured within a bin.

If laid on the ground, they must either be loose (expect them to get dirty) or be securely mounted so the horse cannot get a foot or its head caught below the feeder.